The chef Maneet Chauhan warned me before our trip to India that the word “stuffed” in her country is not only the way many of the street foods of Delhi are prepared, it’s a perpetual state of being. She was right. I’m used to beginning the day with a stiff cup of black coffee (or ten) and that’s the end of it.
At Maneet’s parent’s apartment in Delhi where we were staying, chai’s spicy charisma deftly trumped the allure of my routine caffeine delivery system in a single morning, providing a silken prelude to the siren call of Maneet’s mother Mrs. Chauhan’s irresistible breakfasts. Fortified might be a classier word for the way we felt when we stepped out into the addictive mania of Delhi, but stuffed really nails it; reenforcing the absurdity of our quest for the city’s most tantalizing stuffed foods, while feeling the same way even before taking a single bite.
You learn to ignore your mind’s plea for reason in the mad chase for street food in Delhi. You tell yourself that you won’t regret another bite of aloo tikka, a sip of lassi, the whimsy of popping a panipuri in your mouth when you’re back home in America eating roasted beets and turkey sandwiches.
Not that there’s anything wrong with roasted beets and turkey sandwiches but on the streets of Delhi, it’s as if the frenetic energy electrifies even the most humble biscuit, the most mundane samosa. Every crevice of the city, every face, every bite of something spicy and pickled and new hums with the crush of color and humanity insistently filling your ears, nose and eyes with its ceaseless demand to command your full attention.
It’s a wonder in that firestorm of tasting that one thing possessed enough fortitude to firmly root itself into my food memories on those maddening, gritty, perfect Delhi streets. I discovered it while hyped up on adrenaline pumped into my veins from a deranged rickshaw ride from the Old Delhi train station to the denizen of crowded, chaotic and wonderfully aromatic galis, or alleyways, of Chandni Chowk. In this ancient quarter of Old Delhi, stuffed foods are not just a means of quelling hunger, they’re a way of life.
We were in Chandni Chowk to visit the famed Paranthe wali Gali, or “The Alley of Flatbreads,” a twiggy, fragrant passageway buzzing with the ceaseless industry of small shacks squeezed impossibly close together. Each serves the beloved flatbreads, or parathas, that visitors gather from around the world to indulge in, but even in this vast agglomeration of paratha shops, there was only one stop on our list. Parawthe Wala, established in 1875, boldly proclaims itself to be the oldest and most famous paratha shop in Old Delhi.
If the mob of customers clamoring for a shoulder-to-shoulder seat in this tiny sliver of a place were any indication, there’s some justification in their assertion. The speed and execution of the assembly line was a feast for the eyes. The first member of this masterful team deftly rolled out the dough, the next stuffed it with every conceivable ingredient from potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, lentils and ladyfingers (okra) to green chilies, rabri (reduced, sweetened milk), paneer and green peas. He then sprinkled it with an exuberant handful of spices and pounded and rolled it flat before handing it to the next player who fried it to golden brown in a bubbling wok of melted ghee.
To accompany our piping hot parathas served on a sectioned tin tray the instant they emerged from frying, was a sweet banana sauce, spicy aloo chole (potato chickpea curry), sitafal (custard apple pickle) and every other conceivable manifestation of pickle. So satisfying were our parathas that these condiments became an afterthought, but they did provide the addictive pucker of sourness and lick of flame that in their seductive tenacity embody the qualities I love most about Delhi.
The flatbreads, which are defined as layered (parat) whole-wheat chapati flour (atta), originated in Northern India where they grace countless tables throughout the region on a daily basis. Especially popular as a breakfast dish, they were traditionally made with ghee (clarified butter) that is now frequently substituted for oil.
The only limit to what parathas are stuffed with hinges upon the cook’s imagination. Potatoes are one of the most common fillings but these gems are also prime benefactors of the seasons, becoming welcome receptacles for whatever the daily market affords, or even catch-alls for the previous evening’s dinner. Once assembled, they are fried in melted ghee as they are at Parawthe Wala, or grilled on a tava, an Indian flattop griddle. Some health conscious Indians even bake them in the oven to avoid the additional fat required for frying or grilling.
We arrived back at Maneet’s parent’s apartment that evening still floating on a ghee-slicked paratha cloud to discover Mrs. Chauhan grilling parathas on her tava. We were still full from the day’s indulgences but as we watched her stuff the parathas with shredded ginger and brilliantly red shredded carrots, only available for an inch of time each winter, we managed to find a little more available space as I reminded myself of Maneet’s lesson that the word stuffed always has two meanings in India.
In each new place, the paratha harmonizes to the drumbeat of its new home, while still retaining its Indian identity. The paratha’s ability to adapt is what I find most appealing about this humble dish.
I admire its willingness to assume the best qualities of wherever it finds itself while still preserving its Indian integrity. Before I left the country, a friend told me that because I loved their nation so much, it was not their India and it was not my India any longer. It was our India.
In my kitchen on the east coast of America, where Delhi feels painfully far away, I made parathas. I tucked into them the flavors of my own home; raw shaved beets, feta that would have normally found its way into a turkey sandwich. In an instant the paratha illustrated, as it has done myriad times over the centuries, its willingness to adopt the virtues of its new environment, while never losing sight of itself.
I savored every bite. I could hear the honking horns of the Delhi streets, smell the hot ghee billowing through the Chandni Chowk galis, see the smiling faces of the team I traveled with on our quest to taste every single incarnation of street food Delhi could conjure up for our insatiable spirits. I missed India and I missed my friends. But this paratha connected me to them and reminded me that it was, and will forever be, our India.
Paratha dough is the same thing as chapati dough and the beauty of this dish is that once the dough is ready to go, the only limit to what it's stuffed with is the imagination. It's an optimal base for any season and is even a prime vehicle to enliven leftovers. Parathas can be fried in oil or melted ghee, or grilled on a flat-top griddle (a tava in Indian), or even in a large saute pan. In this recipe, the parathas are grilled in a saute pan in order to provide the most accessible technique for home cooks. To eliminate the additional fat required of grilling or frying, parathas can be baked in a pre-set 350 degree oven until cooked through and golden brown, about 15 minutes, flipping once during the baking process. In India, parathas are welcome additions to everything from main courses such as curry or dal to condiments such as raita (yogurt), pickles and shredded raw vegetables. As ever with this versatile dish, its only limit is the imagination.
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- 2 cups whole-wheat flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 cup neutral oil such as canola or grapeseed, plus additional as needed
- all-purpose flour, as needed for dredging
- 5 cups desired filling