How Pizza Became An Unlikely Symbol Of My Indian-American Identity

Photo: Courtesy of Mackenzie Kelley.
I grew up in a pretty traditional Indian household. Turmeric, coriander seed, and Basmati rice were our pantry staples. But by far the most cooked and requested dish among my family has always been one that is not traditional at all: roti pizza.
Roti pizza was born, like so many things are, out of compromise. My sister and I were both born and raised in the U.S.; we went to a school in Dallas, Texas where there were only a few non-white kids in our classes. We were desperate to fit in where we could, given that we didn’t look like most of our peers, and our immigrant parents were woefully unversed in American culture. Our best bet for assimilation was food — namely, eating what our friends were eating. So, very often, we were begging my mom to let us order pizza for dinner.
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But my mom had very strict rules about dinner. Sitting down for home-cooked food at the table was non-negotiable. A typical meal for us involved the North Indian staples she and my dad grew up eating: dal, rice or roti, kachumber (a cucumber-based salad), and sabzi. The specific varieties of the lentils and vegetables changed, but otherwise, my mom rarely ever strayed from this formula.
Still, she had some sympathy for our complaints. She knew she was raising two very American kids, and she couldn’t shield us from western foods forever. (Also, my dad loved pizza and may or may not have put in a good word on our behalf.) One night, we came home from school to find that my mom was not pressure-cooking lentils or chopping up cucumbers for salad; instead, she was arranging rotis on perforated pans and drizzling them with olive oil. She didn’t know how to make pizza dough, she told us, and she figured roti was round and bread-y enough to work as a substitute (not to mention it was also more wholesome than any pizza dough, because, you know, whole-wheat flour).
Mom baked the rotis for five minutes until they were golden-brown and the sides started to curl up like a crust, and then on top she arranged our favorite pizza fixings. On one roti, tomatoes and mozzarella; on another, kalamata olives and feta cheese. Yet another was sprinkled with thinly sliced potatoes, rosemary, and parmesan cheese.
She baked the pizzas again, and the kitchen filled with smells of olive oil and fresh herbs — a far cry from the usual scent of ghee and warm spices. When they came out, the edges of the crusts had puffed up and charred, and mozzarella cheese was bubbling over the sides. The pizzas didn’t even make it to the table. We just started grabbing at slices. They were that good. In her quest to make pizza with what she had on hand, my mom had discovered that roti makes for the perfect crust — sturdy enough to hold the weight of the toppings, but also beautifully able to crisp and char at the ends. The mild, slightly nutty flavor of the plain roti was a wonderful canvas for the brightness of the toppings. Roti pizza was also unbelievably easy to make. Each of us could literally eat four or five in one sitting. This quickly became our family’s favorite dish.
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Over the years, my mom became more creative with toppings, and we each developed our own preferences. My dad loves mozzarella paired with kalamata olives, my sister is a loyalist to basil pesto and tomato, and my favorite is one of her newer, even more hybridized variations: cheddar cheese, thinly sliced red onions, and cilantro chutney, which packs a spicy, salty, herbaceous punch.
Roti pizza is the singular dish that every member of my family can agree on. When we’re all home at the same time, there is a 100 percent chance that roti pizza will be made. It’s the closest thing to a signature dish in my mom’s culinary canon, and the perfect embodiment of the “Indian-ish” style upon which my cookbook is based.
During the most insecure moments of my childhood, when all I wanted was to blend in, roti pizza became a reminder that the way my family did things — that we spoke Hindi at home, put chutney in our sandwiches, and yes, used roti as a pizza crust — wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was wonderful and unique. Delicious, in fact.
My family’s narrative — one that straddles Indian and American cultures, constantly trying to find a middle ground — is enclosed in that roti pizza. That intermixing defines my identity. And finally, I’m proud of it.
Nowadays, I live in New York — the pizza capital of the country, to many. I’ve eaten some of the best pies the city has to offer. But guess what I’m thinking whenever I bite into a slice? These toppings would probably taste great on roti.
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Roti Pizza
Serves 2
Ingredients
Four (7-inch) rotis or whole wheat tortillas, (use 8 rotis if you are making both variations)
Olive oil, for drizzling
For the chutney-cheddar topping
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese (4 ounces)
2 tbsps Cilantro Chutney
For the potato-rosemary topping
1 medium russet potato, sliced into paper-thin rounds, (a mandoline works best for this)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, (4 ounces)
2 tbsps roughly chopped fresh rosemary
For the Cilantro Chutney
1 bunch fresh cilantro, preferably organic, stems and leaves roughly chopped (about 4 cups)
1 small Indian green chile or serrano chile, roughly chopped
2 tbsps fresh lime juice (from about 1 lime), plus more if needed
1/4 tsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt, plus more if needed
Directions:
1. For the Cilantro Chutney: In a blender, combine all the ingredients and blend until smooth. If the mixture is too thick to blend, add a few drops of water to get it going. Taste and adjust the salt and/or lime juice, if needed. This chutney keeps, refrigerated in an airtight container, for up to 2 days.
2. For the Roti Pizzas: Preheat the oven to 400°F.
3. Score each roti a few times with a knife or fork. Place them on a perforated pizza pan or a broiler pan. Drizzle olive oil on each roti (enough to coat the roti but not soak it) and smooth the oil over the surface with your fingers. Bake for 4 to 6 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Remove from the oven but keep the oven on. Once more, drizzle each baked roti with a little olive oil (again, enough to coat but not soak the roti) and smooth it over the surface with your fingers.
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4. To make chutney-cheddar pizzas: Evenly distribute the onion among the rotis, followed by the cheddar. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until the cheddar is melted and bubbling and the edges are crisp. Remove the pizzas from the oven, let cool for 2 to 3 minutes, then drizzle them with the chutney.
5. To make potato-rosemary pizzas: Layer the potato slices over the rotis, and top with another small drizzle of olive oil. Bake for 5 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and fully cooked. Distribute the cheese evenly over the rotis and bake for 5 minutes more, until the cheese has crisped up at the edges. Remove the pizzas from the oven, sprinkle with the rosemary, and drizzle a little more olive oil on top.
6. Cut the roti pizzas into quarters.
Roti Pizza is excerpted from Indian-ish © 2019 by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna. Photography © 2019 by Mackenzie Kelley. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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