Ellu-Genasina Obbattu | Sesame-Sweet Potato Obbattu
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
In a time when pictures wield so much power, and when, more than ever in the world of food, people seem to be eating with their eyes—not just first, but sometimes exclusively—it makes me worry about the future of things whose delicacy and deliciousness can’t really be communicated with a picture. Obbattu are just one of those things. They don’t look like much—really just sort of a chapatti stuffed with a sweet filling and cooked on a griddle. But the miracle lies in so many things that can’t really be seen: the astounding fineness of a perfectly rolled-out obbattu; the way that portions of the sugary filling stretch themselves against the paper-thin dough and caramelize and char with the blistering heat of the tava; those few brief moments when the obbattu is fresh off the fire and it crackles as you break into it, releasing a perfumed vapor of jaggery sweetness.
The other thing that the simplicity of the obbattu’s appearance belies is how complicated it is, in fact, to make. When I was a child, the obbattu we ate were thick, hearty, and laden with oil. I still love this kind of obbattu and believe it takes real skill to make them in a way that renders them improbably light and flavorful. But these days I’m much more likely to make the much thinner version, which I only learned about as an adult, and which hold a very special place in my heart—perhaps I’m still trying to make up for all those lost years without them.
Opinion varies on the difference between obbattu and holige. I’ve heard many people say that obbattu are thinner and formed with a rolling pin, while holige are thick and are pressed out by hand between sheets of paper or banana leaves. Of course, as with any truly interesting and complex thing, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This recipe for sweet potato obbattu comes from my brother-in-law’s mother, who is a formidable Andhra cook who has lived in Karnataka for most of her life. She calls them obbattlu (as is only right, in Telugu), and though she presses out her obbattlu by hand, they are also incredibly thin. So, take from this what you will: the lesson I always leave these deliberations with is that no matter the name (poli, holige, obbattu, obbattlu … the list goes on) there’s no contesting just how delicious these sweet flatbreads are. I’ve taken the liberty of adding some crushed toasted sesame seeds to the filling in my version. It’s not necessarily traditional to mix these two fillings together, but I love the additional earthiness it lends to the sweet filling.
I should note that this certainly isn’t a diet recipe. One of the peculiarities of this dough is that, after it’s kneaded, it rests underneath a layer of oil for an hour, a process that renders it supple and easy to handle, and exceedingly rich.
A note on technique: A word of caution here. Obbattu can be very tricky to master and it’s not unusual when first trying your hand at them to feel discouraged. The rolled-out breads can be very difficult to handle and are prone to tearing, splitting, or simply falling apart as you try to get them onto the tava or griddle. The ingredients are not exceedingly expensive, though, so I suggest starting with low expectations and carefully observing your hand movements and refining them as you go. I’ve included detailed instructions in the recipe, but ultimately you’ll have to come up with a technique that works for you.
A note on sweet potatoes: I use Japanese white-fleshed sweet potatoes for this recipe, which are most like the greenish-white genasu that are used in Karnataka for this recipe. American sweet potatoes don’t really have the same texture—they’re not nearly as dense and they contain much more water. If you do use an orange-fleshed sweet potato or yam, I’d recommend mashing it and cooking it in a nonstick pan on low heat for ten to fifteen minutes on low heat, stirring often, to dry it out a bit.
Ellu-Genasina Obbattu | Sweet Potato-Sesame Obbattu
Makes 13–14 6-inch obbattu
½ lb dense white-fleshed sweet potato
4 oz jaggery, broken up into small pieces
¼ cup toasted white sesame seeds, coarsely ground in a mortar and pestle or food processor
¼ tsp green cardamom powder
pinch of salt
2 tbsp ghee
¼ lb strong whole-wheat flour
¼ lb all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
Canola oil (preferably cold-pressed) for mixing
Special equipment: two sheets of parchment paper or a zip-top sandwich bag.
Gradually add water to the flours and salt, mixing constantly, until you have a coherent non-sticky mass. Knead well for 5–7 minutes until you have a smooth and elastic dough.
Let the dough rest for ten minutes under a bowl or a moist towel. This brief rest allows the gluten to relax and will make the dough easier to work with.
After ten minutes, take a shallow bowl and pour a thin layer of canola oil in the bottom. Flatten the ball of dough into a disc and put it into the bottom of the bowl. Pour enough oil on top of the dough so that it is liberally covered and pooling along the edges. Set aside for one to two hours while you work on the filling.
