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  • Writer's pictureSanah Alban

Flours in South Asian Cooking

This week I shared a recipe for Besan Chilla, a savory pancake made with gram (chickpea) flour. I’ve put together some information on gram flour and other flours which are commonly used in South Asian cuisine in this post.

Also check out the pieces I wrote on grains and flatbreads too from a few months back, which all tie together with the topic of flours.

What is a flour?

Flour is the powder from ground down grains, roots, beans, nuts or seeds. It can be used to make many different foods, sweet and savory. There are many different types flours used across cultures, wheat flour being the most common. I'd like to expand on flours that are used in South Asian Cuisine specifically in this post.

Atta: Wheat flour

Atta is the word for flour in Hindi and Urdu and also mostly refers to wheat flour, similar to how we use the word 'flour' in English. For example, we mostly say flour/atta when referring to wheat flour but use the word flour to describe a type of flour like corn flour / makai ka atta, pearl millet flour / bajre ka atta etc.

Atta is a whole grain wheat flour and is usually stone-ground (in a chakki). It has a high gluten content giving the dough elasticity. This is important as the dough needs to be strong enough to be rolled into thin flatbreads like chapati, roti, naan, paratha and puris.

Image by Usman Yousaf from Pixabay

Maida: Finely milled wheat flour

Maida is finely milled wheat flour without any bran. It's made from the endosperm and starchy white part of the grain. Although it is sometimes labelled as all-purpose flour it more closely resembles cake flour or even pure starch.

Maida is used to make flatbreads like naan, paratha, tandoori roti and bhatoora, and also used in pastries and sweets.

This flour also crops up in Central Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine.

Besan: Gram (chickpea) flour

Besan is made from ground chickpeas, the gram chickpea specifically. It is a staple ingredient across South Asian cuisines used in foods like sev, boondi, dhokla, laddu, soan papri, papadums and many others. Gram flour is also used in Southern Europe, North Africa and Southeast and East Asia. Gram flour has a high proportion of carbohydrates, and higher fiber and protein compared to other flours. It doesn't contain any gluten making it a great GF option.

Burmese tofu is made from gram flour if you are looking for a soy free option! Gram flour can be used as an egg replacement when mixed with equal parts water. This week I shared a recipe for Besan Chila which is a savory pancake made from gram flour. I also have a baked pakora recipe (fritters made with gram flour) so be sure to check them out.

Suji: Semolina

Suji is the Hindi/Urdu word for Semolina which is the wheat middlings (intermediate milling stage) of durum wheat. Semolina can also refer to the coarse middlings from other types of wheat and other grains like rice or corn.

Semolina is used in many different cultures in both sweet and savory dishes e.g. couscous, pasta, semolina soups and stews, porridges and puddings.

Semolina is used in the Indian Subcontinent to make sweets like halwa (as they do in the Mediterranean and Middle East too) and savory foods like gol guppa/pani puri. Semolina is used in South India to make foods like dosa, idli, kitchadi and upma.

Image by Tanuj Handa from Pixabay

Makai: Corn (maize) flour

Makai ka atta is ground corn (maize) and is popular in Punjab where it is used to make roti.

Corn flour is also used in Southern and South Western US, Mexico and Central America. Corn flour that is finely ground and treated with food-grade lime is called masa harina and is used to make tortillas and tamales in Mexican cooking.

Note corn flour should not be confused with corn starch which is the starch extracted from the endosperm of the corn kernel. We Brits call this 'cornflour'!

Image by NatureFriend from Pixabay

Rice Flour

Rice flour is made from finely milled rice. It's a popular ingredient in East, Southeast and South Asia, the Balkans and Latin America.

In South Asia, rice flour is used to make food like kheer, dosa in South Indian cuisine, roti and pitha in Bangladeshi, Bengali and Assamese cuisine and pittu and hoppers in Sri Lanka.

As well as a substitute for wheat flour, rice flour can be used as a thickening agent in recipes that are refrigerated or frozen as is inhibits liquid separation.

Other flours used in South Asia


Sorghum flour, known as jowar in India and Pakistan is made from grinding whole grains of the sorghum plant. It can be used to make roti, bhakri, theplas and other breads, used alone or mixed with wheat flour.


Pearl millet flour, known as bajra is made by grinding grains of pearl millet. This flour is gluten free an can be used to made roti, theplas, parathas and other breads.

Which of these flours you use and what foods you make with them? Let me know in the comments below!

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