The Chapati Chronicles

first_imgWe took them for granted and now we’ve lost them.Fess up – you miss them too!  The glorious chapatis that always appeared on your plate, warm, fluffy and just as crisp as you liked them. Unseen hands would knead the dough, let it rest; roll out the little balls and then allow them to sit on the hot tawa, getting freckled golden brown, puffing up in their own heat. Magical discs, golden balloons, just the right texture, the right size to enfold and embrace vegetables and keema, and to polish off the last dregs of curry from the plate. In India, a hot chapati was your God given right!Even a humble pavement dweller in crowded Bombay could look forward to this small joy. Setting up a makeshift stove in a secluded corner, without even a rolling pin or board, the women squat on the ground, nonchalantly slapping the dough from hand to hand until a perfect disc evolves. It rises like a full moon on the open fire. Even if there is no vegetable, a hot chapati, eaten with a killer green chili or a piece of onion, is pleasure enough.In the United States, new Indian immigrants, like wide-eyed kids in a candy store, were first enamored of the wonderful, very, very white Wonder bread. But soon they hankered for their own earthy, flavorful chapatis. Only, who was to make them? There were no cooks or helpful mothers-in-law or even Chotu, the kitchen boy, to roll out the chapatis. The horrific truth finally dawned: they were on their own in this chapati-less land.Even women who had been full-time housewives in India hardly had the time to knead and roll in this new life of 9 to 5 workdays and being all things to all people. Often Middle Eastern pitas or Greek breads had to substitute. Then came the Indian grocery revolution where ready-made chapatis began appearing on the shelves. Salvation was at last at hand. The world, however, is divided into two groups of people: those who must have their homemade chapatis and those who will make do with impostors, having long abandoned those feverish attempts that turned into lop-sided maps of India. Now we have the chapati chefs – a ragtag army of rollers and slappers who can put those warm, tantalizing breads on your table once again.Every neighborhood with a dense Indian population seems to have women who will come to your home and cook, or prepare the foods you need at their own home. Queens, New York, is especially a paradise for getting home-cooked food since so many new immigrants are proficient at cooking and are looking for a side income. Word of mouth tells of Indian cleaning ladies who will whip up rotis or dhokla for you on weekends. There are others who only do the cooking in your home, typically at $10 per hour. Across Long Island and New Jersey, Indian women will cook the food you don’t have time for at a going rate of $13-15.Usha Rastogi of Forest Hills, N.Y., is one housewife who relies upon this help for her chapatis. When she was younger, she says, she made the chapatis, but now prefers to do the cooking and outsource the cumbersome job of roti-making to the Chapati Brigade. Phone a day ahead with your order. Next day you pick up your homemade chapatis and still have your immaculate kitchen. Rastogi orders them from Karuna Patel, a Gujarati woman, who, she says, makes the thinnest, softest rotis imaginable. Rastogi even sends them all the way to Charleston, N.C., to her son and his family.Karuna Patel is something of a roti whiz and has been rolling chapatis for the neighborhood for some time. Her reputation has spread by word of mouth and she does not deliver. She will visit homes in Manhattan to cook authentic Gujarati vegetarian food. Her stack of rotis cost $25 for a hundred, each the size of a snack plate. Her chapatis are made without oil, so a hundred is manageable volume, really!Many of the women in the cooking business lack language or educational background to find work in the mainstream and turn to their culinary skills to supplement the family income. The demand for ethnic food, both from Indians as well as the mainstream, ensures a steady market for their work.About a decade ago, the local grapevine related the tale of a woman in Jackson Heights who made great cocktail samosas. This was before Indian grocery stores were carrying them, and so just by word of mouth, many hungry souls would stop at her home to pick up the treats. A real entrepreneur, she kept two refrigerators packed with packets of samosas. Often she would be at the kitchen table, late in the evening, conjuring up the bite sized samosas. Then her samosas began appearing in grocery stores and the home business evaporated. New York has two amazing success stories built a roti at a time. Both businesses are in Queens, where women have taken fate into their own hands by turning their kitchen into a thriving business. The earliest enterprise was Delicious Foods, started by Satvinder Chahal, an immigrant woman, from her kitchen in 1993. A housewife, she cooked chapatis at home and sold