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Bread has been around since time immemorial. In its most original form, the flatbread, milled grain was mixed with water and cooked on hot embers or stone. As simple as that.
Bread and bread making has evolved significantly since the late stone ages mainly due to changes in the elements that are used to make breads. Of these the discovery of leavening agents such as yeast, was probably the most significant.
Yet, despite all the changes, some flatbreads have survived pretty much in their original late Stone Age form.
Breads such as the lavash found in the Middle East, the pita of Greece, the roti and chapati of India and the tortilla of Latin America are some of the few remaining foods that tie us to our very early ancestors.
As such they are true treasures of humanity. Those with allergies and intolerances aside, most people love bread and consume it in one form or another on a near daily basis.
Yet, ever since the Industrial Revolution in Europe home-baked bread has been on the decline, replaced by industrial and commercial baking. The commodification of bread is the result of urbanization and the consequential rise in full-time, wage-based employment.
These factors introduced two trends: first, a decline in per capita bread consumption as wage earners had sufficient expendable income to afford luxuries such as meat and high-fat, high-sugar cakes and pastries, and second, bread-making became fully industrialized.
The industrialization of bread introduced significant changes to the core ingredients and techniques used in traditional breadmaking.
Mechanical aids such as powered mixers started appearing around the 1900’s and the 1960’s saw the establishment of fully automated breadmaking factories. The early 1900’s also saw the introduction of non-traditional chemical elements to the process.
First, milled flour was supplemented with oxidizing chlorine gas and potassium bromate to assist with maturing and the development of gluten in low quality flour. Given that bromate is a class 2B carcinogen it was eventually banned in Europe (but only in 1990) and replaced by ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).
Second, the traditional process of air-aging flour to develop the gluten content caused the colour of the flour to become progressively paler. But this takes time.
Soon millers started using bleaching agents such as peroxide to whiten their flours. In their quest to save time and maximize profits, commercial breadmakers have continued to blaze a chemical trail. Where the traditional breadmaking process takes hours, they can produce a “ripe” dough is a mere four minutes.
In their quest to give consumers that warm and hearty smell of freshly-bake bread, they invited the “par-baked” bread. These breads are partly cooked in the factory, shipped to the pint of sale where the cooking is finished to create the illusion of freshly baked bread.
Breads with a long shelf life are treated with chemical compounds such as Calcium Propionate and Dextrose to prevent the development of mold. Do they remain fresh? Of course not.
Fortunately, in recent years resistance to commercial breadmaking has brought a shift in focus and traditional methods of breadmaking are starting to make a comeback. Health stores and specialised shops are stocking traditionally milled flours and some bakers have gone ‘old-school’.
Baking your own bread does not have to be difficult or cumbersome. Nor does it take a lot of time. Just find some authentic flours and you are in business. Your family will love you for it. Guaranteed.
As far back as 1821 William Corbett in his Cottage Economy lamented the fact that bread had to be bought from a shop: “How wasteful, then, and indeed, how shameful, for a labourer’s wife to go to the baker’s shop … Give me, for a beautiful sight, a neat and smart woman, heating her oven and setting in her bread! And, if the bustle does not make the sign of labour glisten on her brow, where is the man that would not kiss that off, rather than lick the plaster from the cheek of a duchess?”
I have selected two traditional unleavened Indian flatbreads to start you off. Why? Besides the fact that they are great with any well-made curry or raita, I had seen just this past weekend how much people love them. Especially surprising were the kids. They watched as I made them and the spectacular flair with which they puffed up was a source of great amazement.
Still hot, they could not get enough of especially the puri’s. The sight of three pre-teens gallivanting around the yard with a golden, puffed-up flatbread in each hand brings intimate joy to any cook’s heart.
But more over, these breads are a celebration of humanity because despite their specific cultural context, they tie us to times immemorial when flour and water were enough, and profits of no concern. In India, roti is the generic term for bread or bread-like accompaniments.
These are especially popular in the northern and central parts where wheat and grains rather than rice are the common staples. Indian breads can be leavened (such as Naan), or unleavened (such as chapati and puri).
They can be baked, fried, grilled, steamed or roasted and are commonly made with atta (a type of whole wheat flour also called chapati flour or maida which is an all-purpose flour) and cooked in a tava (a flat, concave or convex pan or griddle), over hot embers or in a tandoori oven.
Puri’s are unleavened flatbreads that are deep-fried until they are puffed up and golden. They are great with just about any thing, especially raitas. Chapatis are also unleavened but are dry-fried on a tava. The chapati is perhaps the best known of all Indian flatbreads. Unleavened bread does not have proof, so can be made rather quickly.
However, it is always a good idea to rest the unleavened dough for 20 minutes or more just to allow the gluten strands to relax and make the dough easier to work with. These breads cook quickly, no more than a few minutes, so there is no time for doing anything else. Which is a good thing, as you do not want to miss the aroma of freshly cooked bread. And as they say in Punjabi: “maujan karo” … enjoy your meal.