Why I want to be a Chapatti Mama

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My first try at making chapattis. Photo by Alex Romanyshyn at www.alrophoto.com

You might ask, “What the hell is a Chapatti Mama?” Well, two things.

 
First: Chapattis are a simple, delicious, and dirt cheap flatbread that you can find in the morning in East Africa. A Chapatti Mama is a woman who makes really good chapattis. In my experience a really good chapatti can start an African day off right. The mamas wrap the chapattis up in newspaper when they sell them and you unroll it and super-hot steam hits you in the face and you tear off a perfectly soft piece and the world just seems right. Why wouldn’t I want to try my hand at making a food that has such amazing effects on my mental well-being? I’ve seen mamas do it: roll out your pre-made dough, let it sizzle on an oily pan, flip,sizzle, and voila! I knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but it takes practice to become a Chapatti Mama.Yesterday I mixed up flour, water, and pinch of salt until the dough seemed to be the right consistency: stiff but still moist enough to manipulate. Then I needed to roll my dough out flat on the countertop. Having used up all the flour, I decided to sprinkle the counter with Belgian Waffle Mix and roll them out on that so the dough wouldn’t stick. Next, I needed to let them sizzle in an oily pan. I poked around the oil varieties available in the kitchen and couldn’t find any vegetable or canola oil, which seemed like the logical choice. So I had to use peanut oil. The result was a crispy chapatti- probably because of the sugar in the waffle mix- that tasted a little like peanut butter, a little like flatbread, and a little like waffle. It wasn’t a total flop, but I think I can do better. And I’ll have to do better if I truly want to become a chapatti making pro/ Chapatti Mama.

 
Second: Chapatti Mamas are independent business women. My observation while travelling in East Africa was that many of the people survive off of small businesses that they start. And Chapatti Mama’s are no exception. In Iringa, Tanzania we had breakfast at a place deemed “Mama Chapatti’s” by the Peace Corps volunteers we were hanging out with. “Mama Chapatti’s” was in the main marketplace area of Iringa, but was a little tricky to find. We were walking there with people who knew the way. From the main road we saw typical market stands selling food, shoes, watches, brooms, yogurt, etc. We turned left between two stands onto a path that I never would have assumed was a path; it was inches wide. I few yards back was “Mama Chapatti’s.” It resembled a small warehouse, with people moving efficiently while cutting meat, rolling chapatti dough, wrapping chapattis, pouring tea, and washing dishes. Mama Chapatti herself stood behind a table, her hands glistening with ever-present oil. She had a charcoal stove in front of her and flipped the chapattis with her bare hands while she smiled and joked with her customers, who sat on benches around the table. Sarah, my friend who is in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, informed me that this is her business; She runs the restaurant and has chapattis delivered all over the city every morning. In this way, she makes a living and has put a couple of her kids through college already. Pretty amazing! And she’s not the only Chapatti Mama supporting her family this way. In 2010 I saw a woman in Kenya come to the construction site of the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center every day to sell chapattis to the crew for lunch.

 

When I set out making chapattis yesterday it was pretty much because I was extremely hungry and because I, of course, really miss Africa sometimes. It was as I rolled out the dough that I realized not only would I like to learn to make this amazing food, I would like to be a creative, independent, entrepreneurial woman like all those East African Chapatti Mamas. I don’t think my chapatti-making skills are good enough to send my [unborn] children to college, but I sure can learn from the resourcefulness and skill of Chapatti Mamas.

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