Puris: India's Festive Breads
OF INDIA'S FLATBREADS, deep-fried puris are the most festive. You'll find them on the menu at most celebrations from weddings to festivals to the Sunday feasts at ISKCON temples. Prepared in temple kitchens for millennia, even today puris are distributed in the thousands as maha-prasadam to temple visitors.
Along with being India's most elegant and dramatic flatbread, puris are the quickest and easiest to make. You simply roll a ball of enriched-wheat dough into a medium-thin round and slip it into hot oil. It cooks within a minute and balloons into a crisp, golden thin-shelled orb. A puri is best served at once when it's still filled with hot steam because it holds its shape for only one or two minutes. Of course, warm deflated puris are still delicious. At room temperature they are called basi puris, and they're popular in everything from lunch boxes to traveling meals.
Of the many ethnic breads I've studied, the most memorable are those that remain simple, with strong ties to their ancient past. Unleavened puris declare their character through the quality and purity of only three elements flour, water, and ghee (clarified butter).
Puri's Basic Ingredients
Soft, freshly milled wheat flour is preferred, both for its flavor and for its elasticity. In many Indian kitchens, wheat is ground daily, the flour considered stale after sitting around even three days. Although I sporadically possess a grain mill, at present I don't and use the next best thing: organic whole-wheat pastry flour, available at natural-food stores. A final option might be a mixture of unbleached white flour and whole-wheat flour. Grains and flours free from chemicals and pesticides are wholesome and nutritious and when stored in the freezer retain much of their goodness.
Good water is important in bread-making. In India people collect fresh water daily, usually from wells, and store it in jugs of clay or copper. They often label their water sweet or salty, the former redolent of spring water, the latter bearing traces of salt or mineral deposits. Indian city dwellers who use municipal water boil it and use it after it has cooled. In the West I recommend mountain spring water.
Just as a true French croissant requires butter and Italian foccacia requires extra-virgin olive oil, classic puris require clarified butter, called ghee. Butter roughly eighty percent butterfat, eighteen percent water, and two percent protein solids cannot be heated to the temperatures needed for deep-frying. When butter is clarified, its water is driven off and the protein solids divided from the pure butterfat. The subtle, refined flavor of clarified butter, often described as nutty and sweet, comes largely from a delicate caramelization of lactose sugars in the butter.
Ghee is easy to make. You'll find two methods in the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine. There you'll also find instructions for making flavor-infused ghee such as aromatic ginger ghee, spice-seed ghee, and peppercorn ghee. My current favoriteghee infusion is made with cloves, a peppercorn blend, and fresh sweet-neem leaves. In America, both ghee and organic butter are available in larger natural-food stores. If you want to sample puris without butterfat, try them fried in cold-pressed corn oil or one of the many flavor-infused oils mentioned in my book Yamuna's Table.
Shaping and Frying Puris
Although it takes a little practice to master rolling round, even puris, your first attempts will still taste delicious. For newcomers, I recommend rolling all the breads out beforehand and keeping them covered on cookie sheets. This will let you fry them quickly and serve them hot off the flame.
What most sets the flavor in plain puris is the frying medium. In India, many temple chefs and home cooks won't use the same ghee twice to fry puris; they cook each batch in a small amount of ghee and then throw that ghee out. An educated palate can easily detect puris fried in used ghee or oil. It's easy to see why ghee is sometimes called "liquid gold." It's a pricy frying medium, but there's nothing quite like it.
You can save ghee by using the right size pan. For the recipe below, use 2 ½ cups of ghee in a 1- or 2-quart saucepan or a 9-inch bowl-shaped Indian karai. The rule of thumb is to use at least 1 ½ inches of oil for small batches of puris, and about 2 ½ inches for larger pans and quantity cooking.
A Few More Notes
If you make puris only once or twice a year, this simple recipe should suffice. But if you're following this series of cooking classes, try several selections from the class textbook, experimenting with different flours, types of water, dairy products, and flavor-infused ghee or oil.
Srila Prabhupada had a great fondness for puris and once noted that until he was in his twenties he preferred them over capatis. I never tired of preparing new varieties for him, ferreting out the best ingredients available as he traveled here and there. Occasionally he requested them for special lunches, a late-evening meal, or breakfast in cold weather.
Puris go well with almost any stew, vegetable dish, or legume dish, and with many regional cuisines. For a simple North Indian village-style feast, serve puris with kicchari and yogurt. For a special lunch or dinner, serve them with one or two vegetables and a salad. For an afternoon snack, try them with sliced mangoes and chilled sweet-rice pudding.
2 cups sieved whole-wheat pastry flour. Or 1 cup whole-wheat flour mixed with 1 cup unbleached white flour or cake flour
2 ½ tablespoons melted ghee or corn oil
2/3 cup warm water, or as needed
ghee or cold-pressed corn oil for deep-frying
Place the flour in a large bowl. If you're using more than one type of flour, mix them together thoroughly. Drizzle the flour with ghee or oil and blend it in well with your fingertips. Add ½ cup of water and work the dough into a rough mass. In dribbles, add more water as needed, until you make a medium-consistency dough. Clean your hands thoroughly and coat them with oil. Knead the dough for about 8 minutes, until it's smooth and pliable. Coat the dough with a film of oil, cover it, and let it rest for 30 minutes. (You can make the dough a day ahead of time and chill it. Bring it to room temperature before continuing.)
Divide the dough into 16 smooth patties. Cover them with plastic to prevent drying. Take one ball of dough, keeping the others covered, and flatten it into a patty ½ inch thick. Dip a corner of the patty into melted ghee or oil and roll it out into a 5-inch round, using firm but even pressure. Place it on a cookie sheet. Roll all the puris in this way. Cover them loosely. Do not let rounds touch one another.
To cook the puris, heat at least 1 ½ inches of ghee or oil over moderately high heat (365 degrees F). Add one dough round. When it rises to the surface, tap it gently with the back of a slotted spoon for about one minute, until it's puffed and beginning to turn golden. Turn the puri and cook it on the other side for about a half a minute, until it's near golden brown. Transfer it to a tray lined with paper towels. Continue with the other dough rounds. Offer the puris to Krsna hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Yamuna Devi is the author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table and is a regular contributor to The Washington Post.