About four years ago, I met Shelly Krishnamurthy. An amazing woman, Shelly has Parkinson’s disease but she is a fearless community activist, raising funds for Chaya, a non-profit organization serving South Asian women in times of crisis and need, and paying school visits to teach elementary students about Indian food and culture.
When Shelly heard about my book project, she introduced me to her 78-year-old mother, Champa Ramakrishna.
Champa is already bustling around the kitchen when I arrive. She has soft, kindly features and wispy gray hair bundled into a single braid swishing down her back. As she prepares the ingredients to make aloo paratha, potato-stuffed flatbread, she floats around the spacious, modern kitchen decisively yet gracefully, her orange and burgundy sari rustling about her petite frame.
Aloo paratha is a great one-dish meal for the family that can be served anytime of the day, Champa tells me. It’s especially convenient when she tires of making the requisite three dishes per meal everyone is accustomed to.
Food, I have learned, is never territorial. Even though aloo paratha is a northern Indian dish and Champa’s roots are in the south, she has no qualms about calling this dish her own. However, most of her repertoire hails from the south. Not surprising since her parents are from Bangalore and three generations of her family lived in Bhopal, central India. This is the cuisine she picked up from her mother by watching and learning.
“Southern (Indian) cooking is simple, and uses less fat,” she explains. And in the south, almost all the Hindu sects don’t eat onion and garlic because of their pungent smell.
Aloo paratha doesn’t use onion or garlic, in fact, it comprises few ingredients with potatoes (aloo) making up the bulk of the dish. The potatoes are ready once they are tender “but not too soft,” Champa instructs me as she starts to peel them. She prefers the texture of Yukon gold potatoes and instead of mashing them she grates them. “So there are no lumps,” she explains, fingering a handful of lump-free grated potato.
Her face creased in concentration, Champa mixes onion, cilantro, cumin seeds, chili flakes and cilantro by hand into the potatoes. As her hands massage the mixture into a smooth filling, the gold bangles sparkling with emeralds around her left wrist clink sweetly. For a little pizzazz, she suggests adding grated cauliflower, paneer, lentils or green mung beans to the mixture as well. With the endless variety of fillings, Champa and her family–who as Hindus, are all vegetarian–can eat a balanced diet with just one dish!
As Champa works, she tells me that she moved to the U.S. when her husband got a job with the World Bank in 1979. They lived in Washington D.C. for 10 years before settling down in Austin, Texas. She recalls how difficult it was to find Indian spices 25 years ago. “Every time I went back to India, I would stock up on all kinds of things from all the different regions.” Her suitcase was always full coming back stateside!
When the potato filling is done, Champa sets it aside and starts preparing the dough. Adding water to Indian whole wheat flour, she kneads the dough until it is pliable but “not too loose.”
Champa divides the dough up into balls and deftly rolls each ball into a flat disc about 4 inches wide with a rolling pin. Holding the dough disc in the palm of her left hand, she places a good chunk of potato mixture in the middle and folds the dough over, fully enclosing the filling. Then she rolls it out again into a flat disc. Other than the occasional green speckle, you’d never guess the secret mouthwatering ingredients hiding within.
The griddle–yes, Champa uses a modern electric griddle!–is soon fired up. She lays the pancake-like parathas gently down on the hot surface one at a time. She sprinkles some oil over each disc and smears it all over the top. After a couple of minutes, she flips them to reveal lightly charred brown spots.
In no time, they are done.
Champa serves me my meal on a shiny stainless steel plate typical of a thali meal. She instructs me to scoop some yogurt into a small bowl and season it with a sprinkling of cumin, chili powder and salt.
I break off a portion of the flatbread and dip it into the yogurt. The paratha’s crisp outer layer gives way to soft shreds of bread spiked with cumin, cilantro and chili, which contrasted nicely with the cool yogurt.
Yes, it is confirmed. This is a one-dish meal I could eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
Potato-Stuffed Flatbread (Aloo Paratha)
Whenever Champa Ramakrishna doesn’t feel like preparing the requisite three dishes per meal, she makes aloo paratha. Easy to make and nutritious, the one-dish Indian meal can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While Champa can churn out perfect parathas in a matter of minutes, making them symmetrical takes some practice-so don’t be discouraged if your first few don’t turn out quite right. Instead of the yogurt dip, you can serve the flatbread with your favorite pickle or chutney.
Time: 1 1/2 hours
Makes: 10 parathas, 4 to 5 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
2 cups Indian whole wheat flour (atta), or a combination of 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour and 1 cup all-purpose white flour, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for drizzling
3/4 to 1 cup lukewarm water
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground red chili powder or crushed red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Yogurt Dip (recipe follows)
In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour, oil, and a pinch of salt. Add the water a little at a time and knead into a soft, pliable dough. Once the dough starts to pull easily away from the side of the bowl, knead it on a lightly floured surface until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Cover with a damp cloth and set aside for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the potatoes in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a fork can prick them easily. The potatoes should still be somewhat firm and not too soft. Let cool.
When the potatoes have reached room temperature, peel and grate them. You should have about 2 cups. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, onion, cilantro, chili powder, cumin seeds, cumin powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Divide the dough into 10 equal 1½-inch balls (an easy way to do this is to divide the dough in half, then each half into 5 balls). Divide the potato filling into 10 equal portions. Prepare a plate with about 1 cup flour for dusting. Sprinkle flour liberally onto a work surface and roll a ball into a disk about 4 inches in diameter with a rolling pin. Place 1 portion of filling in the center and gather the edges up and around it, stretching the dough if necessary. Pinch to seal securely at the top so that the filling is entirely enclosed. It will look like a fat dumpling.
Gently flatten the dumpling into a thick patty, being careful not to let the filling escape. Dip both sides in the flour. Lay the patty seam side down and carefully roll it out into a circle 5 to 6 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick. Don’t worry if a little filling pops out. Just pat it back inside the paratha as best as you can.
Repeat with the remaining dough and filling, dusting with flour as needed.
Place the parathas on a plate, layering them between parchment paper to prevent them from sticking together before cooking.
Preheat a heavy griddle or 8-inch nonstick skillet. Place 1 paratha on the ungreased griddle and cook over medium-high heat until the underside is speckled with golden brown spots, about 3 minutes. Flip and drizzle the top with oil (about ½ teaspoon). Smear the oil all over the surface with a spatula and press down to ensure even browning. Flip again, drizzle more oil on top, and repeat the smearing process. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, flipping every minute or so, until the paratha is evenly browned on both sides.
Slide onto a plate and keep warm in a low oven while you cook the remaining parathas. To eat, tear off bite-sized pieces of paratha and dip into the yogurt mixture.
Variations: Add any of the following cooked ingredients to, or in lieu of, the potato filling: grated cauliflower, mashed lentils or mung beans, and paneer.
Pat’s Notes: Atta (sometimes called chapati flour) is a very finely ground whole wheat flour made from hard wheat. With a high protein content and just enough bran to give it body without making it too coarse for soft pliable Indian breads, atta flour is also strong and dough made from it can be rolled out very thin. It is available at Indian grocers.
Parathas freeze well. Just cook them without oil and freeze, placing wax or parchment paper in between each paratha. When ready to use, defrost and reheat the paratha on the griddle with some oil.
Make individual servings and have everyone tailor the dip to their personal taste.
Makes: 1 serving
1/2 cup homemade or Greek yogurt
Ground dried red chilies
Spoon the yogurt into an individual dish. Sprinkle cumin powder, ground chilies, and salt to taste (I recommended pinches to start with). Mix well.
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