The concept of stuffing breads isn't unique to the Indian subcontinent. Whether they're cheese and spinach stuffed Turkish gözlemes, or m'semen from the Maghreb — popular in their traditional breakfast, or Afghani bolani filled with some combination of potatoes, cilantro, chives, pumpkin, green peppers and red lentils, or Mexican tortillas which become quesadillas when stuffed with cheese, spices and sometimes meat, or the green onion and cheese filled Azerbaijani qutabs or masu aluvi roshi from Maldives — flatbread stuffed with potatoes and cooked fish — or the many varieties of stuffed parathas in India, layers of dough oozing with fillings are universally delicious for the tongue and filling for the stomach.
In my Methi Paratha post, flatbreads made with fenugreek leaves and spices kneaded in the dough, I explained about Indian parathas. The word paratha is derived from two Hindi words, parat (layers) and aata (flour or dough). A paratha, whether stuffed or not, is characterized by it's flaky layers, parats, which is achieved by kneading the dough with some fat like ghee and oil.
Food author and historian, K.T Achaya in his book, 'A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food' has described paratha as "Wheat dough rolled out, with frequent folding over while smearing with fat, to a square or triangular shape, and pan fried using a little fat to a layered structure. Cauliflowers, potatoes, spinach and fenugreek or methi leaves can be mixed into dough before frying."
Stuffed parathas are flatbreads where the dough is first rolled out a little bit or made into a an open pocket or pouch using one's fingers, the filling is stuffed inside and the pocket is closed, pinching off any extra dough that remains. This stuffed dough is again rolled out gently with some dustings of flour into a circular disc and roasted on a griddle with some fat like ghee or oil.
As the weather cools down and winter strides in, I prefer parathas over rotis as these are more filling and the crispy layers of flour and stuffing are sumptuous in every bite. The smell of fat mingling into a paratha getting ready on the griddle makes my winter mornings warm and happy! With a big cup of chai, some pickle or chutney or yogurt, an entire meal comes together which is hearty and nourishing!
The process for stuffed parathas
For the dough:
Mixing: Add the salt into the flour and mix with your clean hands. Next add fat. Using two types of fats ensures a crispy and flaky paratha but even if you use only one kind, it will still work. Then, add water in small doses (say for 1 cup of flour add about 1/3 cups of water intermittently till the dough comes together) and move your hands in circular motions in the bowl to mix water with the dough. Note: Sometimes, if I'm adding spices to the dough I mix them with the dough itself. For example, carom seeds. To make the dough more crispy, I sometimes add a little besan (gram flour).
Combining: Bring together the flour to combine with water and form a roughly shaped ball. There's no kneading at this point of time. The aim is to form a pulpy ball of flour and clean the bowl of any remaining flour.
Kneading: You may want to slightly wet your hands at this stage or apply some oil on your fingers to get rid of any dough sticking onto them. Now gently pat the dough and apply mild pressure on the dough with the heal of your hand (the portion where your palm ends and wrist begins), stretch it and fold it back. Continue this process until the dough is a smooth and soft ball but continues to a bit tight. It will take roughly 5 minutes. Do not overwork the dough.
Resting: Cover with a clean cloth and let it rest for about 20 minutes before you start rolling it. Letting the dough rest helps it settle the moisture. When you rest the dough, it will automatically turn slightly softer. So, avoid making a very soft dough before resting.
For the filling:
If you want vegetables like cauliflowers, radish, potatoes, carrots or beets or any kind of meat or cheese, it'll be hard to knead them with the flour. Vegetables loose a lot of water on their own and will make the dough sticky and difficult to handle. Additionally, it will be much harder to roll this dough!
However, green leafy vegetables like spinach and fenugreek leaves can be chopped fine and directly kneaded with the dough. You can also make puree of spinach leaves or boiled peas and knead that with the flour. The leaves become assimilated in the dough which is easy to roll and handle.
A formula to make the filling!
The key idea for a filling that's easy to handle while rolling the dough is to maintain similar consistencies for the filling and the dough. Ensure that the dough is soft but not watery, and the same for the filling.
For vegetables like potatoes or peas, boil them until tender so that when poked with a fork, you can pierce them but the vegetables don't fall apart. For example, in a pressure cooker, you'd want to cook them for a maximum of 2 whistles. Cool and then mash. You can also grate boiled potatoes instead of mashing. Grating also helps create an easy-to-handle texture for the filling.
For vegetables like cauliflowers, radish, carrots, bottle gourd or beets, grate them using the thicker side of the grater. Add salt to the grated vegetables and keep aside so that they loose excess water. After about 10-15 minutes, squeeze the veggies as much as you can with your hands or use a cheesecloth. (Use this water to later make dals, soups or stock!)
