Roti Jala – fish net crepe that’s so good with curry

Roti Jala © Adrian Cheah

If you are a tourist, in Penang or Malaysia during Ramadhan, you have to add the Ramadhan bazaar onto your list of must-see places. The month-long Ramadhan bazaar offers a wide variety of Malay specialities and is an interesting market to scout for delicious treats. Among my favourite dishes is Roti Jala.

Roti Jala © Adrian Cheah

Roti is ‘bread’ in Malay and Jala is ‘fishing net’. So, Roti Jala could be interpreted as fish net crepe. This dish has been cooked in Nyonya families for years and are, in many respects, not much different from the traditional Malay version.

My mother is an amazing woman. Somehow, she has groomed me to be able to cook at a young age and I did not really think that it would leave such an impression on me. Like riding a bicycle, you will remember nearly everything once you are in the kitchen, and recognisable flavours and aromas will be your guide to making the dish perfect, the way mum would.

My mum makes delicious Rot Jala. She makes the batter by mixing flour, egg, 'santan' (coconut milk), water and a pinch of salt. The eggs would render the batter a beautiful pastel yellow although by adding a bit of 'kunyit' (turmeric) power, you will enhance the colour and flavours further. After mixing well, Mum would sieve the batter into a clean bowl and cover to rest for 30 minutes before using. This batter mixture has not change much through time between the Malays and the Nyonyas.

Roti Jala © Adrian Cheah

What has changed is the way the batter is poured onto the frying pan to create the fish-net-like pattern. The inventive Nyonyas, who commands perfection in everything they do – from cooking to beadwork to the way they carry themselves – must have persuaded their Chinese tin-smiths to fashion their Roti Jala cups. These cups were usually made of copper or brass and have four to six small funnels soldered to the base of the cups. They are convenient, easy to use and allow better control of the flow of the batter, thus making more delicate Roti Jala. Nowadays, plastic versions of the Roti Jala cup are available.

With the Roti Jala cup in hand and batter well rested, mum would then heat up a flat-based pan and lightly grease it with some cooking oil. On medium heat, she would move the cup in concentric circles, making intricate lacy patterns. The successful batter would flow from the funnels in continuous streams.

Roti Jala © Adrian Cheah

Roti Jala is cooked on one side only and folded into a semicircle, then into a quarter and finally into one eight. She would line the plate with a banana leaf and place the cooked masterpieces on it. To prevent the Roti Jala from drying out, she would cover it with a tea towel. There are other ways of folding the Roti Jala too – in quarters or rolled up.

Roti Jala is best eaten with 'gulai kay' (Nyonya potato chicken curry). My dad would usually purchase Roti Jala with 'kaya' (coconut jam that is firm, almost like a cake) from the Ramadhan bazaar in Little India that are favoured by his younger children. Until today, eating Roti Jala and 'kaya' brings back fond memories of the good ol’ days. At the Ramadhan bazaar, you could also find Roti Jala rolls with potato curry filling.

Roti Jala is also available through out the year in Penang including eateries at Little India and 'pasar malam' (night markets). Search online for Persatuan Peniaga Melayu Pasar Malam Negeri Pulau Pinang (PPPMPP) for the locations of the night markets.

If you are living abroad, just follow these simple ingredients to make your very own delectable Roti Jala. All you need for the batter are 600 gms flour, ½ tsp salt, 6 eggs, 100 ml 'santan' (coconut milk) or milk and 850 ml water. Always test the consistency of the batter. If the batter is too watery, add more flour; and if it is too thick, add more water. Adjust the consistency until you get continuous streams from the funnels. Happy cooking!

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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