If bread is the staff of life because of its centrality to cuisines around the world, then flatbreads play an even more ancient and seminal role in how we eat. Unlike leavened breads, they require no rising time, need only an open flame and a griddle to cook them, and they’re ready in a matter of minutes.
The phulka, though originally a North Indian flatbread, has spread to so many parts of India that it has become daily fare around the country.
Lavish breads like naans or laccha parathas, have gained more of a name for themselves in the West. But peek into most Indian home kitchens on a week day and these simple, unadorned phulkas are what you’re likely to see people cooking and eating.
But the phulka’s simplicity isn’t a compromise, or some penurious concession to frugality. Its simplicity is its greatest asset, a welcome modesty of taste, a lovely and unassuming bread to pair with a casual but fortifying meal.
Consider this recipe for phulkas a template upon which you can elaborate as the mood strikes you. I use soft whole-wheat flour here, as do most Indian cooks. But if the only whole wheat flour you have is made from hard winter wheat, high in protein and prone to making a tough, overly elastic dough, feel free to add in some all-purpose flour. Similarly, you can add in a small quantity of buckwheat flour, ragi flour, or another flour of your choice to the dough. A word of caution, though: start with a small quantity of the new flour, and see how the dough turns out. Non-wheat flours often lack the gluten that’s essential to giving the phulka dough its structure; add too much and you’ll end up with a dough that can’t be rolled out or that doesn’t hold together.
Makes 8-9 phulkas
2 ½ cups soft whole-wheat flour
2 tsp melted ghee
1 tsp sea salt
1 cup cool water, or as needed
Place the flour and salt in a large bowl and mix well with your hands to combine.
Drizzle the ghee over the flour and, using the tips of your fingers, rub into the flour until fully incorporated.
Pour the water into the bowl a little at a time, kneading at the same time with your free hand to bring the dough together.
When the dough has mostly come together but there are still scraps and a small amount of loose flour left at the bottom of the bowl, turn the mixture out onto a clean counter and continue to knead.
Keep working the dough until all the scraps have been incorporated and you have a smooth, elastic ball with a taut surface. This should take you between five and ten minutes. If the dough seems too dry at any point, moisten the palms of your hands with water and continue kneading, so as to avoid accidentally adding too much water.
Cover the dough in plastic wrap and set aside for half an hour to an hour at room temperature. This allows the dough to hydrate, and allows the gluten to relax as well.
When you’re ready to form and cook the phulkas, divide the dough into golf ball-sized portions and set aside under plastic wrap to keep them from drying out.
Pour half a cup of flour onto your work surface to help with rolling out the phulkas.
Experienced phulka-makers can roll out and cook the breads simultaneously. But for novices, I recommend rolling out all the breads before you start cooking them.
To make each phulka, roll a ball of dough into a neat sphere. Dip into the bench flour and gently flatten with the heel of your palm to form a thick puck.
Using a well-floured rolling pin or belan, roll the phulka out into a uniform circle about 7 inches wide. Dust the phulka and the counter with flour as needed to prevent it from sticking to the counter. This takes a little practice, and your first couple of phulkas will be misshapen, but don’t despair: with time you’ll be able to control the shape and thickness of your phulkas like a pro.
Set the phulkas aside as you roll them out, covering them with a dish towel and taking care not to let them overlap and stick to each other.
Heat a cast-iron skillet or tava over medium-high heat. When a drop of water flicked onto the surface skitters and evaporates immediately, the pan is hot enough to use.
Dust the extra flour off a phulka and drape it onto the hot skillet. It should almost immediately start to form small bubbles on its surface. Cook for just 10 or so seconds before turning it over with a pair of tongs.
Cook for another twenty seconds or so, until the phulka has formed small bubbles on both sides but hasn’t taken on any color. The phulkas should still be soft and pliable. This is important—cooking the phulkas for too long at this point will render them tough and chewy.
Using a potholder or oven mitt, move the pan off the heat, exposing the flame. Place the phulka directly on the flame. It should promptly begin to inflate into a ball. Using tongs, flip the phulka over to cook the other side. Both sides should cook only for a matter of seconds, so that they are lightly charred in spots but not burnt.
Place the phulkas in a covered dish as they come off the stove to keep them warm.
Serve while still warm with dhal, pickle, and a vegetable of your choice. Perhaps some dondakayi vepudu. And if you’re feeling indulgent, add a dollop of ghee to each phulka.