Makai roti, or corn flatbread, is a well-loved snack in the sub-continent, and is also considered to go very well with some dishes like saag, karhi and shaljam gosht.
I have had it a few times in Pakistan, but until three years ago, I never tried making it in the US. Since then, I have made it every single day, and thanked God for it every single time.
It all started when my daughter was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy (among other food allergies). We had never heard of any such thing in Pakistan, so we had to learn everything about how to deal with it from scratch.
For a long time I only looked for foods that were naturally wheat free. With time, I learnt about gluten free foods.
[Gluten is a protein present in some grains, including wheat, so gluten free foods are always wheat free. They are produced for people who have a gluten allergy, celiac disease, or other health or dietary concerns relating to the consumption of gluten. Gluten free products are on the rise as gluten and wheat allergies in the US are increasing day by day.]
I thought that only some selected things were made gluten free. That got me excited, but at the time there weren’t a lot of gluten free items in our grocery store. Then I learnt that there were gluten free options for almost every kind of food. And I also found gluten free sections in some large stores. This whole process took many months.
I tried a lot of gluten free foods and snacks but my daughter, not the biggest eater, never took to any of them. And it was such a waste because gluten free foods are so much more expensive. But the problem is that it is very hard to get them to taste good. Or to taste like their wheat counterpart.
And it’s also unfair to them. Because all these ingredients have to come together and try to taste like something they’re not- wheat. The gluten in wheat gives it one vital thing- sticking power. Because gluten free grains can’t stick to each other, it is very hard to get them to form any kind of shape. To achieve this, a number of gums need to be added. Then, they also don’t rise like wheat, and definitely don’t taste like it… the problems are manifold.
Roti is a very essential part of our cuisine. Rice is a good substitute, but having too much rice can cause other stomach problems. There were very few things that she could eat, and she never wanted to eat anything!
The turning point came while we were visiting my aunt in Pennsylvania. She had made jowar roti for her guests, and it occured to me that my daughter could eat it! I gave her a few pieces and she actually ate them! That moment changed our lives. As soon as we came back home, I ordered masa flour online (yes, I didn’t know it was available everywhere) and started making corn rotis for my daughter everyday. I gave it to her in place of regular wheat roti, with whatever salan I had made, and over time she developed a taste and appetite for it.
The result was that she got so used to eating home cooked food that she ate it absolutely exclusively and never developed a taste for junk food. I thank God, and pray for my aunt and her maid who had introduced her to masa harina everyday!
Masa harina is instant masa de maiz, Spanish for corn dough, in powder form. You only need to add water to it to make it into a dough, and it is commonly used for making corn tortillas. It is easily available in grocery stores, usually in the International Foods aisle, under Mexican. Organic masa is not so easy to find in stores though, so it’s easier to order it online. It is available in both yellow and white flour, and I have also seen blue masa online.
Corn, being gluten free, does not have sticking power. It is like sand and is hard to form into a dough on its own. In Pakistan, the makai is quite difficult to knead and make into rotis. It is often mixed with wheat to make it easier to handle. But in the US, thanks to Mexican cuisine, the masa available here is so beautifully easy to handle and work with. It kneads and comes together much more easily, and makes delicious rotis.
But I have to say, I never put in much of an effort into trying to make a round roti. I just quickly mixed together the flour and slapped it onto the frying pan. And whenever my mother came to visit, I happily handed the charge of making rotis over to her. She, on the other hand, really liked the easy-to-handle masa here, and kneaded it well and shaped it into perfectly round rotis, that even puffed up during cooking!
My daughter’s excitement in seeing my mom’s round rotis for the first time was pretty evident when she exclaimed in delight, “Cookie!!!”
And of course my mom also let her have her fun, giving her some dough to make her own little roti, (although sometimes my daughter would run off and eat the raw dough).
Since then, I have learnt to make round (or at least, rounder) rotis. The recipe I’m sharing today is for the classic favorite, meethi makai, also known as jowar ki roti. This is my grandmother’s recipe and makes a crispy, almost biscuity roti that is delicious as an evening snack with tea, or for breakfast with milk, especially now, with the cold weather approaching :).
Corn is quite gassy, so it is a good idea to add some fennel seeds or aniseed in sweet rotis, and oregano in salty ones.
In Pakistan, gur or jaggery is often used to sweeten the roti, so I have also included a brown sugar version. Both versions turn out perfectly so it’s down to your own personal preference. If I had to choose one, I would probably go with the white sugar.
Meethi Makai or Jowar Roti
- 2 cups masa harina
- 6 tbsp white sugar OR 1/2 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp butter, melted
- Up to 3/4 cup water for kneading (if using brown sugar, you might need up to 1 cup of water)
- Oil for frying
[Note: The sugar in the US, where this recipe was tested, is not as sweet as it is in Pakistan.]
- Mix the masa, sugar and fennel seeds together. I just use my hand for this.
- Add the egg and butter and mix.
- Add the water, a little at a time, and knead for about 4-5 minutes to form a soft, smooth dough. It should form a ball and not be too dry or too sticky.
- Heat 1-2 tbsp of oil in a frying pan on medium heat.
- Make a small ball with the dough and flatten it with your hands into the shape of a roti, about 4 inches in diameter. Handle the dough carefully, or it will break. Dampen your hands a little to keep the dough from sticking to them. Alternatively, you can put the ball of dough between two sheets of cling wrap and roll it out with a rolling pin. Then carefully transfer it to your hand and onto the pan. This way it won’t stick to anything. Try to make the roti as thin as possible without breaking it.
- Reduce the heat a little and put the roti in the pan. Fry for about 2.5 minutes until it turns golden brown.
- Press the roti down with your spatula while it’s frying, and using the tip, make 2-3 cuts into the roti to ensure it cooks through.
- Turn it over and fry the other side for about 2.5 minutes, or until it turns golden brown.
- You may have to replenish the oil after every roti.
- Serve hot.
The trickiest part is making the roti without breaking it. A few things to remember are:
- It all depends on the dough. If you made a good, well kneaded dough, then you are more likely to be able to make a roti without cracks or breaking.
- It also depends on how round the ball was. If it was a perfect round, then the roti will also be round.
- Patting the roti a few times between your hands is a good idea. It makes a fluffy roti.
- Making a good, round roti takes time, effort and practice. An irregular shaped roti tastes just as good!
- I like using a good amount of oil for frying – at least 2 tbsp. This gives the roti a more even golden brown color.
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