When my parents moved to the United States, they left behind almost their entire family. Most of their siblings, cousins, friends, and loved ones remained in India. For both of them, family was an integral part of their life, thus once they moved to the US they created a family around them. This family was not blood related, it was made up of new friends who often had similar stories of being alone in a new world. Thus, when I was growing up, I had a family made of aunts, uncles, and cousins none of whom were actually blood related to me. This family often confuses my non-Indian friends, and so I’ve come to refer to them as “my aunt in the Indian way” or “my cousin in the Indian way.” One of these families is the Voras, whose two sons moved to the United States when I was a child.
I have such fond memories of growing up with my two older “brothers in the Indian way.” We spent days together laughing, making fun of each other, eating, and cooking. I honestly can’t imagine my childhood or my life without them being part of it. One of my fondest memories is when they first introduced me to their mom’s cooking after returning from a trip to India. We were at their apartment, playing cricket with a wiffle ball and a roll of paper towels, and having a great time. I (naturally) got hungry and wanted a snack. They pulled out a foil packet and heated up a few theplas and we shared them dipped in some garlic chutney and yogurt. They were the best theplas I had ever had in my entire life. I can still vividly picture that day, the sun pouring into the windows, the apartment in disarray from the number of things we knocked over with the wiffle ball, leaning over the counter eating the best theplas in the world. I feel so lucky and so grateful to have the Vora family be part of my family, not just for their incredible food, but for the joy and love they have brought to all of us.
This recipe is a close approximation of Sarla Aunty’s theplas. They aren’t quite as good as hers, but are pretty darn close. Theplas are spicy Gujarati flatbreads rich with spices and bitter leaves. The most traditional are fenugreek leaves, but other bitter, sturdy greens can work well. The ingredients are all mixed together to create a soft dough, about the stiffness of play-doh. Then, the dough ball rests for about 20 minutes. I’ve found if you don’t allow it to rest, they are a bit difficult to roll out. I think that part of this has to do with allowing the dough to autolyse. An enzymatic reaction happens with the flour and the water that allows the gluten proteins to become shorter and untangled, making them easier to align and create a gluten matrix. After that, the dough is divided into 10 small dough balls. Each mini dough ball is rolled thin and cooked on a frying pan. These flatbreads are delicious with garlic chutney, mango chutney, or yogurt to name a few traditional accompaniments. Non-traditionally, I’ve enjoyed these layered with some chutney, a fried egg, and avocado. There are so many wonderful things these theplas go well with!
Sarla Aunty's Thepla ~ Spicy Fenugreek Flatbread
A delightfully spicy flatbread perfect for dipping into sweet-tart mango chutney or cooling yogurt.
- 100 g atta (finely ground wheat flour) or whole wheat flour
- 50 g jowar flour (sorghum flour) or use atta/whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup fresh fenugreek leaves, chopped (see note)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp Kashmiri red chili powder (lal mirchi)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 1/2 tsp ajwain seeds
- 1 Tbsp sesame seeds
- 30 mL (2 Tbsp) canola oil, plus more for frying
- 110 mL very warm water (you may need more water if using whole wheat flour)
- Rice flour, for rolling the rounds (can also use wheat flour)
- In a large bowl, mix together all of the ingredients except for the fenugreek leaves, oil, and water so they are well combined. Add the fenugreek leaves and mix by hand.
- Slowly drizzle in the oil, stirring to combine well. Add in 100 mL of the water, and knead. The dough should be quite soft, but not sticky. If the dough is not very soft, add in the remaining 10 mL of water and knead until the dough forms a smooth ball. Allow to rest for 20-30 minutes.
- Divide the dough ball into 10 mini dough balls. Pick up one ball and flatten it into a disc with your hands. Put a small of rice flour nearby, and gently dredge the flattened dough disc in the flour. You don't want too thick of a layer, just enough to keep the dough from sticking to your rolling pin and your rolling surface. Using a thin rolling pin, start to roll out the dough ball, turning by 1/8 of a turn every few strokes. Roll until the dough ball is more or less a circle about 1-2 mm thick. Set aside, and repeat with the remaining dough balls.
- Heat a frying pan over medium heat. When warm, place a rolled out circle onto the frying pan. Allow to cook for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Flip to the other side and allow to cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Lift the round from the frying pan, and pour 1/2 tsp of canola oil into the pan, flip the round and toast the first side in the oil. Repeat with the second side, and set on a rack to cool. Repeat with the remaining rolled out circles.
- If you feel dextrous and like multitasking, feel free to cook the theplas while rolling out the other dough balls. It takes a vigilant eye but is totally doable!
- Enjoy the theplas warm or cold with plenty of mango chutney or yogurt. They are also delicious with vegetable dishes or meats, topped with avocado, eggs, etc.
Be sure to carefully wash the fenugreek leaves. The plant is grown in sand, thus the leaves tend to be full of sand. I recommend trimming the thick stems off of the end, and putting the whole bunch into a bowl of cold water, swishing them around with your fingers, and lifting them out of the water before draining. Repeat until the water is no longer sandy or muddy. Then pull the leaves off of the stems, measure, and chop.
Fenugreek leaves can be hard to find unless you go to an Indian grocery store. Feel free to substitute with other bitter or hearty greens such as radish tops, kale, or mustard greens.