India is a country of humongous diversity that’s reflected in its culinary traditions—and its wide variety of regional breads is no exception. The influence of multiple cultures and different geographical regions is clearly evident in the smorgasbord of Indian breads on offer. The rotis, parathas, and bhakri (millet rotis) are traditionally an intrinsic part of everyday meals. The foreign settlers and migrants, too, left a mark on breads: Influence from Portugal to Tibet is seen in, for example, Goa’s popular pav and Himachal’s lesser-known steamed bread, tingmo.
Although rice is a staple for a large part of India, breads are very much a part of daily diet. Indian breads come in all shapes and sizes, flat or fluffy, leavened or unleavened, soft or hard. They might be roasted, fried, baked, or steamed; round, oblong, square or triangle-shaped. Some breads in India just need to be paired with their other half, like chhole bhature, luchis-aloor dum, pav bhaji, makki roti-sarson ka saag, and litti-chokha. Some are standalone, filling dishes, like stuffed parathas. Just add a pat of butter and a dash of tangy pickle and you’re good to go.
But what is the difference between roti and naan? Or puri and kachori? Here are the regional Indian breads to know, from the very popular to the highly localized.
Roti, Chapati, Phulka
Found across India (and in any Indian restaurant pretty much anywhere), roti is the most common unleavened flatbread made from atta, or whole wheat flour. The perfect vessel for scooping up curries and stew, hot rotis straight off the tawa, or griddle, have a mouthwatering aroma. From kneading the gluten-rich dough to rolling out circles on a chakla belan (flat rolling board and rolling pin), the roti-making process requires practice to be perfected. Soft and easy to tear, roti is called chapati in some parts of India for the method of slapping the dough between hands (from “chapat,” which means a slap), or phulka if it’s made to puff up on a direct flame.
Types of rotis: For these variations, the humble roti gets spiced up, or the typical atta flour is swapped out for maida (white refined flour), makka (maize flour), or besan (gram/chickpea flour). Some examples include makke ki roti, missi roti (spices and chickpea flour), tandoori roti (baked in a clay oven), the super-thin cracker like khakhra of Gujarat, the oversize thick khoba roti of Rajasthan, and the Sindhis’ (who migrated from Sindh, Pakistan) traditional onion-spiced koki roti. The influence of Mughlai cuisine—characterized by richer ingredients such as maida, milk, saffron, rose water, and nuts, among other things—is seen in the fermented leavened bread khamiri roti (eaten with nalli, or mutton, nihari) and the super-thin maida rumali roti (with seekh kebab) found in North India.
Bhakri (Millet Roti)
The traditional bread of the farmers, the rustic bhakri, a round flatbread made of millet, is fast gaining popularity among many Indians because it’s highly nutritious, gluten-free, aids weight loss, and is good for diabetics. It tastes best when the flour is freshly milled. Jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), and ragi (finger millet) are the most popular grains used. Bhakri is most commonly eaten in the west, central, and south of India, particularly Maharashtra, Gujarat, parts of Goa and Rajasthan, Malwa, and Karnataka—millet grows best in the drier parts of the country.
Within regions, of course, there are specialties. The bajra rotla, served with fiery garlic chutney, is relished in Gujarat. A mixture of millets, legumes, and spices make thalipeeth in Maharashtra. In the south, Karnataka’s jolad rotti and Telangana’s jonna rotte are similar to jowar bhakri, the sorghum-based flatbread.
From central Asia to Mughlai kitchens to restaurants across the world, the soft, oblong leavened baked bread called naan is a clear favorite among diners. An integral part of Mughlai cuisine, the naans make a delicious accompaniment to paneer gravies, chicken and mutton curries, and koftas (savory meatballs or vegetable balls in rich gravy). Made with white flour (maida), naans are served plain or buttered, but the variations are endless: garlic naan, keema naan, Peshawari naan, roghni naan (sprinkled with poppy or onion seeds), and many more.
Eating puri (also spelled poori) is something of a guilty pleasure because it is deep-fried and greasy—but it’s so, so good. Savory or sweet, soft or crispy, plain or stuffed, these are often packed in schoolkids’ tiffins and taken on long train journeys. Typically made of atta, they make for a hearty breakfast eaten with chhole (chickpea curry), ghughnis, mango pulp, curries, suji halwa, or syrupy jalebis. The Sindhis’ dal pakwan is a breakfast staple of crispy puri with chana daal. Bengali luchi puri and Punjab’s leavened bread, bhatura (pictured below), are two exceptions that use maida, or white flour. Millet puris made of rajgira (amaranth) and kuttu (buckwheat) are eaten during fasts, such as during the Navratri (Durga puja) festival, when a lot of Indians do not eat rice or wheat. Any old city shop will serve puri or its upscale version, kachori (see next section).
