We arrived in the US of A one hot sweltering Texas morning and within a few hours found ourselves in the little town of College Station. We grew to love it over our years in grad school there but that very first day, we were distraught. After the hustle, bustle and multitude of humanity that had surrounded us every single day of our lives in Bombay, this place was remarkably unnerving. The heat sapped all our energy and our jet-lag addled brains couldn’t quite process this other side of the world where we could see no one, not even after spending an entire morning at the window of our student house. No one stirred on these streets. The grass was impossibly green for a place so hot. Most importantly, for all of us arriving students was this truly awful problem – for the first time in our lives, having stepped out of our childhood homes, our fridge was bare.
Empathetic older students fed us that night. In the following days, we explored the new town and found out very quickly that if we were going to enjoy a taste of home, it had to come from either our own kitchens or that of expat friends. College Station had one Indian restaurant and it was the most rotten example of its species. I was in despair. Was this the fate of Indian food outside of India? Did it get watered down to a shadow of its origins in its attempt to appeal to a broader audience? I fervently hoped this wasn’t true.
A month later we found ourselves in Houston, the nearest big city. A working friend took us to the Indian stores there and then as a treat introduced us to this wonderful Gujarati restaurant called Thali. Thali was an honest-to-goodness Gujarati home cooking extravaganza, the real deal. The owner was warm and welcoming, walking around from table to table, insisting on feeding you the softest paper-thin phulkas and the fluffiest dhokla every bit as good as the one back home. It was as if you were in his home and you were his guest. Indian hospitality was highlighted at its very best in this establishment. One bite of their thepla, soft, spiced, reassuring in its authenticity, and I knew I’d never go wanting for great Indian food again.
The glossary of Gujarati food is filled with some of the most delicious vegetarian fare you will find on the planet. Thepla is one of the easy and ubiquitous recipes on that list. One could equate it to a flavoured roti but there is a bit more to it than that. The yogurt employed in binding the ingredients into a dough and the slight resting period give each thepla a softness and texture that roti can only aspire to. Theplas are great eaten hot or cold and will hold their own in your fridge for a few days. We like to eat them by themselves, each individual thepla slathered in cold yogurt and rolled up, or with an Indian pickle or with a vegetable like this twice-cooked potato.
Theplas are made from atta, a hard wheat flour used in making most Indian flat breads. It is a great vehicle for grated vegetables like squash, turnip or radish. I like to add in a little minced chilli for additional heat, but omit this and add another 1/2 tsp of chilli powder instead. I’ve used oregano to replace ajwain (carom seeds) when I don’t have it. It is not an absolute substitution, just an alternative that works.
Mooli (radish) Thepla
Adapted from this recipe
Makes 8-9 theplas
Atta – 2 cups
Radish – 1 cup, grated
Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
Red chilli powder – 1/2 tsp
Dhana-jeera powder – 1/2 tsp
Ajwain (or oregano) – 1/2 tsp
Cilantro – 1/4 cup, chopped fine
Jalapeno or green chilli – 1, minced
Yogurt – 1/4 cup
Oil – 2 tbsp
Salt as needed
– Place the flour in a bowl. Add in the turmeric, red chilli powder, dhana-jeera (cumin and coriander seed) powder, ajwain/oregano, salt and oil and stir to mix well.
– Add in the grated radish, chilli and coriander. Pour in the yogurt, mix loosely with a clawed hand and then knead until everything comes together in a firm but yielding dough.
– Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let rest for about half an hour.
– After resting, divide the dough into about small 1-1/2″ rounds. Dust the rolling surface well with some flour, then roll out each round into thin roti-like discs, using some flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface.
– Heat a skillet on medium heat and toss the first rolled out round on it. Flip it over in half a minute and add a few drops of oil around the edges of the round. Toast another half a minute or until evenly cooked with a few browning spots.
– Move off skillet and continue with remaining rounds of dough.