For paneer or any kind of hard cheese, I prefer grating.
For whole lentils like yellow moong or red masoor, boil the lentils to a consistency where they're tender and break between the tips of your fingers but still hold shape. Drain the lentils from water and keep aside ensuring excess moisture is evaporated. (Use this water to later make dals, soups or stock!) You can also roast them in a pan to make sure no water remains.
Add spices into the grated or boiled vegetables or cheese or lentils. Typically, I add grated or chopped ginger, chopped green chilies and cilantro, roasted cumin and coriander powders, red chili powder, sometimes amchur (dried mango powder) and garam masala. Mix everything well and keep in mind that any extra moisture doesn't settle into the filling.
For powdered lentils like sattu, roasted Bengal ram which is then ground coarse, add spices and a bit of oil and combine in pan.
For stuffing and rolling the dough:
You can pinch big lemon sized balls from the dough, shape it into a smooth sphere and then press it between your palms to flatten it into a medium thick disc. Now, slowly applying pressure on the sides of the disc, make it into an open pocket where you can stuff the filling and then close and pinch off extra dough.
Otherwise, you can roll the lemon sized ball into a smaller medium thick disc using a rolling pin on a smooth clean surface. Then add spoonfuls of filling to this disc and pull the sides of the disc to the center on top of the filling. Holding all the extra dough in the center in your finger tips, twist the stuffed dough ball anti-clockwise, pinching off any extra dough.
Once your dough is stuffed, put it back on the rolling surface, gently press with the tip of your fingers to flatten it and then use a rolling pin to roll into a bigger disc. While rolling, apply pressure on the sides than the center.
If you maintained similar consistencies of the filling and the dough, your filling will get evenly distributed in the dough. Also, if you have well evaporated any extra moisture in the filling, your dough will not tear apart while rolling.
A paratha cooks best on medium to high heat. Begin by heating the griddle or tawa on medium heat for 5-7 minutes. Once hot, place the rolled paratha disc on the griddle and let the side underneath get roasted. You will notice the colour of the disc changing on the top surface and air pockets beginning to form. That's the time you flip the paratha using a spatula or tongs. Now smear oil on the surface facing up and let the other side get roasted. Flip again and smear oil on the other roasted side now. Gently press the sides, toss or flip once more before removing off the heat.
A general recipe for making stuffed parathas with vegetables like boiled potatoes or grated cauliflower/radish or grated paneer.
For the dough 2 cups whole wheat flour 1 tsp salt 2 tbsp gram flour (optional) ½ tsp carom seeds 2 tbsp ghee 2 tsp oil Water as required
For the filling 2 large potatoes, boiled and grated or 2 cups cauliflower florets grated and squeezed to loose water or 1 medium sized white radish peeled, grated and squeezed to loose water or 200 gm paneer grated or 3/4 cup moong or masoor dal boiled and water drained 1 small onion chopped fine (optional) Spices: 1 inch ginger, grated or chopped fine 2-3 green chillies, finely chopped 1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped Salt to taste ½ tsp coriander powder ½ tsp cumin powder 1 tsp chilli powder 1 tsp garam masala (optional) ¼ tsp amchur powder (optional)
For roasting the parathas Ghee or oil as required
Make the dough In a large bowl, add whole wheat flour, gram flour and ghee and/or oil. Mix well and form a crumb like mixture. Add water as required and knead a soft dough. Cover with a muslin cloth and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes or till in use.
Make the stuffing Add boiled potatoes or lentils/grated cauli or radish or paneer, onion, green chilli, fresh coriander, salt, coriander powder, chilli powder, cumin powder, garam masala, and amchur powder. Mix well and keep aside. If using lentils, roast them with the spices in a pan to ensure all water has evaporated.
Fill the stuffing into the paratha Divide the prepared dough into equal portions and form small lemon sized balls. Using a a rolling pin, roll a ball into a flat disc and add about 2 tbsp of the prepared stuffing in the center. Carefully bring the edges of the disc to the center and cover the stuffing to form a pocket, pinching off the excess dough as you close it into a ball again. Roll back into a disc applying gentle pressure on the sides.
Roast the paratha Heat a griddle and add the prepared stuffed paratha. Let the side facing the griddle get roasted for about 30 seconds. You will notice the top of the paratha, the side facing up change colour. Flip and brush oil or ghee on the roasted face. You will notice brown spots on the roasted side of the paratha. Continue roasting the other side for 30 seconds and then flip and apply ghee or oil to the roasted side. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the rest of the parathas.
Serve with pickles and yogurt or cubes of butter!