History of Roti - A Culinary Origin Story

History of Roti - A Culinary Origin Story

The most famous of all Indian flatbreads is the roti. It is the namesake under which all Indian flatbreads are often classified by the world. This simple side dish, often served as an accompaniment to meats, curries, vegetable dishes, gravies, etc., is in fact, the base on which Indian cuisine rests. If you have read any of our other articles here at Rotimatic, you will be familiar with the various types of roti and how they are made. But that begs the question, what is the history of roti? How did we start making this whole-wheat flatbread that is warm, light, nutty, and delicious? Where did the original idea stem from, and how is roti so closely interwoven in our cuisine and our culture?

In this article, we shall be exploring the origins of roti, and where it comes from. But before we explore the original origin story, let us first look at the etymology of the word roti itself. The term ‘roti’ originates from the Sanskrit word ‘rotika’, which means bread. This term has been found in various historical documents and physical evidence of making rotis, like rudimentary pans (tawas), wheat grinders, and other utensils, has also been uncovered in various archeological sites. So, let us strap on our seatbelts and take a trip to the past, where it all began, and understand the roti origin story.

The Roti Origin Story-Where Did it Come From?

The true origins of roti are a mystery, as it appears to have no singular history. Multiple references and instances in ancient texts, biographies, court records, and historical documents mention a flatbread like the modern-day roti. So where did roti originate from? The most documented and known point of origin of roti is the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization nearly 5000 years ago. The Indus Valley civilization was an agrarian society, meaning that their main source of subsistence was agriculture and the trade of agricultural products and goods. There has been evidence of wheat, bajra, vegetables, and other millets being farmed by the ancient Harappans, and hence the evidence of a wheat-based flatbread.

However, there is some speculation that roti may have originated from East Africa. Due to early trade routes being established between the Indian subcontinent and the African continent, there is a chance the influx of goods would have also led to an exchange of ideas, namely those of making round flatbreads and fermentation. Some sections of historians also believe that roti originated in Persia, where it was an unleavened flatbread made of all-purpose flour and was thicker in comparison to actual chapatis. The whole-wheat version of the same developed in Awadh soon after, owing to the heavy influx of Mughal and Persian trade in the cosmopolitan city. This version was very similar to the modern-day chapati that we consume every day.

The proof found in ancient texts makes it very evident that the history of roti is in fact, largely based in India. This is supported by writings in the Ramcharitmanas, a poem written by renowned poet Tulsidas, centered around the Valmiki Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic. The roti mentioned was very similar to a bowl-like shape (katori) and was used as a carrier for vegetables and meats, like an edible container. Additionally, a 16th-century medical text known as Bhavaprakasa, written by Bharat-mishra, mentions the root word for roti (Sanskrit word ‘rotika’), referring to a flatbread. Furthermore, there have been mentions of roti or chapati in Kannada literature between the 10th and the 18th centuries as well.

If we want to look at relatively recent examples, the humble roti, which developed as a food for traders and merchants, reached the great Mughal courts as well. The light, warm, and ghee-flavored taste found a home in the court of Akbar the Great, and chapati was even mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari by Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak (the grand wazir) as one of the Great Emperor’s favorites. This fondness was retained by his grandson, Emperor Aurangzeb, who adopted vegetarianism and popularized palm-sized chapatis. The popularity of roti, along with its ancient origins, has created an impact all over the globe, and rotis have now been adapted into the cuisines of other countries as well.

How Have Other Countries Adopted Roti?

As stated above, roti was a food of traders and merchants, ideal for travelers due to its ability to stay fresh for longer, filling, and the fact that it could hold meat, vegetables, and curries, and was easy to store and carry. Even during the British Raj, roti was fairly popular amongst British officers and often preferred over rice and eaten daily in officers' canteens. When Indians emigrated to the USA, UK, or other colonies or developed countries from the 19th century onwards, our cultural cuisine traveled with them. Indian food became increasingly popular in Western countries and their colonies, including the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, Sri Lanka, Nepal, African countries, etc.

This cross-country exchange of foods led to the roti or chapati being adopted into the cuisines of these countries. Roti and its variations are used to make popular street foods in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. Roti has changed a lot over the years and adapted to various tastes and geographical locations. It is an integral part of Indian cuisine, but the roti as we know it today, has also undergone several changes over the years.

How has Roti Changed Today?

The world has expanded so much that it is growing smaller! Roti origins may lie in the Indian subcontinent, where the traditional method of making roti is still in practice to this day, but the humble roti has long since evolved. Ready-to-eat rotis, freeze-dried chapatis, and microwavable rotis, all are available in supermarkets selling Asian food all over the globe. Experiments in cooking have led to different variations in terms of stuffing, seasoning, and fillings with roti, and it has expanded from just a simple chapati to become an umbrella term that accommodates many different flatbreads within it. It is no longer just an unleavened flatbread, but it has become a representative and backbone of Indian cuisine and culture and continues to help us carry delicious curries over the years. If you want to learn more about roti, check out A Comprehensive Guide on Roti.

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