Roti canai, good for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, supper and any time in between
Yes, this is how popular roti canai is in Penang, available all day long at almost every street corner. This simple flatbread is adored by both young and old, men and women of all races in the country.
Also known as roti paratha, it is a flaky, moreish flatbread made with flour, water, salt, a little sugar and fat. The ingredients are mixed and kneaded into a dough. After resting the dough, it is divided and rolled into palm-size balls. The rested dough ball is stretched; held at a corner, it is then flung in the air onto the oiled work surface twice or thrice, stretching it paper thin before folding to obtain a layered texture. To catch this twirling action live is rather entertaining. If you are a tourist and new to Southeast Asia, you will be in for a real treat.
Pan-fried on a griddle with oil till golden, the wonderfully cooked bread is fluffy, layered, flaky and crunchy on the outside and slightly soft and chewy inside. Adding more ghee (traditional Indian clarified butter) or butter to the cooking process will enhance its flavours further.
The best way to enjoy the crowd-pleasing dipping dough is straight from the griddle. Certain parts would still be crispy, adding more texture and satisfaction. (When left to cool, roti canai loses its flaky, crispy texture.) The dish is usually served with dalcha, curry or sambal, often a mixture as a side dish. Some may even opt for various meat curries to accompany the meal. For the younger kids, a dusting of granulated sugar or drizzled with a spoonful of condensed milk would please them immensely.
In Malay, “roti” refers to all forms of bread although the word could have derived from ancient Sanskrit, carrying the same meaning. (According to the India Times, Sanskrit is the world's oldest language.)
On the other hand, various theories are attributed to the origin of the word "canai". Some suggest that it could have been derived from Chennai (formerly known as Madras) in India or chana, a spicy northern Indian dish (made from chickpeas), with which this type of bread was traditionally served. In Malay, one of the definitions of "canai" is "to roll so that it is flat and thin"; it is another plausible explanation connoting the making process of the flatbread.
The existence of roti canai in Malaysia can be traced back to the large numbers of Indian presence by the turn of the 20th century, especially with the arrivals from the state of Tamil Nadu. Many of the Tamil Muslim immigrants were Malayalees from the Malabar Coast of Southwest India. In Penang, they lived in Kampong Malabar and nearby Malabar Street which were named after them. Eventually the community grew and the street was extended from Penang Road all the way to Beach Street and it was renamed Chulia Street (as the Tamil Muslims were also referred as Chulia Indians). They brought with them not only their culture and their way of life but their Indian culinary heritage as well.
By the 1920s, the comforting combination of roti canai and meat-based or lentil curry, a meal in itself was being readily served from Indian Muslim stalls throughout the country.
Through the decades, roti canai grew in popularity and somehow it became among the top favourite food in the land. Its humble origin has given birth to many iconic sweet or savoury options available today.
There are countless roti canai stalls in Penang, many offering more than just plain roti canai (round or square shaped) or roti telur (encased with a beaten egg). They would also serve roti telur bawang (with an egg and diced onions), roti bom (a smaller coiled version, sweetened with sugar), roti sardin (filled with sardines), roti tissue (one huge crispy thin cone-shape sheet drizzled with condensed milk) and roti pisang (encased with slices of banana).
In July 2020, Muhamad Taufiq bin Rosli unveiled a unique invention – roti canai sarang burung that became an instant hit. The bread dough is stretched and folded into a long strip, then shaped into a ring. It is then pan-grilled till golden. When the dough is thoroughly cooked, two eggs are cracked to fill up the circle. When the sunny-side up eggs are perfectly cooked, they are dusted with some coarse chilli and a little light soy sauce.
In the case of the special choice, a savoury minced meat topping (either chicken or beef) is spooned in, then sprinkled with some chopped spring onions. The roti is served on a flat wooden dish with curry on the side. The presentation is a visual feast, whetting the appetite.
Taufiq's instagrammable creation caught on like wildfire and with viral postings from countless food bloggers, the news spread far and wide. This drew in patient patrons who waited in a long queue to relish his version. His stall – Gerai Roti Canai Abah is located in Sungai Rusa in Balik Pulau.
I look forward to more creative inventions like Taufiq's, elevating the humble roti canai to new heights.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
18 December 2021
Gerai Roti Canai Abah
Pusat Inkubator Kraf, Jalan Sungai Rusa, Kampung Sungai Rusa, 11000 Balik Pulau, Penang
T: +6018 947 5083 (Taufiq)
Opens daily from 7.00 -11.00 am except Fridays.