Puri is also the base to a popular chaat, or snack: pani puri, also called gol gappa (and fuchka in Bengal). For this, the dough is made of suji (semolina) in addition to atta, and is kneaded tightly to produce smaller, crunchier puri. The hollow, fried puri is then filled with potato, chickpea, onion, spices, and flavored water, usually tamarind and/or coriander, and popped into one’s mouth whole. It encompasses some of chaat’s best qualities—spicy, crunchy, saucy, satisfying—all in one explosive bite-size package.
From the labyrinthine lanes of Varanasi to the bustling streets of Kolkata, the smell of bubbling tea and frying kachoris is inviting to any passersby. These golden-brown-fried orbs are similar to puris but a bit more refined: For kachoris, the dough is kneaded tight and stiff, so it fries up crispy, not greasy. The pyaz (onion) and dal kachoris of Rajasthan, and the bedmi puri (with a filling of urad daal, sauf/fennel, and hing) and matar (peas) kachori of the North (known as koraishhutir kochuri in Bengal) are regional specialties. The khasta kachori crumbles in one bite, while popular chaat Raj kachori—with a filling of lentils, garnished with tamarind, mint chutney, and dahi (curd)—is spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy.
Plain, stuffed, or with leafy greens kneaded into the dough, parathas are eaten across India. Round, unleavened flatbreads made from wheat flour (atta), parathas are rich and flaky, thanks to the inclusion of ghee or oil in the dough. Not surprisingly, winter is especially the time to indulge in all types of stuffed parathas. Most of these could be ordered in restaurants. Anything from radish, cauliflower, potato, lentils (moong or chana dal), paneer, sattu (roasted gram/chickpea flour), cheese, sugar, or jaggery could be used as filling.
Different regions of India have their preferences for fillings, of course. North Indians’ love for aloo (potato) paratha and Gujarat’s fascination with thepla (besan, spices, and fenugreek leaves kneaded with atta) are well known. Beloved in Bengal (and Bangladesh), Mughlai paratha is the one most loaded with calories, as it’s stuffed with keema (minced meat) or egg.
There are also the layered parathas known as lachcha paratha. After all, paratha means “parat,” or layers of atta. Kerala’s malabar parotta are similar, but silkier and flakier.
A delicacy from Maharashtra, puran poli is a sweet paratha filled with chana dal, jiggery, and a coconut mixture. Known as bobbattu, obbattu, or holige in South India, any lentil could be used as filling. It’s considered a festive dish, served during festivals and special occasions in among family. In Maharashtra, for example, puran poli is prepared during Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali.
Another sweet baked bread that is not stuffed is sheermal, of Persian origin. A part of Awadhi and Nizami cuisine, sheermal is made with liberal use of saffron, milk and ghee, and can be found in Lucknow, Hyderabad, and old Delhi.
Litti and bati
The eastern Indian state of Bihar is synonymous with litti-chokha, a very filling, wholesome dish that’s highly nutritious. It pairs litti, stuffed atta balls, with a mashed tomato-eggplant relish called chokha. The dough balls are stuffed with spiced-up sattu (roasted gram/chickpea flour), roasted over a wood fire or baked in ovens, and then doused with pure ghee. In Rajasthan, a similar wheat ball without stuffing is called bati. Traditionally baked on ambers of cow dung cakes, it has low moisture and thus a long shelf life—ideal for the nomadic tribes of yore, as well as traders and travelers. Bati is paired with spiced lentils and a sweet dessert to form the quintessential Rajasthani dish called dal-bati-churma.
Rice flour breads
Indian breads aren’t all made of wheat or millet. Many are made with chawal ke atta, or rice flour—good news for the gluten-free! In eastern India, chawal atta rotis satiate the rice-loving population. In Kerala, the Mappila community prepares very delicate, paper-thin white rotis of rice flour called pathiri, which are served with spicy meat and fish curries.
If you are in Mumbai, you can’t miss pav, soft bread rolls, in its various ubiquitous forms: vada pav, pav bhaji, and sometimes misal pav. Visit any Irani cafe and you can sip milky tea along with bun maska, a soft roll (bun) with butter (maska). The Portuguese brought the bread rolls called pao, or pav, to Goa; it originally was leavened using toddy (the alcoholic sap of a kind of palm) in the absence of yeast. Similar to pav is poi, a bread most Goan bakeries will offer that has a crusty outer layer with a soft hollow cavity. Goans love it because it is perfect for scooping up delicious chicken cafreal or vindaloo during meals.
Other leavened breads: Some other leavened breads you’ll find in India are bakarkhani, taftan, and challah, among others. The Jewish challah bread is braided before baking, and found in Kolkata and Kochi where most Baghdadi Jews once lived. Laced with saffron, bakarkhani has a biscuit-like texture. Taftan, made with yogurt and milk, has Iranian influence.
About the author: Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer from India. Her country never ceases to surprise her for its mind-boggling diversity from landscapes to culture, cuisine to heritage, among others. She is happiest in the midst of nature, and roots for responsible tourism.