Food For Thought

Writing’f Roti…

Have you tasted a roti?

I’ve always seen rotis / chapatis—flat, round, whole-wheat Indian breads—rolled by a rolling pin, flipped on a flat iron skillet and made entirely by hand. The staple diet for many Indians (from the north), the art of making the perfect roti lies in the hands of the be-holder. Cook-book author Nandita Godbole, hosts an array of recipes in her book ‘Roti’ and demonstrates the art of Indian cooking at its best.

Here’s another blogpost on Rush for Roti and Nandita’s fabulous cook books, and another blogpost on samosas and storytelling.

The quality of whole-wheat flour, the texture of the dough, the thickness of each roti and whether it puffs (when pressed down or tossed on a naked flame) affect the wholesome dining experience.

The same goes for storytelling. From characters, goals, motivation and conflict, to world building, the lay of the (story) land, narrative, pacing and more…much more… the success of a story lies on the emotional experience you deliver. Each story must be fresh, hot off the griddle and taste right at the first bite.

A Roti cooking on a ‘tava’, griddle, on a fiery chulha

I’ve seen rotis made the old-fashioned way (about 35 years ago) at my grandma, Nani’s, place in Bareilley, India. Nani cooked on a chuhla—a U-shaped stove made from clay and fired by wood or coal. The process to kick-start the chuhla alone took 45 minutes and left Nani (the chef) her assistants, two daughters-in-law, and a servant or two covered in soot and sweat in a smoking kitchen. The laborious cooking of 2 curries and a daal took another 3-4 hours. Turning up the heat was not a simple turn of the knob.

chulha, roti, rotimatic, history, indian cooking, desi khana, food
Definitely not my Nani… but you get the idea of firing a chulha!

You had to add more wood or coal to the fire, blow in air or as my grandma did, use a straw fan and manually fan the air into the cavity that held the coal or wood. More  soot and sweat to the mix!

That was all the commotion that went into cooking one meal. Dinner preparation took about the same length of time all over again.

Remember the good ol’ typewriter? I remember striking the keys on a manual one that weighed a ton and required strength and accuracy to get the words right. Before the time of whiteners, you either xxxxx , over your mistake or started over on a fresh sheet. Then along came the electric typewriter and not only could your fingers fly on that thing, the carriage automatically did so too! Liquid whiteners helped blot out errors and powder-coated strips didn’t even need time to dry. The process got faster!

Roti-making got a big boost with the gas stove. No more firing up the coal. No more meddling with burnt logs of wood. You simply turned a knob, pushed on a spark button and a fiery blue flame circled the burner. Need a heat adjustment? Turn the knob and voila you are good to go! The dough-making process by hand remained constant for a while but then a Kitchen Aid mixer arrived and took care of all the kneading! So what’s left? Rolling knobs of dough into flat circles, cooking them on the griddle, tossing them directly on a flame and spooning a little ghee (clarified butter) on the roti.

Softwares to make writing-the-story process simpler and faster popped up. The typewriter vanished and here we are on desktops and laptops. We don’t have to worry about typing errors or starting over. Pulling up research is now all on the tip of your touch (or mouse) thanks to search engines. You can pull up a fresh document with a mouse-click. Delete. Copy-paste. Divide screen and erase—in seconds.

Now imagine my surprise when Rotimatic came up with an invention—an automatic roti maker. All you have to do is fill in whole-wheat or multi-grain flour of your choice in one container, fill another with water and a third with oil. Program the thickness, level of roast of your roti, and the total count and watch the roti maker go…Go…GO! Never thought I would live to see the day a machine would spin out rotis—one a minute to be precise—with the touch of a few buttons.

Foods and cuisines have their own story just like people. They have a history. But does ‘technology’ or ‘digitization’ sum up a life changing experience of this caliber?

My Nani is over 80 and can operate her cell phone. She loves the device and how it connects her to family members in seconds—via Whatsapp, Facetime or a simple phone call. But what would Nani think if she saw a machine that took 6 minutes to warm up, broke into parts that were dishwasher proof, connected to the Rotimatic company via wifi and independently upgraded with every change in software? Would Nani like it? Or would she fuss about the taste, texture and criticize the perfect roundness?

Would Nani Rush For a Roti from a Rotimatic… Would you?

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