Yamuna Mataji

Yamuna Mataji

The First Bite of a hot capati is memorable. Mine was in September 1966, at my first lunch cooked and served by Srila Prabhupada. Once the vegetable, rice, and dal portion of the meal was served, he proceeded to pass out a tall stack of just-off-the-flame capatis. Thin and flexible, the char-flecked wheat breads glistened with a film of sweet butter. The devotees showed me how to tear off bits of capati and scoop up morsels of the accompanying dishes. The tastes were sensational, and the bread was one of the best I had ever eaten. My memory is not unique. I know few people who don't become lifetime capati aficionados with their first bite.

Classic Indian breads roughly fall into three categories: griddle-baked, griddle-fried, and deep-fried. Handsdown, the preferred daily bread is griddle-baked, known as capatisphulkas, or rotis, depending on their thickness or size. Whole-wheat capatisare the most popular. They're fairly thin and five-to-seven inches across.

In India today, capatis remain close to their ancient origins. A capati pantry relies on few ingredients: wholewheat flour, an assortment of other flours or grains, water or yogurt, and optional butter or ghee. The equipment: a rolling pin and a griddle. With these simple elements, you can make capatis with a vast range of flavors and textures. Once you conquer the techniques for rolling and cooking, there are no right or wrong capatis, only breads that reflect your sense of taste.

Each time I teach a capati class, I sense both the eagerness and the trepidation of the students. Even experienced yeast bakers are sometimes threatened by flat breads, and more than a few are frustrated with the stiff capati discs gleaned from some cookbooks. I assure students that no matter what the size, shape, or thickness of their first attempts, the capatis will be mouthwatering.

To introduce students to some of the subtlety of the art of classic capati cookery, I often relate the following pastime of Srila Prabhupada.

In India, a cook's skill is often judged by the preparation of flat breads. My first apprenticeship capati test was in the fall of 1972, while residing in Vrndavana, just above Srila Prabhupada's rooms in the Radha-Damodara Temple.

Before Prabhupada's arrival, I had prepared for the test, asking locals about the nuances of preparing a classic Vrndavana capati called Vraj Phulka. I obtained a preferred strain of wheat known as Pisi Lahore soft, plump wheat with an amber-gold hue. Ground at the local flour mill, it was fine and light, nearly bran-free, and ready for use within the next twenty-four hours.

I learned that to make the Vraj Phulka I would have to roll the dough evenly into a paper-thin disc ten-to-twelve inches across. I would cook it on a griddle till nearly done and then rest it directly on wood embers to puff up into a balloon when done.

I bought a portable cooking stove and covered it with several coats of fresh Yamuna River mud. For fuel I used Vrndavana's favorite fire source for flatbreads margosa wood (neem) with a touch of dried cow chips. Like apple and alder, dyingmargosa embers give off an aromatic smoke treasured in bread baking. When a nearly cooked capati is set on the embers to balloon, its surface is licked with fragrant smoke.

The test location was in Srila Prabhupada's newly refurbished kitchen. We'd tried to preserve the existing design of the room, divided by a row of bricks into a cooking area and an eating area. Two coats of white paint brightened the ceiling and walls. All preparation and cooking took place on the immaculate pinkish-grey sandstone floor.

When Srila Prabhupada entered his kitchen, its sparseness was filled with his presence, and he smiled in appreciation. He commented on everything from the clay water jugs to the newly stenciled maha-mantra that circled the room near the ceiling. Before taking his seat on the floor, he gazed out the window toward the samadhi tomb of Rupa Gosvami and folded his hands in respect.

Within moments I served him the meal and a hot capati. With the first bite of the capati, he noted, "You have everything right. It is Pisi Lahore, milled yesterday, and the neem gives it special distinction. One thing, cook it for one or two seconds more on the griddle, then it will be perfect."

I was stunned by his perceptive critique. (This was the first in a series of critiques of my cooking, and he always amazed me by his knowledge of the subject). For me, few tasks have been more satisfying than cooking these capatis and having Srila Prabhupada relish them.

No matter what your degree of involvement with capatis, it will be satisfying. I recommend that you become familiar with both hands-on and food-processor doughs. I'm not including capati recipes in this short column; there is too much important information to impart. If you are following the cooking class, read and study the section on griddle-baked breads from the textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, and experiment with two or three recipes. If you decide to make a quantity, you can wrap and freeze them, and when you need them, thaw and flame-toast.

The recipe below is a formula for delicious sandwiches, and the possibilities are endless. For more traditional fare, try kicchari or dry-textured vegetable capati roll-ups with a fresh chutney as a side accent. Get creative with your favorite ingredients.

Capati Roll-Up Sandwiches

(Makes 6)

¾ cup creamed avocado, seasoned chickpea puree, or herbed yogurt cheese
½ cup diced sun-dried tomatoes, diced roasted bell peppers, diced fresh tomatoes, or diced cucumber
2-3 cups sprouts, shredded spinach, or romaine or leaf lettuce
2-3 cups finely shredded carrots or red or Chinese cabbage
½ cup tomato chutney or salsa

Rest a capati on a cookie rack and hold the rack over a burner on high heat. Warm 10 to 15 seconds on each side, until the capati puffs slightly or balloons, with char-flecks dotting the surface. (Do not let it harden or burn). Set it aside in a warm towel. Warm the rest of the capatis the same way.
Lay the capatis on a work surface. Spread each one with chickpea puree, avocado, or cheese. Just below center of each capati, lay rows of your selected items end to end across the capati.
Dot with chutney or salsa. Tuck the end of the capati over the fillings and roll it up tightly into a jelly roll. Serve or wrap tightly in plastic.

Yamuna Devi is the author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and is a regular contributor to The Washington Post.