The story of a lifetime's search for fresh rotis

Fresh rotis made by Banu. With it there is a potato, turmeric powder, nigella seeds
 and spring onion stir fry and a moong dal too. Both made by her
with recipes given by me and which are inspired by mother's kitchen.
The dal is embellished with Jharna Ghee from Kolkata
A typical week day lunch for me. Joys of a freelancer's life
  • This post doesn't give the recipe for making rotis
  • The post is based on personal history and anecdotes and looks at the uneasy relationship that rice loving Bengalis have had with rotis

What's a meal without memories?

You know how they say that food and memories go together? Well, let me assure you that it not a flowery food writing cliche. There is indeed a fair bit of truth to this saying.

Take the freshly made hot rotis (Indian flat breads) that I had for my lunch today and the subsequent spurt of memories that they led to for example.

Missing Didu's rutis

The rotis at lunch took me back to Kolkata when I was around ten years old. We'd moved into my maternal grandparents' place back then just after my father passed away.

The elders - dadu and didu (my grandparents), mashis and mama (aunts and uncle) and mom of course - did their best to make sure that my younger brother (1.5 years old then) and I didn't feel the change in our lives and were not scarred by it. 

Watching didu, my granny, cook every evening fascinated me in the new world that I had moved into. Especially when she would sit down to make rutis (rotis in Bengali). 

She would take the aata (unrefined flour) and heap it in a plate. Then she would make a hole in centre of the mound of flour, add in some water and then knead the dough. She would make round balls with the dough. Then flatten the balls into flat spheres with a rolling pin. Toast the rolled out dough (shyaka) on a tava and then put it on a wire mesh like contraption and place this on flame of the has hob till the roti swelled up like a ballon. 

The journey of the white powdered flour which ended up as being rotis on our plate seemed like magic to me.

My mother didn't make rotis and I had never seen rotis being made till we moved into my grandparents' place. To my ten year old self, the act of making rotis would be more intriguing and awe inspiring than any molecular gastronomy trick that I would be witness to later in life.

Didu also used to make lovely alu parathas and plain parathas. I used to eat the latter with tomato ketchup. Her parathas would be triangular (trikon) unlike the round ones that are common in the rest of India. She made parathas with aata as is in vogue in the north.

Were aata rotis a relatively new introduction to the Bengali kitchen?

I am not sure if rotis were commonly consumed in the average Bengali household in Kolkata in the early 1980s. 

Our family was a bit atypical and we were migrants of sorts. We did not belong to Kolkata. My grandparents had moved into Kolkata after my grandpa had retired. He used to work in the Indian Railways and lived in New Delhi through most of his career. I suspect that my mamar baari's (maternal family's) adoption of rotis was influenced by their time in Delhi. My mother had lived in the UK and Iran after her marriage and had herself moved into Kolkata recently then. My brother was the only one who was born in Kolkata.

Bengal was (and is) more a land of rice lovers than the north wheat ruled especially in places such as the Punjab. Which is why I wondered whether rotis were as prevalent in Bengali houses in Kolkata as it was in our's.

This is what someone on Twitter had to say when I raised this question:

Replying to 
Bengalis started having rotis as a sub fr bhaat after the 1960 s famine.the then CM BC Roy encouraged wheat consumption

Maida ruled Kolkata and possibly still does

In his book, Rude Food, Vir Sanghvi had written about the Bengali love for maida (all purpose flour) and disdain for aata (unrefined wheat flour) which apparently left him perplexed when he moved into the city to work. He found out that maida was used for making luchi and even parathas in Kolkata but aata was rarely used.  Sanghvi writes that affluent Bengali families that he came across almost seemed to look down on aata (wheat) back in the 80s. They were proud about their use of moida (maida).

My granny used to make fantastic luchis with maida and I used to love that.

I am sure that this maida over aata obsession has changed a bit now and that aata rotis are consumed in Kolkata, if not in Bengal, by Bengali families too. Unrefined flour is said to be healthier after all. Plus luchis are deep fried and today's sedentary lifestyles are not best suited for luchi excesses they say. Of course now people talk of gluten allergies and the role of wheat there and then people question how good is the wheat we use today. These health trends and discussions can get confusing.

In our family it was believed that rice made one fat and that eating aata rotis at nice was a way of staying trim. For some reason, it was always roti at night and rice for lunch for us. I was quite a chubby baby and was put on a roti for dinner diet. That and yoga and portion control ensures that I became a lanky teenager.

