Decoding parathas

Understanding the reasons why our grandparents and parents considered parathas a satiating and wholesome meal.

There is something infinitely alluring about parathas. They are delicious, versatile and have this brilliant, often inexplicable, ability to adapt to new trends and adopt influences. Which is probably the reason why this predominantly North India-born innovation has had such success conquering palates (and dining space) not only in the wheat growing states of India—according to Nijjar’s book Panjāb under the Sultāns (1000-1526 A.D.), parathas were commonly consumed by the nobility and aristocracy not just in erstwhile Punjab, but elsewhere in the country too.

Tandoor paratha
One of the common ways of enriching parathas is to use fresh produce, lentils, and even leftovers as filling.

What is about this flatbread that makes it so unique and appealing? The immediate answer to this is the flavour composition, says Chef Vineet Manocha (SVP-Culinary, Lite Bite Foods). “Even the basic paratha dough is not just made of whole wheat flour and water. It gets fortified with salt and ajwain (carom seeds) and then, is finished with ghee. The paratha making process doesn’t just break down the sugar and complex carbohydrates into energy but also, the use of spices ensures that it takes care of the digestive system by giving it a boost.”

And given that parathas are usually paired with chutney, sabzi or even dahi, adds Chef Manocha, “It results in a balanced meal that is satiating, palate- and health-wise.”

Concurs Chef Harangad Singh (Chefpreneur, Parat), whose exploration of the traditional world of paratha-making has helped him understand the “curative” nature of these flatbreads. “One of the most fascinating aspects of parathas,” says Chef Singh, “is their rustic composition. Parathas were never meant to be the soft, melt-in-the-mouth fare that we see today. These thick, textured breads were meant to be had on their own or with pickles and still satiate one like a proper meal. In fact, back in the day, when making the dough for parathas, the considerations were not just the seasonal vegetable available but the necessity it would serve.”

Culinary researcher and seasoned chef, Balpreet Singh Chadha, says, “Every step of paratha making, which were initially made in tandoors, was treated to gain the maximum health mileage. This included the treatment of the dough, which was cooled by keeping it covered in a thin layer of water. Aside from keeping the dough from spoiling, it also made it lighter on the palate. This process enhanced the elasticity of the paratha dough and eventually helped create other beloved formats, such as parathas with fillings of aloo, mooli and gobhi.”

Fascinatingly, adds Chef Singh, “It was parathas’ interesting composition that worked in favour of the flatbread, which was soon seen as a dish that could be had by itself, thanks to the layer of clarified butter that was smeared on top. This kept the paratha moist and made it easier to chew than the thick rotis of the time.”

Palak paratha
Curd is a popular accompaniment, along with various chutneys. These not only up the nutritional value of the meal but also aid the digestive process.

This encouraged further fortification of the paratha dough, which, in time, became the canvas for many experiments. These experiments ranged from using fillings of fresh produce, be it leafy greens (bathua, methi) or gourds, especially bottle, roots such as carrot and radish, to even taking on different flours. The addition of makai and jowar atta, along with spices and flavourants such as onions, chillies, bhaang and poppy seeds, according to Chef Singh, is a standard practice in Punjab. Lentils (dal ka paratha) were also used as filling. Eventually, parathas even became a vehicle of repurposing leftover food.

Says nutritional therapist Shveta Bhasin, “This array of experiments with the dough and the filling didn’t just turn the flatbread into this amazingly versatile meal that could be had on its own or with pickles, chutney or dahi (all great forms of probiotics), but also cranked up its nutritive quotient. Think about it, a basic ajwain and salt-seasoned whole wheat flour paratha dough already has dietary fibre, vitamins B1 and B9, and minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Now, add buckwheat to it and you up the protein value. The roughage ensures that the dough retains a lot of water, is still made reasonably thick and needs chewing, which in turn revs up digestive juices and boosts the digestive process. And given that parathas are mostly made in tandoors or on a griddle before being basted with clarified butter, it is high on linoleic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which together help brain function, aside from aiding the digestive process by creating a feel-good palate feel.”

“The outcome,” continues Bhasin, “is this sense of satiation and fullness that often comes from having a heavy full meal. That is just one part of the paratha story. How the flatbread is fortified also impacts the process of digestion. So, if the dough has sattu added to it, along with a filling of mixed vegetables, the body would first extract its fuel from the sugar and carbohydrates in the wheat flour and vegetables, whose nutritive components are broken down during the paratha-making process. After that, it would reach for the protein part, thus allowing for a constant supply of energy. A facet that we often define as feeling full and satiated.”

“This multi-level extraction explains why parathas, even today, are considered to be a better meal-on-the-go option than perhaps a full thali by our parents (and their parents), who knew the art of layering not just for taste but wellness too,” says Chef Manocha, who, like Chef Singh, has not only introduced his own special flour mix but also resorted to the traditional method of making parathas in the tandoor and then basting them with ghee and serving them with a chutney, pickle or fresh dahi.

Parathas, the amazing Indian flatbread, remain among the finest examples of how healthy food can be layered for taste and the waist too.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat, and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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