Many years ago, when a cousin brought his English wife and their little baby to visit my grandmother, they brought a whole range of organic baby food in jars for the baby. For the adults, my grandmother poshed up lunch by making some plain parathas, soft and pillowy, cooked in her trademark ghee. The little khaki baby, who had only ever eaten gloop from jars until now, clearly felt the primitive call of her desi genes because she attacked each handful of paratha from her father’s hand while seated in his lap. The poor man couldn’t eat a mouthful till the baby had nibbled and dribbled and drooled her way through almost an entire paratha, so eager to get it into her mouth that she shovelled in her whole fist with it for fear a little bit would drop out.
While my grandmother took it as proof positive that desi babies prefer to eat desi food over angrezi sheeshi ka khana, the truth, probably, is that the parathas did it. There is something about a paratha, the simplicity and yumminess and comfort inherent in it, that makes even a tiny someone, not yet a year old and who has only ever eaten things like butternut squash puree with no added salt or sugar or fat, fall violently in love.
Because parathas are about love; about warm fuzzy feel good yumminess; about feasting and togetherness and heartiness. They are a unique blend of homestyle comfort and guilty pleasure—simple, delicious, sinful all at the same time. They evoke, even in people who only eat them occasionally, a nostalgia for an idealized nursery past. Every bite of a paratha celebrates a simpler time when the chasm between what felt good to you and what was good for you wasn’t unbridgeable.
The paratha is, in fact, a many splendoured thing. At its simplest—a plain paratha, the sort that my grandmother whipped up that day—it’s just a roti that is shallow fried, but done well it’s a reason to go on living. The best plain parathas are those that play with texture. The version made routinely in every North Indian home is actually a technical feat, essentially puff pastry with an Indian accent. A disc of dough is rolled out, the edges oiled and folded again to form another disc and so on. When it is finally rolled out on the tava and fried, it transforms into this multi-layered marvel: A soft, pillowy heaven you can bite into.
A good plain paratha can be eaten by itself. Just the addition of a bit of salt and maybe a few pieces of chopped up onions, or a sprinkling of ajwain, to the atta makes each one a treat. But the best ones are those that are ideal to mop up other food with. The Kerala or Malabar parotta, the North Indian lachcha paratha and the Mughlai paratha are all versions that have a crisp exterior encompassing a flaky, soft-layered interior, making them the perfect vehicle to trap and transport a coconutty curry, paalak paneer, some spicy kababs or a velvety dal from plate to mouth.
By contrast, the stuffed paratha needs nothing else to be complete. It is literally a one-tava meal. The best stuffings are typically the most popular ones: alu, gobi, mooli in winter, dals as per the region you’re in, some seasonal greens; each one has its own cult following. The only rule most devotees follow is that stuffed parathas need to be eaten without any distractions to be appreciated. Be honest: When you have an alu or a gobi paratha on your plate, what more could you possibly need? Maybe a wodge of butter—okay, definitely a wodge of butter, not because a paratha needs anything extra but simply because the butter highlights the essential taste of the paratha, without adding anything other than yumminess to it). If you manage some dahi and some pickle, rejoice, your ascent to carbohydrate heaven is assured.
Leonardo da Vinci postulated that the length from elbow to wrist was exactly the length of the foot. If he had had the good fortune to have eaten my grandmother’s soy bean parathas, he would have added another critical metric to this equation: It’s also the height of parathas piled one atop another that someone with my level of greed can demolish in one sitting. Because, for me a paratha is pure joy, the perfect amalgamation of comfort food and feast food. It’s also a food category I’ve spent some time studying in depth (Hey, it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to expand the frontiers of human knowledge.)
So, as a lifelong devotee, eater and researcher of the paratha, here are some random observations that I’m happy to share with you today. For free.
1. The ideal stuffing to dough proportion is five parts stuffing to two parts dough. (For those who have other thoughts, butt out; this is my study, so I get to write the conclusions.)
2. The best parathas are always eaten in humble places; somehow, posh places seem to lose the paratha swag. I have yet to eat a fabulous paratha in a place that has cloth napkins. Just saying. On the other hand, dhabas, food carts and grandmothers’ kitchens routinely send out parathas capable of winning the Oscar as well as the Fields medal. On the same day.
3. Stuffed parathas can’t get all fancy shmancy. Alu, gobi, mooli, different dals, methi, paalak, anda—all yum. Trying to make a stuffed paratha posh is against the laws of thermodynamics. And electromagnetism. And common sense. It is also doomed to failure. A paneer paratha, for instance, is a travesty. It’s like eating a paratha stuffed with Thermocol beads. Mothers can feed this to their children if they fear a calcium deficit, but then should not be surprised if said children grow up delinquent.
4. It is medically impossible to eat only one paratha if the paratha being consumed meets acceptable level of yumminess. Four is the median number consumed by adults with moderate levels of greed.
5. The best parathas are made with ghee, not oil. Or then those that are made on the tandoor, with no oil at all. The ones made with oil are still fabulous, but a distant third fabulous.
6. Different parathas need different coloured butter. Some go best with white butter, some with fresh malai and some need the salty kiss of a golden pat of Amul to make them sing.
7. The collective noun for parathas should be a paradise of parathas. (Hey, I have a philosopher’s soul; I spend time thinking about deep stuff.)
Admit it, you know in your heart and in your greedy gut that parathas are the complete food. Not complete in the recommended daily intake manner of speaking, but in the Oh God, I am completely sated and completely happy manner of speaking.
And as a philosopher, I can tell you, a better definition of paradise hasn’t yet been found.
So, onward and forward. To a paradise of parathas may we all be inexorably bound.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.