Nutrition Meets Food Science

Fifty Shades of Indian Bread – From Roti & Pav to Whole Grain & Gluten Free

Vada pav has become a global phenomenon. That pav was the earliest western bread that Indians knew when Portuguese introduced it many centuries ago. Indians had their own varieties of bread, both leavened and unleavened but different from the common bread that we are familiar with. These were not just made with wheat flour but many other cereals and even pulses, combined with many other ingredients including vegetables, herbs and spices and sometimes stuffed with all kinds of veg and non-veg materials making them irresistibly delicious.

Thus, it is really multi-faceted view of a large range of products when we talk about bread. Indians do have a habit of modifying anything to suit their tastes and pleasures. They add some of their own ingenuity using what ingredients are available thus in South there are rice-based dosa and idli, east has rice based pithe, west has jowar and bajra in addition to wheat, while north preferred corn. Additional ingredients such as pulses, spices and vegetables and meats were to add flavour and taste and this was the essence of the great variety of shades of breads in India.

Although now some breads are made without wheat, the original ingredient for all types of breads is wheat flour. It has a protein gluten that shows special ability when water is added to wheat flour to make a dough. This protein is elastic and can stretch and contract like pliable sponge. It not only can be rolled into thin sheets to make roti or chapati but when yeast is added it increases in size by leavening as gas is formed by yeast cells that are captured by gluten mass that expands as millions of tiny bubbles of gas grow. This makes the dough very light and soft with large increase in volume. Similar display is also seen when naan is fermented making it lighter and softer puffing a bit. When baked the expanded dough then sets because of heat and becomes soft and springy.

There is a large number of different types of Indian breads with regional variation that may differ in ingredients used as well as the preparation. Early Indians grew cereals like wheat, corn, barley, rice and millets so many flat bread breads were prepared. Rice was more common in South while wheat and corn in North. There were many pulses grown like chickpea and lentil which also got used in preparation. While chapati, roti and paratha is more common in North and rice and pulse foods like dosa were popular in South. Rice has less protein and the flour does not flatten easily. When pulses are added it gives pliability for the batter that spreads better.

Traditionally thicker varieties such as bhakri and paratha were made as whole grain batter and dough with plenty of fibre would disrupt fine protein network. Refining removed the bran and other interfering materials so gluten formation and very elastic dough would allow very light and soft final product. On the negative side, there were losses of nutrients. Naan is so much fluffier than paratha or roti as it is made from maida, the refined wheat flour and fermentation would make it lighter and soft.

Indian breads are prepared by many different ways as opposed to western breads are mostly baked. Indian breads may be roasted either on pan as in chapati or roti, or in tandoor or oven as in naan or even on wood fire. Some may be either pan fried as in parathas with some oil or deep fat fried as in puri or bhatura. There are some like idli that are steam cooked. The different processes of preparation give not just a variety of textures like soft, firm, hard or crisp, but also flavours are so different. Some of the common ones besides those mentioned earlier are khakhra, kulcha, parotta, puran poli, rumali roti, appam, chila, thepla, bati, dhebra, thalipeeth, shirmal of Kashmir, sweet buns of Goa and many others.

Talking about western-style breads in India, locally pav-bhaji and some of the variants the street-vendors prepared with pav. Industry prepared various brands of white bread and people accepted them as well as pav as they all were soft and springy. Most importantly they could absorb any curried or soupy preparation and went well with both veg and non-veg dishes.

However, later popularity of white bread declined. Consumers became aware that whole wheat products are more nutritious as they contained more of dietary fibre and micronutrients like B-vitamins and minerals including iron. In fact, in the US in 40s enriched flour was introduced containing added micronutrients that were lost during the preparing of wheat flour. However, it did not have original levels of dietary fibre.

This has allowed many whole grain and multi-grain breads that have more dietary fibre and some having more protein and micronutrients. Recently, FSSAI has encouraged industry to have fortified wheat flour that could be used both in domestic cooking as well as in industry.

In another development, some people showed intolerance to gluten that has generated interest in gluten-free products. Wheat, rye and barley contain the protein gluten, which causes allergy in some people with celiac disease. However, larger number of people have gluten sensitivity that causes bloating among other symptoms. All these are recommended gluten-free diet. The breads then cannot contain wheat, rye and barley. As gluten is the best component to produce the dough that captures gas produced by yeast, other ingredients are used including rice, corn, soya, millets flours and others.

In both whole wheat and gluten-free breads, there is challenge to rising of the dough capturing good amount of gas so upon baking it would make a light, fluffy and springy bread. Some stabilisers and other ingredients provide the dough enough strength that would capture enough gas to leaven it to larger volume and make softer springy bread. However, it is not easy and some whole wheat breads are fairly close in texture to white bread, but many gluten-free have some difficulties. They use gums and starches.

As people are demanding more of the global varieties of breads in Indian markets, many new ones have entered market. Many artisanal and gourmet bakers have started making specialty breads available in upmarket stores in metro cities and include bagel, baguette, waffle, breadsticks, brioche, ciabatta, pancake, muffin, focaccia, pizza, sourdough bread, and others.

Indians always had the knack of converting something foreign and add local flavours and ingredients to make it tastier and more palatable and enjoy the exotic foods. We convert anything nutritious into both healthy and tasty. We have changed Chinese to Indian Chinese. Even the burgers became spicy and buns had dosa masala filling. Thus, taste and health will always go hand in hand with us.


  1. Achaya: The Story of Our Food, 2000, Universal Press
  2. Vir Sanghvi: How did the Portuguese pav become one of Bombay’s most recognisable breads? (
  3. Different types of Indian breads explained: India’s Culture (
  4. 10+ Types of Indian Bread: Alpa Jain, Jul 20, 2023, Culinary Shades (
  5. India’s bread revolution: Shilpi Madan, 10 Jan 2021 (

Dr Jagadish Pai

Editor, PFNDAI

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