Enter the 'roti chefs' or rannar maashis 

My mom, my brother and I moved into our own apartment a year after we had moved into my grandparents. My late grandfather was keen that we do so as he wanted my brother and me to grow up without feeling obligated to anyone as he felt that that could affect our sense of self worth. Encouraged by him, my mother bought a small apartment that was located reasonably close my grandparent's house. My grandparents would come to baby sit the two of us at the new house till my mother returned from work. This could often be till late pretty late in the evening as my mother taught in a college in Howrah which involved a more than two hour bus ride each way back then.

As I had mentioned earlier, my mother didn't know how to make rotis. From what I gather, this was because my granny kept my mother away from the kitchen when she (mom) was growing up so that she could focus on her studies. It was thanks to this that mom could later earn a living as a college prof and could bring us up. The flip-side of this was that mom had to figure out how to get rotis for our dinners when we moved into our own place!

Mom would employ cooks to help her out. Along with other dishes, the cooks would make rotis and keep them in a casserole for us to have for dinner. Mom would send me to a shop on the main road where the ground wheat in a chakki (mill) and sold the powdered flour. The shopkeeper would be clad in a lungi and vest and caked in white powder. The cooks would change jobs frequently and they made rotis with varying degrees of skill. Cooks would be different from those who would come and do the dishes and clean the house. Their job roles were distinct.  One of our cooks whom I remember from back then was an elderly lady whom we called 'rannar maashi'. The rotis usually would be cold by the time we ate them.

There were times when our cook wouldn't turn up to work and there were times when we didn't have a cook. Mom would then look at other options for rotis as having bread or rice for dinner for too long wasn't acceptable for her.

A solution came up in the form of an establishment that opened next to our house in Bansdroni. It was run by the government and was set up to give employment to women who found themselves in difficult circumstances. They had a canteen where they sold food made by these ladies. This became our source for rotis and even the occasional curry when we didn't have a cook. From what I remember, the rotis could be a tad leathery and the curries watery but they filled our stomachs and it was a saviour for my mother. The prices were reasonable.

Tonduri ruti and deem torka on the bylanes of Kolkata

Then, sometime in the late 1980s, a small food shack opened on the pavement at Bansdroni where we stayed. This was not the usual roll shop you would expect to see at such spots. It was a miniature dhaaba which served takeaways. 

They would make and sell tandoori rotis and rumali rotis and also offer a green moong dal which was called torka. These rotis were made with maida. My mom would send me to get rotis from here on days when we were without a cook. I remember standing there and watching in wide eyed awe as chubby white rotis were taken out of the tandoor and thin rumali (handkerchief-like) rotis were baked on an upturned pan. I would then trot back home briskly carrying a thonga (newspaper bag)  full of hot rotis. On good days, mom would also ask me to get some torka dal too. On very good days, it would be egg torka. Here an egg would be tightly scrambled and then mixed into the green moong dal along with spices and ghee, finely chopped onions, tomatoes and green chillies.

That stall is no longer there. However, their are shops in neighbouring Netaji Nagar in Kolkata where mom sends us to buy roti and torka from when we are all at Kolkata. 

A big fat Punjabi welcome to Mumbai

Rotis played a big part in welcoming me to Mumbai when I moved into the city at the start of my career as a market researcher in the late 1990s. 

This was the first time that I was living away from home. I stayed as a Paying Guest with a Punjabi family in Bandra. Unlike many other PGs, mine provided meals too at an additional cost. Given that they were Punjabi, food cliches made me believe that I'd be fed tandoori chicken and butter chicken everyday. Much to my surprise, I found out that they were vegetarians! This was quite the dampener for me. Looking back though, I now realise the value of the home cooked meals that I got to eat then in keeping me fit. 

The high point of the meals at the PG was something I had never experienced in life before. I am talking of rotis which were made fresh while we had dinner and were served to us from the kitchen to the table.

The two cooks at the PG, Sapan and the late Nanda, would make rotis in the kitchen, puff them into big air filled balls on the gas flame and then bring them to us while we ate. 

The joy of having these rotis were indescribable. They were what made me look forward to my  PG dinners even though they were vegetarian. They used to apply a bit of ghee on the rotis and serve them. I was very conscious of my waistline back then. I had grown up in a house where ghee was associated with an expanding girth. Ghee was not applied to the rotis that we had back home in Kolkata. So I would request for my rotis to be served without ghee at the PG too. They still tasted so good. 

They also used to do lovely alu paratha here and I would take them for K when we were dating. Her mother loved them too. I'd sometimes take rotis from my PG for lunch at work.