Steam the sweet potato till cooked through and tender to the tip of a paring knife. Peel, mash, and set aside.
In a sauté pan, heat the two tablespoons of ghee till melted, then add in the jaggery and cook, stirring and pressing against the pieces of sugar with the side of a wooden spoon, till they have melted. Take care not to let the sugar burn.
Add the mashed sweet potato, salt, cardamom, and sesame to the jaggery-ghee mixture and mix well till you have a smooth mixture. The filling will firm up as it cools, but even at this point it shouldn’t be too runny. If it looks like there’s too much water, cook it on low heat to chase off some of the extra moisture. Set aside until the dough is ready.
To form the obbattu, you can use either parchment paper or a zip-top bag. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The parchment paper won’t melt if it touches the tava, which means that you can put it directly on the surface of the pan and not have to wrestle with getting the obbattu off the paper and onto your hand. The plastic should under no circumstances come near the flame or the tava, so if you use it that means you’ll have to transfer the obbattu from the plastic onto your hand. The good news is that because it’s so oily, and the plastic is so slick, you can be sure the obbattu will come loose. It’s just important not to be in too much of a rush.
If you’re using parchment paper, cut out two circles, each about eight inches across, and rub generously with canola oil. If you’re using a zip-top bag, use one that’s no larger than eight inches across (too large a bag will mean lots of plastic flopping around when you’re working, which will only make things harder). With a sharp knife, cut open the sides of the bag so that you can lay it flat like a sheet of plastic with a fold in the middle. Rub generously with oil on one side.
To form each obbattu, pinch off a roughly walnut-sized piece of dough. Form into a ball and then flatten into a cupped disc. Using a spoon (it’s important not to get the sticky filling all over your hands, which should remain well-greased), put a generous tablespoon or two of filling into the bottom of the cup. Close up the cup into a ball, pinching the seam to make sure it is well-sealed. Pat into a squat little puck and set aside while you do the same with the rest of the dough. Don’t be tempted to add too much filling to the obbattu at this point—this can make them even harder to press out. As you get used to the action and the consistency of the dough and the filling you can start to experiment with larger quantities of filling. Really experienced obbattu makers can often fit an amazing amount of filling into an improbably small quantity of dough.
When you’ve used up all the dough you might have some filling left. Save this in the refrigerator. It makes a delicious snack on a chapatti or a slice of toast.
Pre-heat a cast-iron tava or skillet over medium heat while you start to form the obbattu.
Instructions if using parchment paper: Place a ball of stuffed dough between the sheets of oiled parchment. Press down on the dough with the tips of your fingers, pushing and pressing to flatten the it out into a circle. If you see the filling squeezing out of a certain part of the obbattu, work more gently around that spot. But also remember that it’s fine for bits of the filling to peek through. Pat the dough out till you have a uniformly thick six-inch circle. Carefully remove the top sheet of parchment.
Gently turn the parchment, obbattu-side-down, onto the tava, then carefully peel away the paper. Allow the obbatu to cook for thirty seconds at a time on each side, flipping it over occasionally, until it has turned a toasty brown and you can smell the sugar and sweet potato caramelizing. Though there’s already plenty of oil in these, if you wanted to, you could also add just a tiny bit of ghee to these as they’re cooking, a small gesture that makes them even more delicious.
Instructions if using a zip-top bag: This is the harder of the two techniques, but there is a certain pleasure in getting it down pat. Pat out the obbattu between the sheets of plastic in much the same way as you would with the parchment. Then peel back the top sheet of plastic and drape the bottom sheet of plastic onto your dominant hand, obbattu-side-down. It’s essential that your hand be covered with oil, or the obbattu will stick to it. Carefully peel back the plastic, leaving the obbattu on your hand.
To transfer the obbattu onto the tava, hold your hand just an inch over the tava and let the obbattu’s weight pull it loose and onto the pan. Don’t be tempted to touch your hand to the tava, lest you burn yourself. If the obbattu falls unevenly on the tava, don’t fret, you have a couple of seconds after you’ve put it in the pan to use a small offset spatula or fork to flatten it out. After this, proceed to cook the obbattu as you would with the parchment paper method. Repeat until all the obbattu are rolled out and cooked.
Obbattu are inarguably better the moment they’re made. I recommend making an event out of their production so that each person gets their obbattu as it comes off the stove. That said, they do reheat rather well, and make for a lovely little sweet treasure to have stashed away in the fridge, where they can keep for a week.