11.12.2006

Parathas

Josiah’s comment on my Rakaposhi post cracked me up. So I’m going to write a post about parathas, the flaky flat-bread that I’ve raved about on at least two occasions.

There are some Pakistani foods, try as we might, that are nearly impossible to replicate perfectly in Canada. Samosa, for example, are great in Canada, but there’s something about the ones I pick up at the corner sweet shop in Gilgit that are different. Is it the blackened oil that their cooked in, or a trace amount of kerosene smoke that mingles with the oil or the newspaper they’re stored on? I can’t say. Perhaps it’s the flour used to make the pastry (flour that sits reasonably well with me, I might add).

Likewise, I’ve never tasted anything like Pakistani Chicken Karahi (a fairly basic curry heavy on tomatoes with something else in the sauce) in Canada.

Likewise, flatbreads seem nearly impossible to replicate in Canada (and Indian restaurants seem to manage no better than us white folk, while charging ridiculously high prices for the simple creations). And parathas fall into this category. After all, they are simply fried chapatti with additional oil worked into the dough to give the final product a pastry-like flakiness. We have, of course made parathas in Canada – and they were pretty good. Again, the differences between parathas in Canada and the those made and eaten here are ever so subtle. So subtle, in some cases, the difference could simply the experience as a whole. After all, how can my faculties ignore the differences between sitting cross-legged on the floor of a mud and timber hut in the fading afternoon above 3000m and sitting at the table in my well-insulated, warm house on the prairie with snow outside?

But what are parathas, the phantom cause of Josiah’s real hunger pangs as he sits half a world away in a university computer lab?

Let me explain.

Flat bread, I think, is one of the 7 wonders of the culinary world (don’t ask me what the other 6 are). How can something so simple, often just flour, water and salt mixed together with heat applied, be the cause of such enormous gastronomical pleasure? I’m sure I don’t know, but that doesn’t change the experience. In Northern Pakistan, there are, at least, a few varieties of flat bread. One is the simple, chapatti, the most basic bread, the tortilla of the sub-continent…

funny story about the term “sub-continent” here, as an aside: The term refers more or less to the countries situated on the plate that pushes into Asia and forms the Himalaya: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka (perhaps Bhutan as well, I’m not sure if there’s a concise definition). Anyway, I was at a Navigators spring conference (for the Western Canadian chapters) in Colorado and, as an ice breaker, we were playing a game that is often called “Fruit Basket Upset”. Basically, everyone sits on chairs formed in a circle except for one person standing in the middle. That person describes something possibly unique that she has done and everyone else in the circle who has done that same thing has to get up and shift sets. In the ensuing chaos, the person in the middle must try to find a seat leaving a different person to cause the next upset. When it was my turn, I said “I’ve traveled to the sub-continent”. And nobody moved. I know that that part of the world is far away, but for an international crowd in their 20s this surprised me. I thought perhaps they hadn’t heard correctly, so I said again, “I’ve traveled to the sub-continent”. Still – blank faces all around. Then someone, probably a brilliant engineering student, asked, “what’s the sub-continent?”, The experience of realization on my part was similar to the time, just before leaving on this trip, when I said that my colleagues in Pakistan would probably “dress Western” and my co-workers started laughing. I realized they were picturing Pakistani development workers dressed in Wranglers, snakeskin boots and Stetsons. Whoa! Your still a TCK/GlobalNomad/MK/Re-Entryer, Jordan – don’t forget it.) Long aside.

…Chapatti are unleavened-flour salt and water-rolled almost paper thin and baked on a dry hot steel surface. These are best fresh and dry out quickly. But they are made in a surprising number of varieties. At a small hotel in Karimabad, during the month of fasting, I received two dark brown chapatti, quite thin and earthy and steaming hot with my order of chicken curry. In a Gilgit hotel, that sets itself up as posh, I had large, chewy chapatti made with white flour that I folded double to scoop up the daal (curried split-peas another simple dish made in wide variety of ways – a subject for another post perhaps) I had ordered that night. Roti, or Naan are made in a Tandoor, a large clay oven, oriented vertically or horizontally, heated red hot. The dough is rolled out, stretched over a cushion and pressed against the side of the oven. The dough for Roti (also a generic term for bread, or even food in general) and Naan contains leavening (what kind, I’m not sure – the Joy of Cooking calls for live yeast-but they don’t reference the Joy out here). Roti is made with white flour in Gilgit. In Jhika Gali-my old haunt from boarding school, near the hill station Murree-, a coarser flour is used (when fresh, I’ve never tasted their equal). Naan contains something else. The dough is more dense than that used for chapatti and is baked to a golden brown; often sesame seeds are scattered on the fire-side of the naan.

Paratha (okay-we’re finally here – I get carried away when writing about food) are versions of all of the flatbreads described above, but made with oil. I’ve described two types in previous posts. The deep-fried version I had in Hispar was made with a course wheat flour, rolled out thickly and deep-fried until golden. I doubt they contained leavening.

At Eagle’s Nest, the paratha are also unleavened. They probably used a simple technique to layer fat and gluten sheets such as rolling the dough out into a square, putting a tablespoon of oil in the center, folding the corners over, rolling the dough flat and repeating this procedure several times. The result was impossibly thin bread resembling layers of phyllo, but not as brittle. These again are best eaten fresh off the stove as they appeared from the kitchen after my morning with Rakaposhi.

In the town where I grew up a shop near our house used the leavened dough prepared for naan, but deposited oil on the dough and then rolled the dough out into a long rope. The rope as then coiled and the dough rolled out flat. This was baked in a tandoor. This resulted in yet another variety of paratha, soft and flaky simultaneously. The baked bread broke away along the lines of the coil and tasked particularly divine with honey.

And always chai. Chai (the simple tea made with roughly equal amounts of water and milk, brewed strong and boiled together – the Gilgit people I work with take a pinch of salt in their tea instead of sugar) has the effect of purging the grease in ones mouth. The creamy sweetness complements both the parathas and the eggs or omelet commonly eaten with paratha using the paratha to scoop up the egg as you would chapatti or naan to scoop up a curry.

So that’s my hopelessly long-winded response to Josiah’s comment. Cheers.

1 comment:

Trina said...

i was actually wondering how the flour eating was going for you out there, apparently well. since i have been to the sub-continent (i would have had to give you my seat jordan), hearing about all that food makes me long to be somewhere else. but alas, i am here. anyways, i hope you continue to enjoy.
Trina