them to Indian grocery stores in plain wrappers. Her daughter Parminder Chahal recalls: “The stores had never had chapatis and we started on a small scale. In those days there was a store called Royal Groceries in Jackson Heights. When we delivered them to the store that first day, we had not even reached back home, when we had a call on our pager: the chapatis were sold out and they needed more!”They established Delicious Foods in 1997 with an army of roti-literate women. Chahal purchased a dough-making machine in 2001, but the chapatis, parathas and other foods are still all made by hand. The manufacturing facilities are open 24 hours a day. Says Chahal: “We are the oldest one and have a very busy schedule. Each day of the week is devoted to a different region and deliveries are made to different areas.”Delicious Food is a non-descript place tucked away on 108th Street in Flushing, Queens, in New York that churns out on an average 15,000 rotis every day. The store sells wholesale to retailers as far as Boston and Baltimore, but also wholesale quantities to individuals. Plans for a retail outlet are on the drawing board, perhaps six months down the road.“Hand-made rotis remain soft and fresh for a longer time than those prepared by machines.”The store celebrates womanpower. Parminder Chahal, who lost her mother, now runs the store with her factory manager, Saira Rahman Kalyal, a soft-spoken woman in her mid-40s and an immigrant from Lahore, Pakistan, who also stays with Chahal. “I am considered an aunt in the house,” says Kalyal, who started under Parminder’s mother with Delicious after she first came to the United States more than a decade ago.During a recent visit, a happy group of women at the “factory,” as they referred to their place of work, spoke with a visiting reporter. The “boss,” Chahal, they said, even gifted them gold jewelry sets during Diwali. Many of the 17 employees have been working there for more than five years. The women say that each of them easily churns out 1,000 rotis every night. They start in the evening, working through the night and leave in the morning to catch sleep during the day. Storeowners from as far as Connecticut to Washington, DC, dropped in to pick up their orders throughout the day. Under Chahal, Delicious Food has evolved it into a lucrative business. Her top selling items are 20 type of parathas, rotis, Punjabi snacks like mathi and sweets like pinni, which uses rich ingredients like pistachios and cashews, and for which Chahal says they receive the most compliments. She says: “Everyone appreciates our Punjabi pinnis. They are used for marriage parties. It’s appreciated so much by the students from the colleges. They say it reminds them of their parents back in India!”  Sushma Thukral of Asian Foods has a similar success story. She too started out making chapatis from her home kitchen. She says, “When my children were small, I couldn’t work outside the home.” She struck her first success when she persuaded a local Indian grocery store to stock her freshly-prepared rotis. Her maiden “order” of 4 packets sold quickly enough to encourage the storeowner to increase his shelf space for Thukral’s rotis. She’s never looked back.After she was told by the health department that she couldn’t cook from the home, she got her license, took the necessary classes and then opened up her store, Asian Foods, in Flushing. She employs eight women who whip up 3,000 rotis daily. Orders pour in from grocery stores, party organizers and occasionally, from bored housewives or lonely bachelors.Today her bustling store sells to both retailers and individuals, who can stop by and pick up the quantities they want. And it’s not limited to just rotis – small, medium sized and big – but also snacks like pani puri, samosas and parathas with every kind of filling from methi to mooli to gobi. If consumers want to come and pick up rotis as they come off the tawa, the store can accommodate them, packing them in foil.Asian Foods also caters vegetarian food: 2 vegetables, daal, rice, chapatis and raita at $5 a head. Thukral hasn’t mechanized her business beyond using a dough-mixer machine to mix over 400 pounds of wheat flour every day. “Hand-made rotis remain soft and fresh for a longer time than those prepared by machines,” she explains.   