James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Under‑Appreciated Cousin of the World‑Famous Naan

The Under‑Appreciated Cousin of the World‑Famous Naan

Parathas Everywhere

There is an almost hypnotic quality to watching a paratha being made. Balls of greasy dough are rolled out into almost perfect circles. There is a sizzle when the dough hits the griddle. It is swirled round and flipped over until it lands onto a plate.

Trumpets should herald its arrival. But this fried flatbread is the humble, under-appreciated cousin of the world-famous naan, and too common to be given any respect.

Parathas are a dime a dozen, sold everywhere from ramshackle tea stalls to five-star hotels, but they are the democratic breakfast food that transcends class and occasion. Everyone eats them: the laborers splitting parathas before heading off to work on construction sites, the rickshaw driver starting his shift, the student reluctantly heading off to university. And everyone loves them. They topped a 1987 poll of what Karachi’s residents ate for breakfast. “Chai-paratha” is now Karachi shorthand for breakfast. Even Karachi’s hipsters eat parathas, albeit Nutella-stuffed versions at cafés designed to look like the down-market tea stalls.

What is it about parathas? Perhaps the paratha has endured because it represents both the ultimate comfort food and the quintessential breakfast meal. A crisp, hot paratha—with a cup of sugary tea—evokes the kind of heartiness one only associates with blazing fires and bowls of soup. Parathas are perhaps unrivaled in the sheer variety of food one can eat with them: fried eggs and omelets, pickled vegetables, sliced onions, last night’s leftover curry, or a bowl of fresh yogurt. It can be eaten for every meal, even dessert, with a heavy-handed pat of clarified butter and brown sugar. Parathas come in varying sizes and purpose-specific versions, from layered versions for breakfast to the deep-fried versions made by BBQ restaurants.

I never thought I’d think of parathas with any kind of nostalgia or bitter longing. But I haven’t eaten a guilt-free paratha in a long time. It’s been months, I think to myself every time I round the corner of my street and find myself by the local tea shop’s griddle. I’ve probably had enough parathas to last a lifetime: at home, weddings, grimy cafes, and on a reporting trip with the unlikely but amazing combination of fish and roasted okra. I can’t remember what I did last week, but I remember every detail of my only transcendent paratha experience: the paratha of May 16, 2009. It was magical. It cured my throbbing headache and queasiness, the byproducts of having to go to work after a night of excesses. It restored my will to live.

But I am older and wiser—or just heavier, really—and parathas are one of the things I’ve given up in my quest to live a healthier life. I do know that I will crack one day. I’ll tell myself that I need—nay, deserve!—to have a paratha. I will not be the person staring longingly at other people’s plates, backing away from the tea shop without ordering anything. I will be the one gloriously tearing off pieces, relishing the almost-salty dough and crispiness, ordering a second paratha while I’m halfway through my first. I already know that when that blessed day arrives, I will not regret a single bite.

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