Making Chapatis in Jaisalmer
(Published as a food story in The Eugene Weekly)

We woke in the chilly dawn, our train rattling past flocks of goats and an occasional camel. The previous evening we’d left Jhodpur, in the state of Rajastan, out on the northwest edge of India. Curled under coats, we’d slept while the ancient train crossed the Thar Desert.  Our goal was exploring centuries-old fort cities from the Mogul Empire.

A few hours later, in the bustling town of Jaisalmer, we settled into a little hotel high on the butte, with a view over the dry countryside.  Now it was time to explore the narrow lanes of the hilltop village that had grown up around the fort.

In the 1500s, the Maharaja permitted high caste Brahmins to build homes near his palace of carved golden sandstone. Today, the low buildings stand densely packed. A few white cows stroll up angled ways.  Children play on terraces while women sit in the sun with cups of tea and chat with neighbors across the alley. Bearers carry purchases up from the market, balanced on their traditional orange turbans, plodding up the cobbles on bare feet.

At mid-day we smell good things and notice a small sign that says Restaurant. We step into a bright courtyard with painted wood tables and
chairs. A British couple describes the food as tasty and plentiful, so we choose a place near them beneath a flowering vine. The food is indeed good.

After our excellent meal the cook appears, wrapped in a soft blue sari. She is introduced as Chandra Vyas, a small woman with white
hair who seemed friendly and generous of spirit.

We return for a late lunch the next day. Thanks to the good English of her chatty 21-year-old nephew, Hari, we convey our appreciation
for Chandra’s tasty cooking. She asks if I’d like to see her kitchen, beckoning me in to the low room that smells of cumin, nutmeg and  cardamom. Hari says she’d like me to keep her company while she works.

Chandra’s husband is tall, slim Madan Vyas. He shops for food and serves customers who wandered down stone lanes and through the
double doors, into the sunny patio. The couple serves a few dozen lunches and dinners daily and offers the Rajastan version of take-out through a small kitchen window.

Soon Hari vanishes, leaving only my few words of Hindi and lots of gestures to keep the conversation going.

Most Indian kitchens are starkly simple. Chandra sits on a low stool in front of three portable kerosene burners that stand on a swept earth floor. To one side is a cutting board where she chops vegetables in the strictly vegetarian establishment. A few blackened pots stand in a
corner. Spice jars line a shelf beneath the take-out window. Dishes are washed in big buckets.

In recent years, the south Indian custom of serving a thalli meal, a collection of sauces and toppings to put on rice or scoop up with flat  bread, has spread throughout the country. In muslim areas, one of the dishes will be a spicy mutton stew while another might contain
chicken.  Traditional Hindus eat no meat.

Mrs. Vyas agrees to let me help her put together the evening thalli. She will serve plain steamed rice with a hot lentil mash called dhal, two soft and warm chapati wheat cakes, a vegetable dish of cauliflower, potatoes and tomatoes, and another of spicy cabbage. For seven rupees more, about 50 cents, the “super thalli” includes a fragile lentil cake called babar, a fruit salad and a dessert of milky rice pudding with soft raisins.

To make the large pot of dahl, we start with dry yellow lentils and simmer them in salted water about 40 minutes, until they form a soft mush. Chandra lets me smell the curry powder, so I’ll know what she is adding so generously. In goes a bit more water, and we have a thick golden gravy.

Rice and dahl, grain plus legume, make a complete protein. This dish is the daily staple of a billion Indians, and has its healthy counterparts around the world where several billion more depend on corn and beans, rice and tofu or even bread and peanut butter.

The art of making chapatis, the tortilla of the subcontinent, is basic to any attempt to duplicate this cuisine. My teacher, seated on her low stool, starts with a big bowl of dry, whole wheat flour plus a dash of salt. She gradually adds water, mixing slowly with strong hands, to form her dough. One cup of flour makes four chapatis.

Kneading the dough well develops the gluten and a more fibrous texture. No, she doen’t explain all that in Hindi, but I know from baking bread at home, so smile and nod. She knows I know. Then she lets the dough rest a few minutes.

Next, she pulls off a bit and forms a dough ball the size of an egg. This she flattens, pats in dry flour and rolls out with a small rolling pin. The result is a thin chapati about the size of a dessert plate or large saucer.