Every neighborhood with a dense Indian population seems to have women who will come to your home and cook, or prepare the foods you need at their own home.Huge tawas cook 15 rotis at a time. The store starts very early in the morning and everything from cooking to packing is done on the premises. While she would not shares financial figures, Thukral said her business is quite profitable. “Business is good, with God’s grace. I am happy at where I am,” she says.Today, her prematurely-born son is a strong, 10-year old sensitive boy. “The other day, he asked me if I could afford to buy for him a Nintendo video game. Of course, I could. Thanks to him, I developed this business, this far,” says Thukral proudly with a glint of tear in her eyes.Even professional women who love to cook are getting into the food game. Gita Ahuja is a busy travel agent who lives in Great Neck, N.Y.. She says of her friend Jaya Thadani, “She loves to cook – I hate to cook!” So it was a perfect alliance. After a hard day at the computer, Ahuja saunters across the street, tells her neighbor Thadani what she’d like to eat that day for dinner.She then heads off to the gym. An hour later she picks up the homemade meal with all her family’s favorites from her neighbor and sits down at home to a hot meal with her family! Says Ahuja, “It’s worked out so well – that’s how I get time to go to the health club. Otherwise at the end of my working day I’m like, oh god, I’ve to start cooking! Everyone’s waiting on my head. Now Jaya makes whatever I want, and it’s literally like back in India where you have bais coming in to cook. That’s the concept!”  There are so many interpretations of the chapati. The Gujarati rotis are smaller and softer while the Punjabi rotis are larger and richer. The Sindhi rotis have an oil base and after being cooked on the tawa, are folded into quarters and smooshed with oil. Some rotis are given their final grilling on an open fire, others in a hot oven. Whatever the method, these breads are what complete the meal and give it soul. Thadani specializes in vegetable and chicken biryani, chicken tikka and many Sindhi specialties like curry chaval, saibhaji and sail dabalroti. She has acquired clients through word of mouth and recently did the entire lunch, including seera puri, for a kirtan get-together. She can even accommodate special dietary needs and actually made seera puri with Splenda for those who can’t eat sugar.“I like to cook, I like to try different things,” says Thadani, who works in a bank. “I learnt a lot of my cooking after my marriage for my husband is very fond of good food.” However, Thadani is one expert cook who won’t do chapatis. Although she can make good ones, she doesn’t take orders on them, because they are just too time-consuming. Still, she can whip up big platters of biryani, tikka and other specialties at competitive rates and homemade taste. One attraction is that she doesn’t use the commercial paneer in her dishes, but makes it at home from scratch, and many of the Sindhi dishes she makes are not available commercially in stores.The success stories are endless. In America if you can roll a chapati or cook a dosa, you have a job. Earlier two brothers Mahadev and Shankar went from home to home cooking up everything from green peas puris to jalebis.Everyone who had a party in Long Island knew they were the ones to call when food had to be produced on hundreds of plates. The two men graduated to more elite catering services and even a restaurant. They no longer come to your home to cook any more, but still cater meals from their professional kitchen. Usha Rastogi of Forest Hills, N.Y., is one housewife who relies upon this help for her chapatis. When she was younger, she says, she made the chapatis, but now prefers to do the cooking and outsource the cumbersome job of roti-making to the Chapati Brigade.Across major Indian metropolitan centers, enterprising women are taking catering orders from the house and delivering home-made taste – just not in your home and not by you!There are so many interpretations of the chapati. The Gujarati rotis are smaller and softer while the Punjabi rotis larger and richer. The Sindhi rotis have an oil base and after being cooked on the tawa, are folded into quarters and smooshed with oil.Some rotis are given their final grilling on an open fire, others in a hot oven. Whatever the method, these breads are what complete the meal and give it soul. The full range of these options is now available. These helping hands now help you produce authentic home food, including the much-desired breads, from small oil-less Gujarati rotis to the thicker, richer Punjabi rotis. A taste of home, thousands of miles away from home.To eat an authentic chapati is to be ensconced in a hammock of memories, a comfort zone. Vanita Sakhrani of Rego Park, Queens, has the best of both worlds for if the chapatis can’t come to her – she goes to them! She shuttles between homes in New York and Poona, spending several months in each city.Jaya Thadani can whip up big platters of biryani, tikka and other specialties at competitive rates and homemade taste.  Jaya Thadani can whip up big platters of biryani, tikka and other specialties at competitive rates and homemade taste.With her busy lifestyle she doesn’t get time to make chapatis in New York and usually orders them from one a local woman. When she’s home in Poona, she gets them hot and fluffy on the table. As she finishes eating one, the family cook, as if reading her mind, is at her side with another steaming hot and fresh chapati off the griddle. Her roti-karma must be very good! Related Itemslast_img

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