Of setting up house in Mumbai and searching for rotis in Khar

I moved out of the PG when K and I got married and rented our first apartment. The apartment had a tiny 'kitchen' which was actually a verandah. That was where my cooking experiments began. I would make rice to accompany the food I would make or buy bread rolls and buns from the Prince of Wales Bakery at Khar. However, like my mother, I too could not make rotis and did not  attempt to make them either. K, who gamely cooked then though she was not fond of it, didn't try to make rotis either.

I would scour the by-lanes of Khar,  a suburb next to Bandra where we then lived, looking for restaurants to buy rotis from. At times we would buy them from the Rajasthan restaurant on SV Road and at times from Khane Khas. The latter offers tandoori and rumali rotis but not the regular chapati or fulka or what we called 'haather ruti' in Kolkata. 

Then Unilever introduced packaged rotis under the Kissan Annapurna brand. We used to buy them till the company stopped selling them. I'd later pick rotis up from Jai Hind too when it opened at Pali Naka.

The problem with most of these options were that the rotis were not too tasty and would work out to be relatively expensive too.

Freddy mama, my maternal uncle in law, would make rotlis and pack them for us when we went to visit mamma (K's grandmom who is no more) and him on weekends. They would last us a couple of days but we could not plan a whole weak on them. Rotlis is a Parsi Gujarati word for rotis. These rotis are soft and are soaked in ghee and are packed with flavour.

Bandra girl Banu to the rescue of this food blogger

Finally it took both K and my mothers to sort out the problem. Coincidentally both of are ladies who do not make rotis. Perhaps that's why they empathised with our problems on this count.

Once, when K and I were not at home. They spoke to Banu, who used to be just our cleaning lady back then, and asked here to make rotis for us too. Banu, is not a woman of few words,  and had often boasted about her roti making skills to both the mothers and that got her the job.

It turned out that her pride in her roti making skills was justified. The rotis Banu made were really good. It seemed that our 'roti problem' were finally sorted. 

Sometime back my mesho (aunt's husband) and my cousin had come to stay with us when my cousin took up a job here. I am told that my mesho still raves about the rotis Banu makes long after he returned to Kolkata. She prefers it if we get 'chaaki ka aata' or freshly ground wheat sold at the local grocers. Gives softer rotis than packaged ones is her belief. We end up buying packaged wheat often out of convenience though.

Banu, who started as our roti maker, has has become our cook too. This too happened to thanks to the two mummies who got Banu to take up cooking duties as they were not sure how long we would be able to keep up our (or my) zest for cooking. 

Thankfully after years of training by me and to her own initiative to learn, Banu has turned out to be quite a dependable cook for us.

Banu is notorious for her bunking of course and hence the Twitter hash tag, #BunkinBanu. On such days we call for rotis from Khane Khas. I have recently discovered that Lashkara at Pali Naka offers wheat chapatis. I Swiggy this in and they are not bad. Roman Stores, a Gujarati run grocer at Turner Road, stocks unbranded home made rotis but they get over soon.

When I worked full time I would take rotis made by her to work the next day. They didn't stay that well though as we didn't allow her to add oil or ghee to the dough. When I began to work out of home I thought that I could have rotis freshly made by her for lunch. However, the problem with Banu was her timings. She used to come to work well after lunch time was over and well before dinner time started. This meant that we would not get to have her rotis when freshly made. No matter how much we requested her to come to work before lunch, she just refused to do so. The rotis didn't taste as good when had later though they were better than anything from outside.

K tried once again to get Banu to agree to come to work early during the latest round of salary hike negotiations. She thought that this would not lead to much success but still gave it a shot. Much to everyone's surprise Banu agreed!

Banu now comes to work before just before lunch time from Monday to Thursday. This means that on days that she does not bunk, I actually get to rotis straight from the tava during lunch. They are hot, soft and taste delicious. 

Having fresh rotis finally for lunch is one of the high points of my life as a freelancer. I plan to enjoy them fully while it lasts.

So that's my roti story. What's yours?

Please join in the discussion in the comments column as I would love to hear from you. If you happen to be a Bengali reading this post then I would love to know about the entry of aata rotis, if at all, into your family's diet. About when and how did this happen. It's a long post so if you spot any typos then do let me know so that I can fix it.

Also of interest

1. Blog post on my first kitchen

2. Blog post on my PG
3. Blog post on the Prince of Wales Bakery from where used to buy bread after we got married