Saturday, April 11, 2009

"You Say Parrotta, I Say Parantha..."

My request for sustenance was greeted with a blank stare.

"Parantha, please", I said in my most polite just-landed-must-be-extra-nice-to-everyone tourist voice. It was way back in December, and we had just arrived in Cochin, Kerala. After schlepping 12 bags of clothing, camera, and audio equipment up to our "budget" room, and seeing our tired kids and their nanny/teacher off to bed, I was hungry, so Laurel and I headed down the block to a place she knew from her previous visit: The Indian Coffee House. I could see from the tables around me that the great flatbread that I had come to know during my previous visit was available here in great abundance. I took Laurel's recommendation and ordered an "Egg Roast", along with two parantha. Or so I thought. The waiter, dressed in a rather elaborate headdress and soiled tunic, gave me my first taste of the Notorious Head Wiggle, which looked as if one or two crucial vertebrae have suddenly gone missing from his neck, causing the skull to oscillate madly on a bed of squishy cartilage, eventually returning to a point of stasis. This now familiar gesture can mean anything from "I understand you completely" to "Your daughter's pregnancy brings great joy to our village". It can also mean, as I discovered in this case, "I have no clue what you are saying". I pointed to a neighbouring table and repeated my order. "Parantha. Two please". "Parrotta!" came the sharp reply. Another brief wiggle, the meaning of which I am sure was derogatory, and he was gone, leaving me to wonder what I had done wrong.

Laurel clarified it for me. In our last trip, I had only been traveling through the North regions of India, where this flatbread is referred to as "Parantha", or "Paratha", whereas she had spent a couple of months in the South of India. In the South, after being being run through the Malayalam filter, "Parantha" has been mutated into "Parrotta". or even "Porrotta". It's kind of hard to tell exactly how it's supposed to be spelled, especially when we items like "Sweat and Scour", "Chineees food", "Chickin Manchoorian" on the local menus. Fortunately, no matter what it's called, it's pretty much the same critter. Parrotta are sort of like pizza, not only in shape, but also in the sense that even when they're not brilliantly made, they're still kind of okay. When they are brilliantly made, they are transcendant. Paired with a simple dal or curry, they make a delicious meal. Just about every culture has a staple flatbread, and this one is a high expression of the art. It's actually very similar to a Malaysian dish called Roti Chanai. We've become really addicted to them.

Like all things in India, parrotta are a study in contrasts. They are at once flaky and chewy. Flat, yet stratified. Light, yet filling. Reticent, yet tenacious. And so on... They are deceptively simple in composition. Although the recipe varies, they are basically white flour, water, a bit of salt, and some oil. Now if you were to merely combine these items and heat them, you would end up with a whitish lump about as appetizing as albino elephant dung. It's all in the technique. The dough gets kneaded really thoroughly to release the gluten in the flour. After the dough rests for a while, it gets cut up into little balls (see previous post). These little dough balls are then put on an oiled surface and flattened into about an 8 inch disk. Pretty simple so far, right?

Now comes the tricky bit. Using a technique that would make any New York pizza purveyor bow down on his knees and genuflect with a hearty "We're not worthy!", the dough is quickly flipped several times, the centrifugal force of the flip stretching the diameter of the disk by a factor of at least two. This paper thin bit of dough is then sliced into 3 equal strips. The strips are then rolled up in much the same way as a cinnamon roll, and left to rest for a while. When its time to heat them up, the cook grabs one of the rolled up dough bits, and slams it down hard onto an oiled surface. At this point, the rookies use a rolling pin to flatten them back out into about an 8 inch disk (again), but the real pros just use their hands. We've seen guys who can make several hundred of these things in a day. Every day.

The newly rolled out parrotta are then placed on a griddle until they get golden brown on each side. Upon removal from the griddle, there is one last step. The cook will stack up 4 or 5 of the freshly cooked parrotta and then sort of crush them together. This breaks the breads up a bit, and makes it easy to pull them apart in large flaky strands. When they're done right, and served fresh off the griddle, they are the perfect snack or meal. The thing is this: it's incredibly difficult to do well. Laurel is a truly great baker, and although she's come close in her few attempts, it will obviously take many more sessions before our homemade ones approach the ones made in the local food stalls. Much like a golf swing, something that looks simple can take a lifetime to perfect.

There is a good stall near the boat jetty that serves the ferry travelers between Ernakulam and Fort Cochin. It's a blue plastic tarp covering an ancient propane grill and a stainless steel work table. There are a few broken plastic chairs if you choose to sit. Not me. I'll pony up my 18 rupees and get two piping hot parrotta, served on a metal plate with two hard boiled eggs in a spicy chili/onion/tomato gravy. Standing with my fabulous wife in the shade of the tattered blue tarp and eating with my hands, using the bread to glean the last drop of gravy, I am convinced that at that moment there could be nothing better on the planet.

My request for sustenance has been granted.


fifi said...

omg! i can't believe i have not, until now, accessed your delicious banquet of tastefully executed words and images! gordon and sat and read your posts from over the past few months and drooled, chortled, laughed out loud and mutually reminisced, (mostly over the pokemon stories)...
we were drawn into your world of exotic smells and flavours, sounds and energies that got our taste buds all swollen with delight for your ambitous pursuits that you are so kind to share with us from so far across the planet.
i can not wait to read more. i am sorry it has taken us so long to access this. i don't tend to read blogs, mostly cause i am not so computer savvy, but i will be looking for yours on a regular basis. gordon is looking up cochin now to see what part of the country you are in. thank you for taking the time to post all the gorgeous photos and to take the time to turn such clever sentences... what a delight!!!... you bring to the page the sumptuous flavours that your dishes bring to your palate. cheers!! dyhan

Rob Bailey said...

Well, that certainly ranks up there as one of the nicest comments of all time! So glad that the two of you are enjoying our humble scribblings. It's fun to know that old friends are reading! Perhaps an Indian meal when we return?


~Carole said...

I just found your colorful blog. You are such a talented writer and I've thoroughly enjoyed reading! Your photos are incredible.

In my opinion, some people write too much on their blogs. Your writing makes me hunger for more.

Off to fix a spot of hot tea and read more here. Cheers!

MamaBoK said...

And here i am moving from Asia to Canada. What a twist eh. ;)

Yvonne said...

What an interesting blog. Thank you so much for sharing with the rest of us how you are eating and living abroad.

I loved the post and pictures of paratha making. I've always wanted to know the process. Please, keep the ideas coming!

Happy living and eating abroad!

Editor, My Halal Kitchen

neelima said...

Hi, wonderful narration. It makes me live that moment.

Looking forward for more :)

your blog leaves me hungry for my home food:))

Pushcake studio said...

Hi Rob and Laurel,
I was thinking of you today and have been intermittently following your blog and just had to write to say hi. Actually the photo of the rising parathas made me drool with envy and I want you to teach me how to make this delicious little bundles. It seems that the months since you've gone have flown by and soon you will be home. Your writings and travel have so inspired me and I am looking forward to cooking, chatting, eating and catching up with you. Big hugs!

Anonymous said...

Great to hear from you Charmaine, glad you could join us! We love paratha but I'm definitely going to have to work on the recipe when we get home. The poor boys are going to have to eat all those not-quite-right ones!

Anonymous said...

I just cant get enough of your post! You really should write a book, you are so good with this! - Alisa@Foodista

Anonymous said...

i really love your posts!