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The 'special chili' at this east-end roti house makes the paratha sing

Amma Roti House is located at 2014 Queen St. E. in Toronto

Suresh Doss · CBC News · Posted: Mar 28, 2019 7:45 AM ET | Last Updated: April 4, 2019

Amma Roti House in the city's east end is known for its Indian flatbreads — roti and paratha. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

For Raju Thapa, bread has been a career-long obsession.

If you spend more than five minutes talking to him, two things will be evident: his thoughts on organic flour and his philosophy of east-meets-west-equals-fusion cuisine.

"My cooking has always been about east meets west, even from Pokhara to Toronto," Thapa said as he switched between rolling out balls of roti and tending to his tandoori oven.

"I have to make sure the black spots are correct."

Thapa, who owns and operates Amma Roti House with his wife, Sunita, is referring to the leopard spotting that one can achieve when baking roti or naan in a clay tandoori oven.

Leopard spotting is a term pizza aficionados use to describe small orbs of burnt dough that appear on the rim of a Neapolitan-style pizza. They're created by the dough's close proximity to high heat.

When it comes to Indian flatbread, like naan, leopard spotting is more pronounced, with the dough literally sticking to the interior oven walls. The burnt bits of dough bring a slight bitterness to the naan — a nutty and earthy quality.

Raju Thapa grew up in Pokhara, Nepal and he says his cooking is influenced Indian and Tibetan cuisine. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Thapa was born and raised in Pokhara, Nepal, a central Nepalese city that is known for its lakeside tranquility against the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. For many years, he operated a restaurant called East Meets West.

Thapa said the cuisine of Nepal is an amalgamation of its neighbours. Noodles and momos (dumplings) are prevalent in places that are heavily influenced by Tibet. As you head closer to the south, Bengali and Indian influences are abundant — especially when it comes to a form of roti known as paratha.

Thapa and his wife immigrated to Canada in 2001 to further his career in the hospitality industry, and he soon found himself working at a number of Toronto's Indian restaurants to improve their bread programs.

"My cooking has always been about east meets west, even from Pokhara to Toronto". - Raju Thapa, owner of Amma Roti House

When I recently asked two cooks at a downtown Indian restaurant what makes Thapa such a talented breadmaker, the answer I got was, "perfection with flour and kneading."

I had lost track of Thapa until fairly recently, when I heard that he had opened his own place on Queen Street East in the Beach. When I stopped in for a visit, I learned he was now focusing on a variation of Indian flatbread commonly known as stuffed paratha.

The lamb korma, top, pairs well with the aloo paratha, or stuffed roti. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

For the first few visits, I knew what I wanted: the naan, with the signature leopard spotting, to dunk and polish off a bowl of Thapa's lamb korma.

For this dish, chunks of lamb are slow-cooked in stages as Thapa introduces his house mixes of wet and dry spice blends to the meat.

What sets the korma apart for me is how bright the spices sing. It doesn't feel heavy, and it has a distinct taste.

The korma and naan combo became a routine for me, until recently.

Chef Raju Thapa makes the aloo paratha by hand, rolling out the dough and combining a homemade spice blend with the 'special chili.' (Suresh Doss/CBC)

During a visit, insisting that I try the aloo paratha — stuffed roti with spiced potatoes — Thapa immediately grabbed a bowl of dough and started to roll it out. After that, he added a house spice blend to some boiled potatoes, including chili powder, coriander and something he kept referring to as "special chili," then mashed it.

He set the mixture in the centre of the roti and sealed it with a series of pleats, quickly pinching the edges of the dough, forming what looked like a dumpling. He then flattened the ball by hand and gently rolled it out a second time.

The dough and mixture became one.

By this point, you've already been asked if you want your paratha toasted or fried. Thapa then either transfers the roti to the tandoor oven or he shallow fries it on a flat top with some ghee.

When I first had the aloo paratha, what immediately stuck out to me was the texture — how soft and pliable the fried roti was compared to other versions I've had.

Then it was the spice mixture. It had a very distinct flavour profile: unlike the deep, earthy, roasted spice notes that you find in Indian curries and spice mixtures, this was bright, sharp, vibrant and piercingly hot.

The 'special chili' at Amma Roti House is made with a mixture of green and red chilies, which are the heart of Southeast Asian cooking. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

After a few visits, Thapa revealed the secret of the "special chili." He pulled up a bin that contained a mash of green and red chilies.

"Bird's eye chilies," he said with a grin on his face.

The inclusion of the Bird's eye chilies is a game changer. In my opinion, Thapa has created a superior paratha using the chilies, which are prevalent in Southeast Asian cooking.

The chilies are softened by the dough and potato, and the dish doesn't feel heavy, like most stuffed parathas.

The aloo paratha is fried on a flat top grill. This gives the dough the signature leopard spotting, which pulls out a nutty and earthy quality of the Indian flatbread. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

During my last visit, I was ambitious with my order: two curries, including the lamb korma, and a variety of parathas and tandoor-baked naans.

After I took my roti for a dunk into the lamb korma, I tasted that familiar Bird's eye chili pop — and with the rollercoaster endorphin rush, the epiphany followed.

It's incredibly addicting. I suggest you be brave and go up to a level higher in your spice tolerance.

Amma Roti House is at 2014 Queen St. E.

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