The clinginess of ‘chapati’

Many Indians are in an exclusive, addictive relationship with the ‘chapati’. Promiscuity reveals the life beyond


Baked Kane (ladyfish). Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Baked Kane (ladyfish). Photo: Samar Halarnkar

I have had a love-hate relationship with the chapati. I love it because, well, I am Indian, and the chapati (as the name of this column makes clear) is who we are. Not all of us, of course. I am an outlier in the south, clinging to my chapati despite the sea of rice around me. I hate the chapati because it makes (or made) me clingy—it’s a habit that’s hard to break, an addiction that’s hard to shake off, a relationship that’s too exclusive.

Chapati-eating Indians are brainwashed from childhood to think, or feel, that meals must have chapatis. We use the chapati as a de facto spoon, a device to mitigate spice and a comfort zone. I learned that early. When I was a boy, it was bad enough that my mother and grandmother forced me to eat palak (spinach) with dinner. Worse was to eat palak without chapati. I tried that because a bout of palak-and-chapati eating usually left me quite full—I used not just the chapati, but lots of water to limit the effects of the palak on my gustatory cells. The next part of the meal usually involved keema or mutton curry, and that involved more chapatis. As I grew up and became ever hungrier, especially during my teenage years, my chapati addiction grew. At my peak, I was eating an average of 10 per meal. Unsurprisingly, I was rotund by my 20s. I began exercising only in my late 20s, and it was only by my 30s, after weight- and fitness-related back problems that I realized I had to cut down on food overall and the chapati in particular. Every additional chapati encouraged me to another helping, which encouraged me to another chapati—breaking this cycle was not easy, but I managed to come down to six, then four.

A couple of stints abroad forced me and the chapati into a long-distance relationship. When I went to the wide, open spaces of the American Midwest in 1993, as an MA student, there were no chapatis. In the little town of Columbia, Missouri (with 90,000 people, it was the state’s third-largest city, but to an Indian it was barely a town), there were no Indian restaurants or stores. Later, I realized Mexican tortillas were able substitutes. By then, I had realized that a life without chapatis was not just possible but wondrous. I could eat more food, you know, more meat, more salad—although very much less of the latter—instead of allowing the chapati to occupy stomach space. While this was nice, it took another few years to realize that dropping the chapati was not a licence to unlimited gluttony, that the oil-free chapati played an important role in a balanced diet—I was just learning about food groups—and was, in most cases, a preferable option to preservative-laden breads and white rice.

Today, after half a century, I’ve finally understood what my body needs, how its instinctive chapati-and-meat craving can, and must, be balanced, and how it allows new culinary relationships. I still eat and like chapatis, but not every day, not six for every meal, and, most importantly, I am no longer addicted.

Thanks to my new, non-exclusive relationship with the wholewheat chapati, I am playing the field and loving it. I have learned about and had exciting flings with exotic locals—millets, such as foxtail, pearl, finger, proso; rice, such as black rice and Rajamudi, once grown for the Mysuru royal family; and I am back in touch with old flames—ragi, jowar and bajra. But I can now have a meal without a chapati or its substitutes, as the menu below indicates. I feel lighter, fitter and promiscuous—nutritionally speaking, that is no bad thing.

Baked Kane (ladyfish)

Serves 1

Ingredients

3 medium-sized kane

1 tsp red-chilli powder

One fourth tsp turmeric powder

3 tsp tamarind pulp

Salt to taste

Method

Marinate the kane with red chilli powder, turmeric, tamarind and salt for an hour. Place in baking dish and seal with foil. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.

Dressed sprouts

Ingredients

250g assorted sprouts

Half tomato, chopped small

2 tbsp chopped onion

1 green chilli, deseeded and chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Salt to taste

Method

Place sprouts in a steaming tray, place it in pressure cooker with water below the tray. Cook for one whistle, then reduce flame to minimum and wait for another whistle. Release steam and remove sprouts. Toss with onion, tomato, chilli, lime juice and salt.

Romaine-leaf salad

Half bunch of crisp romaine leaves

1 tbsp thinly sliced onion marinated in sherry vinegar (we marinate and use over the week)

Assorted seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, etc)

Dressing: In a bottle, mix 1 tbsp olive oil, half tsp kasundi mustard, 3 tbsp sherry or balsamic vinegar, 2 crushed garlic cloves. Shake well, use 2 tsp of dressing, refrigerate the rest.

Toss the salad with the dressing.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.

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