Barotta goes glam: The flatbread we love to eat but don’t think is classy enough

Every barotta is an emotion, and this Chennai company wants you to start ordering it like pizzas.
Barotta goes glam: The flatbread we love to eat but don’t think is classy enough
Barotta goes glam: The flatbread we love to eat but don’t think is classy enough
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The history of the ‘barotta’ is complex, but it is believed to have roots in South India. It is significantly different from the North Indian ‘paratha’, and is usually made of maida. It is possible that the North Indian ‘paratha’ and our own ‘parotta’, or ‘barotta’, have links or share common roots, but the barotta today has a strong South Indian identity.

V Thilagarasu, who fancies himself as a globe-trotting barotta connoisseur, says the barotta’s southern roots trace back to the 15th century. “It was a staple for many communities, like the Vaniba Chettiar and Keelakarai Muslims,” he says.

It did not, however, get world famous until after it traveled to Malaysia. As the British colonialists shipped Indian slaves to Malaysia to work in plantations, the Indians took their food along. They did not have enough rice to make idli or dosa, but their familiarity with making flatbread with wheat came in handy. And thus, the Malaysian Roti Canai was born, bearing close resemblance to what we still devour on the streets of Chennai and Madurai.

Many say that ‘Roti Canai’ is ‘Roti from Chennai’. Not true, says travel journalist John Krich. “Instead, canai is a Malay word sometimes translated as "to knead," … "more correctly meaning 'to stretch or push something pliable or elastic’,” he writes.

It was the Roti Canai which made the humble barotta famous all over the world. And now, the curry dipper has at least 20 different names across the continents, and has been modified to create some fantastic gastronomic experiences.

The different names of Barotta. Source:

Making the Roti Canai is also an art form, celebrated in food festivals across the world.

But what has happened to the barotta? Why has the tasty, traditional food lost its charm?

“Think about it,” says Thilagarasu, “I am a barotta lover too. I can eat it in every meal. As youngsters, we would eat it very often. But now, as we grow older, richer and more health-conscious, we eat it very rarely.”

Barotta today, is an unhealthy street-food which is cheap and not classy enough. We like it, but there are compelling reasons why we choose not to eat it.

“There are usually three reasons. One, health – it is made of maida, so people avoid it. Two, it’s served mostly in unhygienic stalls and places and we don’t want to go there. Third, and this is not often said, but the barotta has acquired an image of being inferior. We want to hang out at a pizzeria, not a barotta stall,” Thilagarasu explains.

For the barotta lover in Thilagarasu, this was a disappointing trend. He loved the barotta, but couldn’t eat it as often as he’d have liked to.

This was why Thilagarasu started Barottas, a food tech company and Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) chain. “I used to joke in college when the barottas got over at the canteen that one day I will start my own barotta kadai, well here I am,” he says, as we sit down for a chat at his office in Nungambakkam, Chennai.

A food-commodities trader and restaurateur, Thilagarasu says he has spent years traveling and researching the flatbread. He has held workshops and discussions with chefs to get to know the barotta better, looked into the science of barotta-making and travelled to several parts of the world to study the dish and other QSR models.

“I wondered, when the idli, dosa and biriyani have been marketed to the hilt across the world, why not the barotta? There is a Mr. Idli and a Dosa Corner in every city, there are no organized players who have only barotta as the concept,” he points out.

And that became his Mission Barotta.

In the Chennai market, barotta is both a food and a memory, says Thilagarasu… and that presents both advantages and problems.

It is a dish from our childhood about which we like to reminisce. For many, the barotta is an emotion. But it also one which is stereotyped and seen as a cheap and unhealthy dish. Barottas’ idea is to first play on the emotion, and then correct what they see as the “three pain points” – health, hygiene and class.

Over the years, street-vendors, owing to thin profit margins, have started using the cheapest variety of flour – maida – to make the barotta.

So, Thilagarusu started with changing the flour. “What is maida? Maida is the lowest grade of wheat, which is low on fibre. Barotta does not have to be made with just ‘maida’, it can be made healthier with more fibre too,” he says. Since the barotta cannot be made with extremely high fibre wheat, Barottas has created a medium-fibre Special Purpose Flour, which they use in their kitchen.

“Barotta is an awesome, wholesome meal – and I have kept it that way,” Thilagarusu says.

The next challenge was to make the barotta classy and hygienic. Thilagarusu has imported food-grade packaging material from Japan, and designed it with a lot of thought, for what he calls the ‘wow’ factor. “We offer over 500 combos and my QSRs will have good ambience,” he says, adding that he has taken lessons from global brands like McDonald’s and Chipotle.

For now, they are only available on the web, and on an app. “We have a central kitchen in Vadapalani, and 6 other finishing kitchens in the city,” Thilagarusu says.

With a little over three months into business, and Rs. 2 crore in the kitty from funders, Barottas has evinced much interest in town. In August, they clocked close to 3800 orders. “That’s a 125% growth,” Thilagarusu claims. There are plans to open QSRs in Chennai and Bengaluru too, he adds. The plan is grow to about 250 stores and franchises in 5 years.

But what’s the end of the road? Thilagarusu says, “I want to create a culture where everyone orders barottas like pizzas.”

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