Sel Roti: The ancient pancake that became a donut
By Madhulika Dash
No Nepali meal is complete without this bread. It is the ceremonial bread made during Tiwar, The Nepali version of Diwali, and culturally holds the same relevance as puri in India. It is customary for a groom to present the family of the bride with a basket of freshly made Sel Roti as a token before marrying their daughter. It is the gift that the bride carries back to her home from her parental place in a thumsey (bamboo basket) as good wishes post her annual vacation.
Birthdays, weddings or special occasions are complete without serving Sel Roti. In fact, such is the significance of this fried, donut shaped bread, that you would find it a part of every breakfast – and also in the travel meal box.
So what is Sel Roti? It is a bread made of ground rice flour. The rice flour is mixed with water and salt into a cake-like batter, which is allowed to rest and rise, before being deep fried into ring shaped rotis. This is the reason that it is often called the Himalayan cousin of the medu veda, with a few differences of course. Like Sel Roti only uses ground rice flour.
Interesting the first iteration of this fermented bread, which gets its name from the rice variety Sel, which grows in the foothills of Nepal was a far cry from the scented, sweet/savory versions one gets to sample today. Sel Roti, which old tales say was innovated as a ceremonial dish to be made around the Nepalese New Year, was bland, and could be served with anything – alu dum, alu ka achaar, lapsi ka achar and even meat. In fact, it was often served with Rakshi, an ethnic drink made of grains. Of course many believe that the word Sel comes from Saal, which in Nepalese mean both year and confectionary. And given that Sel Roti was only made once in year, it was also called Saal Roti.
But how did such a fascinating style bread originate, especially in a region that is known to keep things simple. Old tales say that the concept of Sel Roti came from the Babari, an original “roti” that was more of a pancake. Babari, unlike Sel Roti, was a thick pancake that was made of the same batter. It was dry, bland and was the perfect substitute for rice, especially when you are traveling. The only issue with the otherwise filling bread was that it dried soon, and wouldn’t survive even half of the travel. That is when, many say, that Sel Roti, a fried option was innovated. Though some believe that the difference between Sel Roti and Barbari, which a few believe originated at the same time, was while the former was fried and was reserved for festive occasion, Barbari was cooked on a griddle and was a daily staple. Back then, says Khem Raj Ghimray, Sous Chef, Radisson Blu Agra Taj East Gate, “frying was a cooking tradition that was reserved for bigger occasions, not because it was expensive, but for the time it needed. With all family members working, cooking back then had to be two ways: either slow cooked like our dal; or fast like the pancake and the alu dum. Making Sel Roti needed someone to be constantly next to chulah. ”
This, he adds, “was the reason that initially Sel Roti was made by the confectioners who would sell it to people during festivals.”
Fascinatingly, unlike other donuts that have fascinating stories behind their design, Sel Roti’s ring shape was more of convenience and the fact that it ensured that it cooked well, and could be carried with ease. Considering, says Chef Ghimray, “that it was one of the thick, slightly runny cake-kind batter with a texture making a ring came with ease. It also ensured consistency and crunch. Plus turning it needed only a suiro or saela (a pointed bamboo stick), which grew wildly in the neighbourhood.”
Over the time, of course, thanks to the influences, Sel Roti, which had proven its worth as a travel food ( well made, says Chef Ghmray, “it can stay for nearly two weeks!”), started having variations. The first was with coconut, the next with cinnamon and then sugar. Today, says the chef, a basic batter is prepared with cinnamon powder, salt and sugar, making it a crunchy, sweet treat. What hasn’t changed are the accompaniments. Even on the roadside today, Sel Roti is served with alu dum, a pickle or meat that slightly spicy.” SEL ROTI RECIPE
Ground Rice Flour 2.5 cup
Sugar 3.5 tsp
Ghee 1 tbsp
Banana (mashed) 1 no
Double Fat Milk 1.5 cup
Curd ( beaten) 80 gm
Ghee for deep frying 3 cup
A pinch of cooking soda
A pinch of fennel seed
A piping bag and a few cookie cutters Method:
1. In a bowl, add the rice flour, sugar, cooking soda, mashed banana, curd & clarified ghee and mix well. Add milk to make batter for a semi thick consistency.
2. Heat ghee in a deep pan, place a few cookie cutters in the pan, if you are doing it for the first time.
3. Now using a piping bag, make circles around the cookie cutters.
4. Once the bottom starts browning, removed the cutter and using a tong, flip the ring to cook on the other side till nicely browned. Remove and place on a kitchen towel, to soak extra oil.
5. Serve drizzled with cinnamon sugar. (Recipe and picture courtesy: Khem Raj Ghimray, Sous Chef, Radisson Blu Agra Taj East Gate) Check out this version of Sel Roti by Bawarchi chef 'Priya Ahluwalia'