A good paratha…..in Paris!

I’ve never seen Adam more miserable than during our first three months in Paris. The reason for this? Severe curry withdrawal. He’s difficult to please mind you; born to a Pakistani father, raised in London and trained as a cook, he knows good Indian food, and can be quite a harsh critic. Unfortunately Paris is not the best place for curry-lovers; what you’re likely to find if you haven’t been pointed in the right direction, are poor imitations of Westernised dishes. Occasionally it’s even worse – think chicken tikka masala but with more cream and more butter…..the French interpretation of one of the most popular British dishes of all time (which, of course, bears little resemblance to anything truly Indian).

After doing our research online, we found a vegetarian restaurant serving up vegetable biryanis, dosas and idlis; everything got the ‘thumbs up’ from me, but I suspect the lack of meat had something to do with Adam’s disapproval. Eventually the Sri Lankan cooks at work invited us into their ‘club’, which gathers almost weekly on Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, round the back of Gare du Nord. Here you’ll find a handful of excellent Sri Lankan curry houses…..what a find! One in particular out-shone all the others, for me in particular, because of the bread (this finally brings me to the point of this entry). In fact, if I could only eat one bread for the rest of my life, it would be the paratha from Muniyandy Vilas.

A paratha looks a little like a crêpe, but is actually made up of several layers of dough and melted clarified butter, or ghee as it’s otherwise known. Because the butter is laminated through the dough, steam created when the paratha hits the griddle lifts the folded layers apart, creating a flat bread that’s light and flaky. Don’t let yourself be put off by the words “butter” and “lamination”; if made correctly, parathas are neither greasy, nor complicated to make at home.

I tested a fair few recipes during my college years; the one I include below uses wholemeal flour. The dough is rolled thinly, brushed with melted butter, then folded; the technique is fairly straightforward really…..I think they’re much quicker to make than any of the other Indian breads. The process is slightly more complex at Muniyandy Vilas (see the photos below), but the theory is basically the same. He uses a technique similar to one you might see in an Italian pizza restaurant, whereby the pizza base is tossed up into the air to make it bigger and thinner. The paratha dough is so strong and glutinous that he’s able to stretch it to a sheet that looks thinner than paper. It’s then brushed with ghee and gathered up in a haphazard sort of way, rather like a small wreath of fresh tagliatelle, before being rolled (this time with a pin) and griddled. Once they’re golden brown on both sides he lifts them off the griddle and claps them between his hands, I think to expel the steam.

They’re so proud of their parathas (and rightly so) that you can watch them being made, non-stop by expert hands in the window of the restaurant. I could stand and watch these guys all day – it’s a skill not unlike noodle-pulling or dim sum folding…..totally mesmerising! You can of course order them stuffed with spinach, potatoes, cheese or Nutella (!); I’ve not tried the latter…..I’m not yet so Parisian that I can’t go one meal without it!

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Muniyandy Vilas, 207 Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, closest Metro La Chapelle (line 2) or Gare du Nord (line 4 or 5)

To make 8 (recipe from ‘Curry’, by Vivek Singh)…..
400g wholemeal flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon carom seeds and/or 1/2 teaspoon black onion (nigella) seeds
200ml water
2 tablespoons vegetable or corn oil
5 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)

Set aside about 4 tablespoons of the flour and put the rest in a mixing bowl. Add the salt, carom and/or black onion seeds, water and oil and knead until everything comes together into a smooth, stiff dough. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rest for 20 minutes. Divide the dough into 8 pieces, shape them into balls and leave to rest for another 15 minutes.

Flatten each ball lightly with the palm of your hand. One by one, sprinkle with a little of the reserved flour, then roll out into a circle about 20cm in diameter. Brush the top with ghee and sprinkle with a little more flour. Fold the dough in half to make a semi-circle, then brush with more ghee and sprinkle with flour. Fold again, making a small layered triangle.

Roll out each triangle to make a large triangle, taking care not to roll the dough too thin or the layers will be lost – roughly 3mm thickness is fine. Heat a heavy-based frying pan or a flat griddle over high heat, and cook the triangles for 2-3 minutes on each side, until the dough begins to dry out and colour slightly. Reduce the heat to medium, then brush the top of the bread with ghee and turn it over again until it develops a deeper colour. Brush the top and turn again. As the parathas cook the dough will puff up when the layers separate. The application of ghee and flour between the layers facilitates this. Cook the remaining breads in the same way, wrapping them loosely in foil to keep them warm.