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Mom’s Alu Parathas

To make these scrumptious Punjabi flatbreads, wrap fragrant spiced mashed potatoes in delicate dough, roll the parcels into thin rounds, and griddle them with ghee.

Published Jan. 19, 2022.

My mother, Meera Marathe, is the most accomplished Indian bread maker I know. No one’s chapatis, puris, or sweet stuffed griddled breads such as puran poli and gulachi poli are as good as hers. And her alu parathas? They’re exceptional. These potato-stuffed flatbreads hail from Punjab and are a staple across the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. 

Alu parathas are made by wrapping circles of dough around a boldly spiced potato stuffing, rolling the stuffed balls into slim disks, and browning the disks (brushed with ghee) until crisp brown patches develop. The steamy, pliable breads are typically enjoyed as the center of a meal rather than as an accompaniment, and frankly, there is no more satisfying breakfast, lunch, or dinner than a stack of piping hot alu parathas served with spicy-sweet mango pickle, cooling raita, or a refreshing tomato salad.

One of the most delicious foods a human could eat.
Meera Sodha

Acclaimed cookbook author Meera Sodha wholeheartedly agrees. After reading in her column in The Guardian that alu paratha is one of her “all-time favorite dishes,” I reached out. She doubled down on her affinity for the breads, proclaiming them “one of the most delicious foods a human could eat.” The mother of two young children has a habit of packing alu parathas as an on-the-go breakfast for family jaunts: “We take [them] wrapped up in foil to our local forest, where we go walking with the dog most weekends,” she said.

Family Ties 

Left, America’s Test Kitchen cookbook editor Kaumudi Marathé as a child with her father, Sudhakar, and mother, Meera. Meera was an army brat who spent much of her childhood in Punjab, where her father was posted. It was there that she learned how to make what Kaumudi considers the best alu parathas anywhere.  

The Best Bread Maker

Although my experience with Indian food runs deep—I authored The Essential Marathi Cookbook (2009) and owned a catering company specializing in Indian cookery—I’d never made alu parathas myself. Mom’s were so good that there was never a need, and they’re not part of the cuisine in my native state, Maharashtra.

So when I was asked to develop a recipe for Cook’s Illustrated, I promptly phoned Mom. She explained that while there’s nothing particularly hard about making the breads, they involve multiple steps, the dough can be tricky to roll, and cooking the rounds efficiently takes practice. But after she talked me through her technique, I felt ready to embark on an alu paratha adventure.

Mom uses a floury Indian potato for her stuffing, and I suspected that russets would be a good stand‑in. I peeled, chopped, and boiled a pound and then mashed and cooled them before incorporating the blend of herbs, aromatics, and spices that she assembled from fond memories of the alu parathas her own mother used to cook. A fresh, fragrant trio—cilantro, ginger, and chile—starts things off. Then comes sweet-tart amchoor (dried mango powder); oniony kalonji (nigella seeds); earthy cumin; ajwain (carum seeds) to aid in digestion; and, of course, salt. Even though Mom had done her best to give me exact measurements, I needed to tweak the amounts to produce the flavor I remembered. As I divided the stuffing into eight portions, I knew she would be pleased—the high-starch mixture held together in neat balls and tasted wonderfully complex. 

It was time to make the dough. Many cooks pick atta, a stone-ground whole-wheat flour, but Mom’s choice is maida, a refined white flour. I found that dough made from all-purpose flour, which I think of as American maida, produced parathas with a subtle nuttiness just like Mom’s. 

A Boldly Seasoned Mash

The seasoning blend for Mom’s alu paratha stuffing is second to none: Amchoor (dried mango powder) offers fruity tartness, ajwain (carum seeds) aids digestion, kalonji (nigella seeds) brings allium notes, cumin provides smoky earthiness, fresh chile gives a burst of heat, and cilantro rounds the potatoes out with grassy freshness. The resulting mash is so good that you may find yourself whipping up a batch even when you’re not making parathas. Try frying it hash brown–style to serve with eggs, or use it as a flavorful addition to burritos or avocado toast.

Indian cooks have kneaded dough by hand for centuries, so when colleagues suggested that I use a food processor, I balked. Still, I decided to experiment, pulsing the flour with touches of sugar, salt, and oil and then drizzling in cold water. I was quickly won over: In mere seconds, the machine produced a satiny, pliable dough. I finished kneading by hand so that I could appreciate its silky feel while ensuring that it was perfectly smooth, and then I set it aside and let it rest for 30 minutes (as Mom suggested) to allow the gluten to relax. After dividing the dough into eight pieces, I went one step beyond my mom’s recommendation and let the individual balls rest again, this time for just 15 minutes. This second rest let the dough become more slack so that it was a breeze to roll out to 4-inch circles. 

Now I stuffed the parathas by placing a round of dough on the counter and centering a potato ball on top. From there, it was easy to bring the sides of the dough up and around the potato mixture and seal its edges together. I sprinkled flour on the counter and set the ball seam side down. 

As I prepared to roll the parathas, I reflected on Mom’s ability to produce remarkably thin, delicate, and pliable breads, useful for those who eat with their hands. I took her advice and rolled the dough slowly and gently to avoid tearing and exposing the stuffing, producing parathas that were about 8 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. It requires patience, but there’s no need to fret if the round isn’t perfect. As Sodha soothingly noted, “The brilliant thing about making filled parathas is that there’s always another one to roll and you get a little better every time.”

Tava Time

Mom cooks her parathas on a traditional Indian tava, a thin, round pan that’s flat or concave and made of cast iron or aluminum. Brushing the breads with ghee as she goes, she flips them several times until they are mottled brown. I tried her approach using a cast-iron skillet, and there was no discernible difference in the end result. The skillet was just a little thicker than a tava, so it took longer to heat.  

The last way my paratha recipe differs from Mom’s is due to her expertise. While she nimbly griddles one paratha while stuffing and rolling the next, I chose to assemble all the parathas before starting to cook. This way, I had to focus only on browning the breads instead of ping-ponging between the tasks of stuffing, rolling, and griddling. 

When all the parathas were golden brown, I sat down to enjoy them with bowls of vibrant condiments. I can’t wait until Mom visits next. I know just what I’m going to make for dinner.

The best alu parathas are thin and pliable, making them useful for eating with one’s hands.

Alu Parathas (Punjabi Potato-Stuffed Griddle Breads)

To make these scrumptious Punjabi flatbreads, wrap fragrant spiced mashed potatoes in delicate dough, roll the parcels into thin rounds, and griddle them with ghee. 
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