Many of my memories--my Indian memories--are tied to food. From making chapatis with star and heart-shaped cookie cutters to tossing lentils and masala in a pot for Mir, I’ve tried almost everything once. But there’s still one thing I can’t do: roll a perfectly round chapati. I
n the grand scheme of things, a round chapati is no big deal. Shape doesn’t affect taste, or how well the bread tears and soaks up gravy. In theory, a chapati’s roundness is purely an aesthetic thing. In practice, it’s a measure of skill, dedication, and Indianness.
Although I didn’t have the stock-standard Indian upbringing, I did a lot of Indian things--I ate chillies, devoured pickles, and scooped rice and dal with the best of them. On weekends, I bugged my dad to help me with my Hindi; on family trips I borrowed glittery clothes and pretended to eat overly sweet seviyan. Yet for all my efforts, my aunts--all dab hands with board, flour, and dough--would never let me roll. I could man the plate, stir the pot, and set the table. The rolling board was off limits.
My aunts were always nice about it, of course (they still are). “No, no, sweetheart, do this, it’s more fun,” or “why don’t you watch television with your brother?” Only my mother--my Scottish mother, who didn’t learn to make chapatis until her twenties--let me roll my own. Like me, mum can’t roll round bread. Or rather, she can, but only by spending five minutes per piece.
Perfect chapati tips are a dime a dozen on the internet: check the amount of butter, use quarter turns, flip regularly, roll on a smooth tile surface rather than a board. Some sites say cool dough is easier to work with (I use boiling water to decrease kneading time); others say to knead for half an hour or more, by hand rather than Kitchen Aid. Despite all the tips, chapatis remain my bete noir.
Yes, I know practice makes perfect. Yes, I know I should make chapatis more. But beyond the basics of pasta, sandwiches, and eggs, I rarely cook because I’m overworked, underslept, and exhausted most of the time. Deadlines loom; interviews wait to be transcribed, written up. And yet, every time Mir goes at his playdough, I find myself grabbing a rolling pin and practicing. So far, I’ve rolled several hexagons, a star, and cut a dozen crescent moons. Tomorrow, for Valentine’s Day, we’ll make red chapati hearts for lunch. Sure, I’ll try to roll one or two the round way--the right way--because I like to be good at things. But the more I bake playdough pies and cookies, the less I worry about how my chapatis look.
I wish I could say I care less about my chapati chops because I’m secure in my Indian heritage, but it’s far simpler than that. Where I used to be worrying about my family, about what they think of my cooking or my Hindi, I find I’m now mostly worried about how much fun I’m having in the kitchen, or curled up on the floor with a picture book. Chapati dough is becoming more and more like playdough again--fun. And if most of my chapatis are stars and crescent moons? Well, I’m okay with that.