Some good friends recently lent me their favorite cookbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine by Yamuna Devi. This book is by far the largest and most in depth Indian vegetarian cookbook I have ever seen. To say the least, in seems to be all encompassing. Being the lover of bread that I am, I went straight to the pages on traditional breads. I figured that I would start with Chapati.
Chapati is one of the simplest and most common Indian breads. The ingredients are as follows: Flour & water. That's it. Now, some people like to add a little bit of salt and a touch of oil but other than that there is nothing else to it, or so I thought. I made the dough to the exact specifications of the recipe, cooked them the same way as the recipe and in the end was left with something that resembled a chapati but I knew that it wasn't right. A chapati once rolled out, cooked in a griddle and then toasted over open flame should, and I stress the word should, puff up with steam leaving the inside hollow much like a pita. No matter what I did I couldn't get them to puff up properly. I got a little pocket here or there but nothing that would make me happy enough to declare victory. So I tried another batch and another batch with one epic fail followed by yet another. Full of frustration I went to bed.
Upon awakening the first thing I did was think about chapatis. I had a trick of my sleave that I knew would bring me success. Nisha. Nisha is one of our dish washers at work, a lovely Indian woman most likely around my age. She is not a professional cook. However, anyone who likes Indian cuisine knows that the women are the key to it's magic. If anyone could show me the way of the chapati, it would be Nisha.
When I got to work I asked her if she would be so kind to show me how to make Chapatis. With nothing but kindness in her heart she obliged. She made the dough the same way I make my french and Italian doughs, without a recipe. I figured out right away what I was doing wrong. I was trying to make chapati with the same methods I would apply to European breads. The chapati does not need such a vigorous work out, it doesn't need to rest before you shape it and it can be torn off into pieces as opposed to pinched or cut. In no time flat we were making the perfect chapati, the same quality that you would find in the finest Indian restaurant you have ever eaten in. All this, made by our dishwasher. Now, none of this surprised me. I knew when I asked her, she would know how to make it. That wasn't me assuming that all Indian women could make chapati, it was me knowing for sure that all Indian women can make chapati.
This is where the feelings of shame started to creep in on me like diabetes on North American youth. Just to be sure, I asked Nisha if everyone of her Indian friends and all of here family can make chapati, roti, naan etc. " all the women" she replied. Now, I'm not suggesting that all women should be cooking up a storm at home all the time. However, I started to feel very sad for our culture. What is the one dish that every Canadian can cook? Nothing. I asked a few of the cooks at work If they could think of something that everyone knows how to cook. The best answer that I got was from Jeff who said that perhaps two generations ago most of our relatives knew how to preserve fruits and vegetables through the means of canning. I think that that is fair to say, I seem to remember family members having preserves around from time to time when I was a wee little tyke. Now, even that extremely valuable skill has fallen by the wayside. How many people do you know(including yourself) that could just throw together a quick loaf of sandwich bread without a recipe? If you can't name more than one or two do you think that you should be slightly worried? I sure do.
Shannon and I just had her 15 year old brother stay with us for the summer and I was astonished to find that something as simple as cooking pasta noodles or rice or even a fried egg was something completely foreign to him. And I don't think he would be offended by my mentioning that he is a little over weight. How could that even be possible. I think that we as a nation need to start looking toward food education not just for the youth but also for the adults. It seems as though the majority have lost touch on the reality that food is in fact keeping them alive. Food is not just something that should be quickly swallowed and then forgotting about until if leaves us looking the same way that it entered us. Food, water and shelter are the three things people need to survive, or so I've been led to believe. I must laugh at the Irony that people in the west have put such an importance on shelter as status symbol that along the way to gaining enough money to live in lavish homes they no longer have time to cook or even enough money to buy decent food. Convenience, it seems, has a much higher price than many of us had bargained for.
I challenge anyone who reads this little blog of ours, to learn how to make some sort of bread in one week. Chapati is really easy, cheap and healthy. A simple french bread has only five ingredients and one of those is water. Give it a shot, it's liberating to know that if all else in your life comes crumbling down, at least you can make some bread. It has kept starving people alive for a long time and it has kept smiles on the faces of those who can have the luxury of eating it for pleasure. Oh, and if you have a child, please show them how to cook a pot of rice or some pasta if you haven't already, heck, it will even make your life easier.