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Malera or Baasi Atta pre-ferment – Indigenous fermentation methods followed in India

Fermented Himachali foods
Roti, bhatooru (bhatur) and siddu served with a radish salad and spicy dal

I have been wanting to write about indigenous fermentations and cultures w.r.t to Himachal and the surrounding regions for a long time but the volume of information I found once I started digging, was sometimes overwhelming and at other times inadequate. How does one start on a topic like this and do justice in one post? Truth: it isn’t possible. Rather than not share at all, I decided that it is best to weave in information into my writings as and when it applies. Even then I am afraid I will never be able to do full justice. There are several aspects to it – regional variations, the number of cereals, grains, vegetables, and fruits that undergo this process, and the methods of fermentation. This post is just the tip of the iceberg and I hope I will be able to share more information in later posts.

Why start with Himachal? Well, left to myself I’d probably settle there; Lucknow or perhaps Jaipur being serious contenders.

There is a reason for revival of fermented foods. It is linked to health. All of my life I had been told that ‘baasi atta’ or leftover dough should be discarded as it is unhealthy. It is only about 15-16 years ago, that I learnt it to be the opposite. [Does that make you want to guess my age? :-)] The list of fermented foods kept adding up in my mind but it was only during my first trek along Yankar Pass that I became conscious about Indian sourdough, in the village of Burshaini to be precise. Though I specifically learnt this method in Himachal it was widely prevalent in Punjab and Haryana as well. The dishes remain the same as far as taste and characteristics go but the names might vary.

Since Himachal is a cold place, for generations people have been leaving their leftover roti dough overnight and using the same as a starter or inoculum for the next day’s batch of rotis and many other bread forms. When I read about the revival of the Western sourdough breads, I am reminded of how the world has gotten smaller. Incredulously, we are still distanced from regions within our country when it comes to knowing about indigenous fermentation methods. Everything that is leavened with khameer (yeast), or a combination of baking soda and a souring agent (instant leavening) was once made of ‘baasi atta’. Few locals still follow this method but most recipes you will find use modern methods for quick rise. Horrific, I tell you!

This post and some others that will follow are all for the love of history, food and for Himachal. I am not a qualified food historian but I have a fetish for facts (apparently alliteration also), curiosity to know where my food comes from, love for people, a healthy appetite for reading and writing, and photography all of which help me immensely in tracking, recording and documenting anything that requires deep study.

I was introduced to the concept of an Indian sourdough by my friend Kumkum, one of the most versatile and inspiring women I ever met. K introduced me to her friends from Burshaini. Ever since, this family has always been very kind to me, and I spend a day with them when I am in the area. Baisi, our hostess showed me how a bhatur (or bhaturu) is made, having served it for breakfast and inciting excited queries. Bhatur is a thick leavened bread, first cooked on the tawa and then in the fire like a roti. Make it thinner and it becomes a khameeri roti or dehati roti. She said that many people make a quick job of things with yeast but this is how she still did it. The dough for bhatur (bhaturu) is made by adding the previous night’s atta, which would be left by the chulha or hearth to rise in the residual warmth. In my very warm climate I can leave it anywhere.

Making bhatooru
Baisi preparing bhatoor (u)

Since that trip, I have spoken to many other Himachalis. Tea stall keepers and local guides have the best local knowhow and share information generously and with pride. While they do mention khameer as the rising agent, most reiterate that the use of ‘baasi atta’ is best in terms of taste. I use the term ‘baasi atta’ because anything else would make it fancy or less authentic. Did you know that pâte fermentée means literally ‘baasi atta’ (henceforth termed BA)? Why does everything said in French sound sophisticated and melodious? The Himachali equivalent too sounds like a tweet. BA is called ‘malera’ or ‘maleda’ in Himachali.

The use of baasi atta as a starter to leaven fresh dough does not call for specific ratios or measurements. The idea initially started as a way to avoid wastage of food. Anyway I decided and am conducting some gastronomical experiments that has turned my kitchen into a mini microbiology lab (in an uncontrolled environment), what with curd cultures and dough inoculums in various stages of preparation. As of today, I have even begun a series called ‘The Kitch-lab’ on my instagram where I show the progress of these cultures and I intend to show the results in various foods as well. Follow me it it interests you. I hope my interest in SM lasts. I have a history of going into a shell but I do revive, just like sourdough. 😀

I have BA of whole wheat and maida (refined flour) at various stages of fermentation. They are extremely easy to maintain unlike the gloopy sourdough starters I used to make following Western methods, no offense. I love the gloopiness of it, and even the smell. I mean where a comparison is made love is not destroyed for any of the elements compared. BA is however a lot more flexible than a sourdough starter – that’s all.

The foods made with matured BA have layers, depth and complexity of flavours. (I agree, they all mean exactly the same but people, one must emphasise, else it just does not leave an imprint, right?) The whole process is really easy.

In the first attempt, all I did was start out with a tablespoon of leftover phulka dough for my whole wheat BA, and made a dough by mixing 1/4 cup of APF with a little water for the maida BA. Neither had salt. Both doughs were of the same consistency and I didn’t bother to check the hydration levels. However, they were soft and supple. I left them covered in my oven at room temperature overnight. Next day I kept them in the fridge. They had already developed a nice yeasty flavour and texture. The day after that I used the APF starter to make siddu (we have been eating lots of siddu this past couple of weeks). I retained 1/2 a cup of the dough and kept it out for another two hours and then transferred it to the fridge. Two days later I made my first bath of baasi atte ka bhatura – flavourful, bready and typically dhaabe waala bhatura! You can’t leave the starter for more than two days unless you feed it with more flour and water, just like sourdough starter. They may be regions apart but the science remains the same. The yeast needs its feed.

On alternate days I used the wholewheat baasi atta starter to make a dough for siddu. A portion was refrigerated and used to make bhatur. I also made pita breads and whole wheat bhaturas all to standing ovation – a bit exaggerated – we are only three. But still, they were in glee and were standing; does that count?

On Sunday, last week, I used half of the WW BA which had matured with much better flavour to make a HImachali platter. The same dough was used to make bhatur, siddu and dehati roti (thick pita breads). You can this as the featured image.A small portion has been refrigerated to serve as BA starter for the next batch of whatever I make.

Bhatura made with wild yeast fermentation
Chhole Bhature (indigenous fermentation method)

I used half of the APF BA (Refined flour baasi atta) to make the most delicious and flavourful bhature with chhole.

I began the process of a BA again yesterday after I had finished up my stock. This time I am diligently recording the data.

Let’s see what happens tomorrow. I will be using this as a pre-ferment again to make dishes like siddu, bhatooru, bhatoora, doli ki roti, kulcha and several other dishes that are now made with yeast or curd and soda-bi-carb. I welcome you to join me as I route back to the roots. You can connect with me on ‘The Kitch-lab’ series on my instagram handle @hariniandharsha to follow the day to day progress of the BA, malera or maleda. Páte fermentée, if it pleases you!


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Harini is a vegan food photographer, writer and recipe developer. She also loves feeding birds, reading, watching crime thrillers, and travelling amongst other things.

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