Wheat is the staple cereal for people in Europe, North America, Middle East Asia and North Africa. Major products made at home are yeast-leavened bread, cookies, pastry and porridge while there are hundreds of industrial products which include different types of bread, biscuits, cookies, crackers, various pastry preparations, pasta including macaroni etc. Though wheat was ground into flour as early as 9000 BC using stone grinders, industrial processing started towards the beginning of 20th century. The susceptibility of wheat flour to go rancid prevented its transportation and wide use because the germ portion rich in lipids undergoes oxidative deterioration giving foul smell and bitter taste.
The modern roller flour mills which break the wheat grain into progressively smaller particle size have provisions to extract bran as well as the germ fractions yielding pure white flour from the endosperm and this flour is the basis of almost all commercial products made in western countries. While bread making calls for strong or hard flours with gluten content more than 12%, soft flours with less than 10% protein are required for sheeted products like biscuits. In contrast the people in India consume wheat mostly after grinding it into 100% flour (Atta) which go into the making of staple foods like roti and chapathi, considered more nutritious because of the presence of bran and germ. Also whole wheat flour has a typical aroma when made into roti or chapathi considered delicious by the people. When multinational companies entered India some years ago, they found it difficult to make good quality Atta because only plate grinding (Chakki grinding), with high temperature generation due to friction can cause adequate starch damage, required to make high quality roti or chapati. To day many of them have installed large capacity Chakkis in their modern flour mills to make Atta!
People in South India who were predominantly rice eaters till a few years ago are increasingly switching over to wheat and historically shortage of rice in nineteen fifties and sixties can be cited as the major reason for this change in consumption habits. Parotha is a much sought after wheat based food item which is popular in Kerala and Tamilnadu. Recent news reports that there is a shortage of skilled artisans who can make Parotha are indeed alarming because during the last 6 decades no worthwhile research has been carried out on most of the traditional foods like Parotha and the art of preparing authentic foods, native to India is likely to disappear sooner than later. It appears many restaurants in Kerala are advertising for recruitment of Parotha makers at a monthly salary of Rs 10, 000 where as average salary of hotel workers rarely exceeds Rs 3000 per month. This is a reflection of the dearth of people who are well versant with various nuances involved in Parotha making! Is the Parotha story an exception or is it going to be same with other traditional foods also?
If the reports from Kerala are true Parotha making has been taken over by artisans from Bihar and restaurants are depending more and more on outsiders to include this item in the menu. Interestingly Parotha means different things to different people and there are several versions of this product popular in various parts of the country. For example a Punjabi will never miss muli Parotha or Gobi Parotha with thick curd for breakfast, especially during winter time. Frozen Parotha has become a major item for export from Kerala targeted at immigrant Indians in many countries who cannot make good quality Parotha at home. Though indigenous equipment for some of the traditional products like Idli, Dosa and Roti have been developed in the country, there are not many standard manufacturers who can supply commercial models with reliable performance criteria. How ever making Parotha in a machine is some what tricky and no indigenous fabricator is in a position to offer such equipment at present. It appears that one Taiwanese machinery firm has designed the necessary plant for manufacture of Parotha and such plants are in commercial operation in India mainly for export of the machine-made product.
Is it not a tragedy that hundreds of traditional Indian food products are languishing without any attention by the food scientists in the country and over obsession with western system of research on many products alien to India may ensure continued neglect of the native foods for years to come. Billions of rupees being invested by GOI on food research in India are being spent on "ivory tower" research with little relevance to the industry or to the society in the country. It was hoped that at least the new much hyped organization being set up by the MFPI for food research, training, management would take up on a priority development work on traditional foods but it is unlikely to happen as there is very little appreciation of the importance of the native foods inherited over centuries of evolution of Indian civilization. Probably future generations in India may forget their own foods and will depend more and more on drab bread, unhealthy breakfast cereals, French Fries, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs etc pushing Indian indigenous foods like Parotha into oblivion.