Chapati transforms from Indian flatbread to Kenyan treat in a New Jersey home kitchen

When a house smells like frying chapati, I know I’m in for a delicious Kenyan meal. When the weather cools, I look forward to joining my aunt Susan for dinner at her house in New Jersey. She moved there after immigrating from Embu in 1983, and cooks a feast of stews and vegetables to celebrate family events like the night before her kids leave for boarding school. No matter what she serves, this layered, unleavened flatbread and Kenyan staple ties the meal together.

Chapati arrived in Kenya during the colonial period when the British government imported Indian laborers to build railroads throughout East Africa. Many laborers remained and became merchants who sold their wares to Kenyans. At the time, forward-thinking Kenyans (maendeleo in Swahili) saw Indian food as part of a desirable, modern lifestyle. After decades of integration, the result is Kenyan chapati, which is larger and thicker than Indian chapati. “Indians in Kenya think it is more like Indian paratha,” says Mercy Mugo, who serves it in the hotel she manages in Embu.

“Every household has a person who is best at making chapati, the chapati person,” says Susan. She first made chapati in America after being invited to a potluck during her first semester at Virginia Tech. The first time she made it, the dough was too tough. “I had thought any flour would do,” she says. She has been making the food for more than thirty years, long enough that she doesn’t use a recipe. “It’s not a science,” she says.

When Susan showed me how to make chapati, the beginning was simple: she poured two cups of warm water into a bowl with about two cups of flour and I stirred with my hand until it formed a lumpy slurry. Susan prefers flour that yields slightly less gluten. After years of trial and error, her brand of choice is Gold Medal All-Purpose. “If the dough is too stretchy, the chapati gets really hard,” she explains.

We added more flour until I could handle the dough without it sticking to my hands, then Susan began to knead it. She folded the dough towards herself then pushed out with the heel of her hand, rotating the dough slightly counterclockwise in between each push. She stepped aside to give me a chance and told me to stop before the dough resists too much. I copied her motions until the dough became slightly harder to push, and then covered it to rest.

Our next step was the secret to my favorite thing about chapati: the tender layers that separate when I rip off a piece to sop up beef stew. Susan divided the dough into equal pieces about the size of tennis balls. One by one, I rolled the dough balls into flat circles, and then spread a thin layer of ghee with my fingers over it. Next, I rolled the dough into a cylinder, and rolled it into a longer shape, like a kid making a snake out of Play-Doh. Finally, I coiled the dough around itself and tucked the end underneath.

Susan and I formed an assembly line where she rolled the chapati into flat circles again and I fried them in an oiled skillet to create the irregular, golden brown spots that are characteristic of chapati. According to Kaluhi Adagala, a Nairobi-based food blogger, the most significant difference between Kenyan and Indian chapati is that Kenyans fry the chapati in ghee or vegetable oil before serving and Indians typically do not. Susan adds that Kenyan chapati are always layered.

Susan served the chapati with pot roast and kachumbari, a Kenyan dish of diced tomato, onion, and cilantro similar to salsa. We skipped the more traditional complementary dish, braised collard greens called sukuma wiki, a Swahili phrase which means “to push the week.” Kenyans use sukuma wiki to stretch expensive ingredients like meat, oil, and ghee.

There are many ways people think about chapati. The townspeople who live in my grandmother’s village in Kenya could not afford to cook this meal on a whim and think of chapati in terms of calories rather than taste and texture. The customers who can afford to eat at my mother’s hotel expect to see chapati on the menu and will give her feedback it doesn’t taste right. In New Jersey, our dinner felt extravagant to me, knowing that people who lived in the country of origin could not eat it as often or as easily as my family could. It’s a Kenyan staple, but not for all Kenyans.

Kenyan Chapati (layered, unleavened flatbread)

This recipe has many small steps that become intuitive with practice. Once you get used to the rhythm of making chapati, you might invite family and friends into the kitchen and form an assembly line which is the quickest (and most fun) way to make chapati.

These methods are a guideline and, if you make chapati often enough, you will refine it so that it fits you and your kitchen. You might substitute some white flour for whole wheat or make them small for a potluck or children. The recipe will still work for you. You can pair this flatbread with a hearty stew, eat it alone as a snack, or use it as a wrap.

Ingredients (yields about 12 10-inch chapati)

2 cups water (warm to the touch, like bathwater)

1 teaspoon salt

¾ cup vegetable oil

½ cup ghee (clarified butter, room temperature)

6 to 8 cups all-purpose flour

Tools

Pan, preferably a cast iron skillet

Rolling pin or dowel

Preparing the dough

1. Add 3 cups of flour, salt, and 2 tablespoons of the oil to the mixing bowl.

2. Add water and mix with spoon or hand until combined.

3. Continue to mix and add flour in ½ cup increments until dough comes together.

4. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth, consistent, and no longer sticky. Knead in additional flour, one tablespoon a time, if dough is still sticky. Stop if the dough becomes stiff and resists your kneading.

5. Cover and rest the dough for at least 30 minutes.

Forming chapati

1. Divide dough into equal sections about the size of a tennis ball.

2. Roll each ball out on a lightly floured surface less than ¼ inch thick.

3. Use fingers to spread a thin layer of ghee over the surface, then roll the dough up.

4. Press outwards (left and right) as you roll the dough back and forth to elongate and seal.

5. Coil the dough around itself and tuck the end underneath to prevent unraveling. Repeat with each section.

6. Beginning with the first section, roll each coil out into a circle shape about ⅛ inch thick. The final shape should fit in a 10-inch pan.

Cooking chapati

1. Heat the pan over medium heat for five minutes.

2. Mix ¼ cup oil and ¼ ghee in a small bowl.

3. Place chapati in the skillet and cook until brown spots appear and chapati stiffens, about two minutes on each side.

4. Once the second side is cooked, fry both sides in one teaspoon of the ghee/oil mixture. Look for large brown spots and a thin, even coating of oil. Chapati might puff up when heated in oil. Press down with a spatula to encourage browning.

5. Wipe the pan down with a paper towel between each chapati. Reuse the paper towel until it can no longer be used.

6. Keep the stack of cooked chapati wrapped in foil as you cook to keep them warm. Serve as soon as possible or reheat in a skillet or toaster oven.

Recipe Note: Chapati keep well wrapped in foil for up to 3 or 4 days.

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