Parathas is a separate genre by itself in the subcontinent — from the layered Lachha up north to the Malayali Parota down south, soft Tawa Parathas or Bengali Tikona Porota, whether enveloping rolls or served with Tunday, every desi loves some shallow-fried bread.
It was a cold, winter morning in Munnar. I was in school then, eleventh grade, and for many like me, that school trip was the introduction to Kerala. Although, when I look back, I guiltily realise how sanitised the experience was. I went back to Kerala a bunch of times after that, to explore the state, because I had become obsessed with the natural beauty of the hills and the backwaters, but most importantly, to understand and appreciate the cuisine. But, that school trip, years back, introduced me to one of the loves of my life — the Parota.
Bengalis are obsessed with Luchi. Luchi is an emotion. It is an example of how simple cooking, when done correctly, can be delicious, joyous, and satisfying. For many, the Luchi means weekend specials, or is laced with memories of warmth and family functions, or can just be about stories of sneaking into the kitchen and stealing a hot one when no one’s watching. The Luchi is familiar, easy, and low maintenance.
The Porota, on the other hand, is a big deal. Even for the north, the Lachha is special. The Paratha, other than the Punjabi-stuffed varieties, has always been the occasion bread for the subcontinent. The Paratha isn’t something you eat regularly at home. Unlike the Bengali Luchi, or the Poori everywhere else, it isn’t a quick snack, or a breakfast item, and neither can it be served with a simple potato gruel or a bowlful of chana. The Paratha will always demand attention. The Lachha, a Mughlai addition, pairs wonderfully with Punjabi, Lucknawi, and Mughlai gravies and curries. The soft flakiness of the bread, the light and airy texture, the chewiness from working the gluten, the satisfying fat, make it a great accompaniment to soak in the complex gravies and meats of the north. Today, and for a few decades, the Lachha has travelled the country, and found favour in menus everywhere. Even abroad, along with the “Naan bread”, the Lachha Paratha appears in Indian and I-Really-Want-To-Be-Indian restaurants. Bangladesh has a grander version of the Lachha, called the Dhakai Porota, but crispier, bigger, and is originally supposed to have had at least a hundred layers. Today, the Dhakai Porota barely exists, and often, the Lachha is passed off as Dhakai in various “authentic” Bengali restaurants. The Tawa Paratha is a confused nationwide concoction that no one truly knows how to make anymore. Various renditions — from wheat Lachha to oily, thick, fried Parathas — are called Tawa Paratha around the country. Ideally, it is supposed to be a dry fried and crispier version of the Phulka, a tad thicker, fried on a hot skillet with ghee. Not how most of us recognise it. The Ulte Tawe ka Paratha, a Lucknawi addition to the family, is a big, thin, soft disc, that is originally fried on the backside of a wok. It isn’t necessarily flaky, can be crispy, but is also soft, and pairs wonderfully with Galouti Kebabs and qormas. Tunday has obviously made it extremely famous by serving it along with their kebabs.
The Bengali Porota has two varieties — the round thick one that is used for rolls, and the layered, soft, and triangular one that is served with food. A lot of people believe that rolls use Lachha Parathas, but that is incorrect. The Porota used for rolls is thick but soft, greasy but flaky (the flakier it is, the happier we are), heavy for the gut but light on the bite. It is the perfect envelope for the spicy chicken or meat tikka, fried egg, sauces, onions, and chillies that go into a roll. The fat in the Porota cuts through the spicy heat, the flaky-sweet character adds a much-needed contrast of texture. The stretch also has to be perfect for a bite — just enough pull and chewiness to ensure that every bite has all the components of the roll. But more on the roll another day. The Tikona Porota, called so because of the triangular shape, is made from refined flour, folded a couple of times to get the shape and the layers, and is fried on a tawa. Mostly had at home, these are supple, easy-to-tear breads that go with everything from fried brinjals to mutton curries.
Which brings me back to the Kerala — or Malabar, as often marketed — Parota. The Parota is, for starters, much softer and lighter than a Lachha, its closest cousin. It is delicate, and a good Parota will start falling apart, the layers unravelling, from the first tear. It is flaky, but is never greasy to touch. It has to be delightfully crispy outside, but soft like butter inside. The Parota is supposed to be so delicious that you might not even need anything with it. But, I’d suggest a good Beef (or mutton) Ularthiyathu. The traditional dry beef chilli, and coconut stir fry, the Ularthiyathu is Parota’s perfect companion. I have had the Parota with a lot — and I have eaten a lot of Parotas till now, and plan to continue doing so — with other gravies and stir fries, but nothing marries as well as the Ularthiyathu.
It was, like I mentioned, quite a cold, winter morning in Munnar. A bunch of us had slipped out of our hotel before breakfast. We were in our eleventh grade then, and thought we were old enough to do this. Rubbing our gloved hands together and puffing into them, we walked a distance to a small eatery we had spotted a day back. We open the place early, they had said. We walked through lingering hints of the previous night’s fog, the sun hidden behind dark clouds. There was a dankness we were not able to shake off. We reached the eatery, and walked in. It was small, benches-instead-of-chairs kind. Steel glasses face down on every table, with a common plastic jug kind. Menu-written-on-a-slate-board-with-chalk kind. The menu hadn’t been written yet. We asked if they had beef and “paratha”. We had done our research before landing up.
Parota, the man said. Puh-row-ta, we repeated.
How many, he asked in Malayalam. We raised four fingers.
The Beef Chilli Fry truly knocked the winter out of our skins. I could sing a hymn, but I will never forget the wonder that it was, and how I shovelled morsel after morsel through tears, a runny nose, and a burning mouth. It’s the kind of tasty heat worth suffering for. But, more importantly, the Parota was out of this world. I still remember pulling it apart, savouring the flakes, the crispy rims of the layers, wiping up the dry masala and fried coconut with chunks of the bread. I remember the lightness, but also the outrageous satisfaction. It was like falling in love.
The man had made three more rounds. We had raised four fingers on all of those instances.