Different Types of Flours
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Wheat is the most common grain to be crushed into flour. Archaeological surveys have found that it was used in the Indian subcontinent since the Indus Valley civilisation (3300 BC - 1700 BC). Ancient Indian scripts including the Rigveda (one of the oldest surviving texts known to man) mention the use of wheat flour in various forms, including being mixed with milk, fried in ghee and spiced with cardamom, pepper and ginger. Barley and rice flours were also used.

Regional differences play an important role: the cuisine in some parts of the country, such as the south and the north east, is rice-based, whereas in Punjab it is wheat-based.

Atta

Although wheat has been grown in India for hundreds of years, today two major varieties are used to make wholewheat flour or ‘atta’. These are the hard ‘durum’ and the semi-hard variety called ‘aestivum’. Hard wheat has a high gluten content, which gives dough its elasticity and therefore makes it easier to roll out thinly into chapattis.

To make atta, the outer husk of the grain is removed, leaving behind three layers - the bran, the endosperm and the germ. Bran is essentially fibre, the endosperm is starch and the germ is protein. These are coarsely ground to make atta, which is primarily used to make rotis or chapattis and similar flat breads.

Bags of atta are often labelled on the basis of their use, as chapatti flour. There are many varieties of atta, such as brown or medium, and these usually indicate the amount of bran or the coarseness of the flour. Many bags mention the word ‘chakki’, meaning stone-milled.

Maida

The bran is removed and the starchy endosperm of the grain is milled and bleached to make this refined flour that is finer and paler than atta. As it is quite fine, it is mostly used for recipes that require a soft texture. Certain breads like roomali roti, literally ‘handkerchief bread’ or naan are made of maida, as is the crisp shortened pastry for savoury samosas.

Dalia (Bulgar Wheat)

This is cracked wheat and it resembles grits. It is also known as lapsi, bulghur wheat or fada. Fine and coarse versions are cooked into a sweet porridge called ‘kheer’ or used to make hot snacks.

Rava / Sooji (Semolina)

When wheat is milled to resemble sand, it is called rava, sooji or semolina. There are several varieties available and they all result in different textures in the final dish. Extra coarse and coarse rava is gritty and delightfully nutty and is used for puddings or a savoury south Indian dish called ‘upma’.

Fine rava is also used for puddings, or added to shortened pastry for extra crispness. They all feature in one of the best-loved desserts, variously called ‘sheera’, ‘sooji ka halwa’ or ‘rava kesari’.

Rice Flour

This is made from polished, broken rice and is used in everyday cooking mostly in the south and in Gujarat. It is mixed with water or coconut milk to make a gluten-free batter for pancakes called dosas, made into a dough or used to thicken milky desserts.

Bajra (Millet) Flour

Bajra, bajri or millet flour is made from a small round grain that resembles mustard seed. It is earthy and nutty in flavour with a slightly sweet aftertaste. It is considered healthy as it contains many vital nutrients, such as iron, as well as fibre.

Bajra flour tends to require a binding agent while being made into a dough, so sometimes a little rice flour is added. It is often patted into shape by moistened hands rather like moulding clay. If the dough is dry, it will crack and it is for this reason that it is not rolled like wheat flour rotis.

Makai (Maize) Flour

Dried corn is soaked in lime solution or slaked, then hulled. The damp corn is then milled into a slightly coarse flour which is used to make breads such as Punjab’s famous ‘makki ki roti’, a flat, unleavened corn bread, or is used as a thickener in curries and vegetable dishes like ‘sarson ka saag’, a Punjabi delicacy of seasonal mustard greens cooked with spices and eaten with homemade ghee.

Lentil Flours

As flours, lentils are used to thicken, bind, coat and add crispness to dishes.

Besan (Gram) Flour

Gram flour is made by milling dried chickpeas. It is nutty, protein rich and gluten free. Gluten-free pancakes are made from a thick batter of besan and water. Besan is used to make sweets like ‘laddoos’, where it is roasted in ghee, sweetened with sugar and pressed into balls that will keep for days. Sindhi Kadhi, a savoury vegetable curry, has a base of besan and tomatoes. Pakoras are made by dipping vegetables, paneer, and others into a seasoned besan batter before deep-frying them.

Mung Flour

This is made from mung beans and is also called green bean flour. It is lighter than other pulse flours and is used to make dosas and for poppadums or papads. A dough is made with mung flour and water, spiced and seasoned, then rolled out into thin discs.

Urad Flour

Urad or urid beans are black in colour but once peeled, they reveal a creamy white interior. These cream-coloured beans are milled to form the flour which is used to make various kinds of dosas. It is sometimes sold as ‘mapte bean flour’ or ‘papad flour’ as it is largely used to make poppadums, or ‘papads’. Being gluten free, dosas made with urad flour can be a good substitute for wheat rotis.