My fingertips sink into the flour and coat themselves with the sticky, shaggy mess. In the mixing bowl, I wrangle together bits of rebellious dough, shaping them into one mass. Though it may seem unlikely that this concoction of flour and water will become anything great, with patience and care, I hope to guide the ingredients into taking the form of a beautiful indian pav bread.
Bread is an ancient and universal food. From sourdough to pita to damper, it seems nearly every culture has a version of this staple baked good. And from ancient artifacts to biblical stories, we know that bread has been part of human life for centuries.
The dough starts to cooperate, and its rough edges begin to smoothen. I scrape the steel of the bowl with my finger nails, syncopating the movements of my palms with the metal ring it produces. A strange sort of kitchen song fills the room. My hands press and mold the dough as if shaping the substance of the Earth. My knuckles form valleys and mountain ridges and then collapse the dough onto itself again, turning and pressing the dough in my own rhythm. I press the dough with a strong gentleness. It almost seems like a small child that needs to be handled with both firmness and love. I wrap the dough infant in its kitchen towel blanket and leave it to rise.
Some of my earliest childhood memories include standing on my tippy-toes and peeking over the edge of the counter to watch my mother make Indian chapati bread over the stove. Even though, where we lived in the United States, many Indian families bought their chapatis, she insisted on making the thin, delicate flatbread by hand. My mother would knead, divide, and roll the dough into thin rounds with an efficiency and ease that only years of experience could cultivate. My eyes would light up with wonder each time I watched the chapati on the pan inflate with hot air, becoming a warm, pillowy treat.
I soon started making bread on my own. As a child, I would spend hours poring over recipe books, imagining the words coming to life in the kitchen. I immediately fell in love with the simple satisfaction of kneading, the wonder of rising dough, and the nostalgic, yeasty smell of bread baking in the oven. I explored making breads from all over the world, but somehow, I never attempted anything from my own Indian heritage. Perhaps it was fear or just hesitation, but my hands never formed the chapatis, parathas, and bahkris my mother so diligently made. The closest I ever got to making the Indian breads of my childhood was making pavs, small Indian bread rolls very similar to hamburger buns.
I punch down the risen dough with my fist, feeling the warm pillow deflate. I pinch off small pieces, rounding the individual rolls between my oiled palms with care and patience. My mind drifts as I let muscle memory take over my fingers.
Though they are a classic Bombay street food snack, pav bread resembles American and British bread; this is most likely because of the long colonization of India by the English. The bread's appearance is familiar, yet it inspires colorful visualizations of the bustling cities and colorful fruit markets of India.
In a way, Indian pav buns remind me of myself. Just like the pav, I have sometimes struggled to find a connection with my Indian heritage, yet I have never ignored my strong cultural roots. As a young Indian American, I struggled to fit into both my Indian heritage and the American childhood I saw around myself. I struggled to speak my family’s mother-tongue, and my face reddened with shame during broken conversations with relatives in India. At the same time, the lunches I packed from home always caused strange looks and expressions from other children in my American school cafeteria. Like pav bread, I was caught in a rift between two cultural worlds, both of which I adored but felt I could never truly belong in. But if the pavs existed constantly in this strange gap between cultures, why couldn’t I?
I open the oven door after a restless half-hour, relishing the earthy aroma that escapes from the warm pan. Finally, the pale dough has completed its metamorphosis into the proud, puffed-up rolls which form their own terrain of hills and valleys. After cooling, I pick up one of the browned domes, tearing the delicate doughy strips that connect it with the other buns. I close my eyes as my teeth sink into the fluffy, warm bread. The simple yet buttery taste makes me break into a smile. I lean against the counter and let my free fingers doodle aimlessly on the flour-covered countertop.
Pav breads represent everyone caught in between multiple worlds. Our own “dough” of potential is kneaded and molded by our experiences each day, shaping us into a smooth dough ball ready to bake into something wonderful. Though the rolls' identities are unique and may be confusing at first glance, they never fail to satisfy and warm the heart. We, just like bread, come from a vivid mosaic of cultures, backgrounds, and places. However, no matter our differences, we should never be afraid to recognize what molded us into the shape we have taken. We should never be afraid to share our gift of warmth and flavor with the world.
Most of all, bread unites us. No matter where we are from, what we believe, or what form our bread takes, we all can enjoy it together. With our rich cultures and passions, we can appreciate everyone for who they are. From the hands that kneaded us together to the golden crust we proudly display to the world, we can be satisfied with knowing that our similarities are greater than our differences and that we all, no matter who we are, have something inspiringly delicious to share with the world around us.
Bahkris are Indian flatbreads usually made out of buckwheat or rice and fried on a griddle.
Parathas are an Indian wheat flatbread. They can be made plain or stuffed with a variety of fillings
Chapatis are another kind of Indian wheat flatbread. They are thinner and more delicate than parathas.