She gestures for me to go ahead and make a few. Sheepishly, I roll a ball of dough between my hands and then work it flat with the little roller. Mine takes about four times as long as Chandra’s did, and is spiced with our laughter, but the result was not bad.

Chapatis cook on a hot dry surface such as a griddle, wok or fry pan.  In India, cooks use a curved bottom pan called a tava to brown the
chapati lightly on both sides. It then goes in a warm oven for about five minutes. A pile of chapatis is served hot, usually wrapped in a
cloth napkin, to dip up other food.

The mixed vegetable dish can be made with a variety of items in season, as we learned in other parts of the country. Chandra steams her day’s choice of cauliflower, potaotes and tomatoes with a dash of hot pepper. Twenty minutes is usually sufficient.

A vegetable combination of squash, peas and tomatoes is popular throughout India, with potatoes and cauliflower more common in the north.  Plantains, those large starchy cooking bananas, join the mix in the south. During our trip, we enjoyed combos that included coconut,
pineapple, onion, cashews, diced green apple, green pepper, eggplant or bits of dry fruit.

Chandra next shreds about a cup of cabbage per person, fries it in oil, then adds a little water and a cover. She mixes cumin, poppy seeds, a dash of tumeric and some red pepper and added these to corn oil, about a tablespoon per serving, in a small fry pan. The hot, spiced oil is added as a dressing to the cabbage, which continues to steam until it’s soft.

The spicy cabbage dish is popular all over Rajastan. We later eat lots of it when we join a camel trek across the dunes and scrub country south of Jaisalmer, our guides building a fire under a sparse tree at noon, and stirring up a delicious meal in half an hour. But that was a week later.

Indians drink a good deal of tea and at the Vyas home, Chandra’s husband Madan makes it. His special secret is fresh ginger, a richly aromatic half-inch thumb per serving, unpeeled and pounded to a pulp. At home I grate my ginger.

He starts by boiling a mix of half milk and half water, then adds the ginger and about a half teaspoon of black tea leaves per cup.  After the tea boils hard for about a minute, he dumps in plenty of sugar and strains the brew into cups. This mixture, formerly known as a decoction, came to America as Chai. But in India, Chai simply means tea.

All over India, when your train pulls into a station, you open the window and listen for shouts of “chai.chai.” The tea men walk along
the crowded platform, piled with luggage and freight, swinging huge samovar-like pots that hold smoldering charcoal in the firebox beneath.

Wave a rupee coin through the window bars and one of the vendors steps up and pours sweet, milky tea into a small unfired ceramic cup.
Travelers all down the train are waving coins and the tea men move fast. When you finish the hot drink, just drop the cup onto the tracks and it melts back into the earth, the ultimate in recycling.

Madan Vyas also makes a yogurt drink called Lassi. You’ve probably found India’s most popular dairy treat on menus close to home, but may not know how easy it is to make. With plain yogurt, he mixes enough water to form a creamy liquid, then adds sugar or honey and serves it
up in a tall glass.

Yogurt is such a simple and delightful contrivance, the ancient solution in this part of the world to both lack of refrigeration, and
lactose intolerance. Friendly bacteria in a spoonful of starter from an earlier batch will consume the lactose, sometimes-indigestible milk sugar, turning it to acid. This not only makes for a tummy-friendly protein source, but
preserves the milk for several days against spoilage by other organisms.

Fruit lassis blended with banana, berries or any soft fruit, are popular throughout India. For Special Lassi, made by Mohan Katri at his juice stand not far from the Vyas’ place, you can add a dash of whipped cream, a few drops of rosewater or Grenadine syrup and a dash of saffron. Katri topped his lassi with minced, candied fruit.

Indian food can be simple or quite time-consuming to prepare. The distinctive flavors and unexpected use of spices bring savory delights to our food routine. What I learned in Chandra’s dirt-floor kitchen has served me well for being inventive in my own kitchen.

The number one lesson she taught through demonstration was that, for authentic flavor, you need larger quantities of spices than are
specified in our recipe books — two or three times larger. As far as I’m concerned, rich spice flavors are great and hot is not a flavor, but  an interesting option. Just add a dash of cayenne pepper. Or leave it out.

Indian cooking reminds us that even mild foods can be filled with redolent aromas and distinctive taste. If you’re an experimental cook
like me, fooling around with Indian recipes will turn up some new favorites to add to your repertoire of great meals.


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