May 22, 2019
Taste Egg Icon
The Indian Roti That Became Malaysia’s National Bread
shutterstock_221772775-copy_LM_CC

Roti canai, despite its Indian name, ingredients, and links to the Tamil people of Southern India, is a bread born in Malaysia.

It’s no surprise that roti canai gets mistaken as one of India’s legendary breads. Its flattened, disc-like shape is similar to parottas and chapatis, and its ingredients—maida flour and a touch of ghee—are unmistakably Indian, much like its name. But ask for a roti canai in Mumbai or Kerala and all you will get is a quizzical shake of the head. Because while roti canai has Indian roots, it was a child of Malaysia, through Tamil immigrants. And within the past century, it has grown to be Malaysia’s unofficial national bread through a combination of colonialism, cultural assimilation, and the country’s pluralist palate.

In its most basic form, roti canai is an unleavened bread made from maida flour (a low-protein wheat flour similar to cake flour), water, and a bit of oil. The dough is first stretched until thin and translucent, and often flipped repeatedly in the air, like a matador twirling his cape. Christina Arokiasamy, author of The Malaysian Kitchen, explains that in South India, dough is formed on a flat surface, but Malaysia’s roti canai differs as it’s “flipped and spun in the air, akin to making pizza,” earning it the moniker “the flying bread.” It’s then folded back onto itself, trapping bulbous pockets of air within, before it’s stretched a second time and slapped onto a hot plancha glistening with ghee.

After just a minute or two of frying, it transforms into a flaky, pillowy flatbread with a scallion-pancake-like exterior—crispy, savory, and aromatic—but with an inside closer to the chewy, fluffy inner layers of a croissant. And often, as Arokiasamy recalls from childhood, they come wrapped in a sheet of Malaysian newspaper, a parallel to British fish and chips.

Like much of Malaysia’s multicultural cuisine, roti canai has roots in British colonialism. In the late 1900s, laborers from the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu (then known as the Madras Presidency of British India) were brought to West Malaysia (called Malaya at the time) under colonial rule. They were collectively known as Indian Muslims, or as they’re colloquially termed, mamaks. With mamak culture came many hybridized dishes (much like the rest of Malaysian cuisine born from Chinese and Hindu immigrants) like dals thickened with coconut milk, chicken curries scented with Malaysian pandan and kerisik (fried coconut paste), and nasi kandar (a modular meal of rice with various curries and side dishes). Then, of course, there’s roti canai, which Arokiasamy calls “Indian immigrants’ great culinary contribution to Malaysia.” Because like their makers, roti canai were uprooted and brought to a new country, but with time, both have inculcated themselves into the fabric of Malaysian culture.

Walk into any mamak diner, and a waiter will stroll up to your table, no menu in hand, expecting you to order one type of roti canai amongst an infinite set that all Malaysians seem to have memorized—whether it’s stuffed with roughly brunoised red onions, eggs, or slivers of canned tuna. Others utilize the crisped-up dough as a carrier for other ingredients, like roti maggi (chow-mein-like fried noodles folded into the bread), roti banjir, literally meaning “flood bread” (a roti canai soaked and served in a deluge of Malay chicken curry), and roti Beckham—more akin to Western-style breakfast sandwiches, with scrambled eggs, ham, cheese, and a liberal helping of mayonnaise.

Like croissants and Wonderbread, roti canai fits right into a family of breads that take on sugar just as well. Stuff in a handful of chopped fresh bananas and you have roti pisang. Spread on a heap of ghee and sugar before folding the dough for a roti boom, named for the explosion of calories. For Malaysia’s answer to pain au chocolat, sprinkle some Milo on top. And for a roti spread thinner than one-ply Kleenex, look to roti tisu (a Malay loan word for tissue). It’s crisped up on the plancha, then coated with palmfuls of sugar, and often made so theatrically large the finished product is served on two trays.

It is these riotous inventions, these multicultural mashups, these infinite variants stemming from this one bread—this is what has evolved the roti canai from its Indian origin and colonial roots into what it is today: a thoroughbred Malaysian bread.

Roti Canai

Roti Canai

6 servings

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup water
  • ¼ cup condensed milk
  • 1 medium free-range egg
  • ¾ teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing and covering
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

In Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen, author Ping Coombes shares comforting recipes from her home country.

In my humble opinion, this soft, flaky, and slightly sweet bread is the best flatbread ever. If you are ever in Malaysia, visit the Mamak stalls where you can see this bread being made. They flip it with their hands until it has tripled in size, then it is folded to trap the air and griddled to order. We usually eat this for breakfast, but to be honest, you can eat roti at any time of day.

TIPS: If the dough is too dry, slowly add some of the leftover liquid to create a sticky dough. I find that different brands of flour might need a little more liquid.

The bigger the container you rest the balls of dough in, the more oil you need to cover them. You can reuse the oil though.

  1. Beat the water, condensed milk, egg, salt, and oil together until well incorporated. Pour 1⁄4 cup of the batter into another bowl and set aside in case the dough is too dry later.
  2. Sift the flour into another bowl and make a well in the center. Slowly pour in the milk mixture, incorporating it into the flour as you go, until the dough comes together. The dough will seem a little sticky at first, but after kneading for 5 minutes, it will become smooth. Don't be tempted to add extra flour.
  3. Leave the dough to rest for at least 20 minutes, covered, then knead for another 5 minutes. Divide the dough into 6 balls. Coat your hands in oil and coat the dough balls. Put the balls in a shallow container in which they fit snugly. Pour over enough oil to cover the balls. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight.
  4. The next day, take a ball out of the container and place it on a work surface. Press it lightly, then stretch it out with the palm of your hand until it's big enough for you to hold with both hands. Put your left hand on top of the dough with your thumb tucked underneath and put your right hand underneath the dough with your thumb on top. Lift the dough up and flip it from your right hand to your left, and then immediately slap it on the surface. Repeat this process 3-4 times. The idea is to stretch it out as thinly as possible.
  5. Fold the 4 corners in towards the middle to form a square, trapping as much air as possible, and put a nonstick frying pan over medium heat.
  6. Dry-fry the breads on both sides until they are golden brown. Once cooked, put them onto a work surface. Using the palm of your hands, scrunch the edges of the warm bread in towards the middle, much like clapping your hands with the bread in between. This will give the breads a lovely flakiness.

Yi Jun Loh

Yi Jun Loh is a freelance writer and cook. An engineer by training, he immersed himself into the food industry right after graduating from Cambridge, learning to cook in Paris and then at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. He is now based in Malaysia, obsessing over food culture and science through his blog Jun & Tonic.

[email_signup id="3"]
[email_signup id="3"]