Food & Drink

The Roti Canai; What Is It and Which One To Have?

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When it comes to food, the nation is united in their adoration for the simple yet delicious roti canai. Manveen Maan takes a trip to the mamak to get to grips with the many variations that have been spawed by Malaysians' love of the doughy delight.

Walk into any mamak stall in the country and you are almost always greeted by a dizzying aroma of spices, mugs of teh tarik being poured at the speed of light, and mouthwatering food. Perhaps the most popular outdoor dining venue choice in Malaysia, the humble mamak is home to a smorgasbord of local delicacies, from tandoori chicken to spicy curries, freshly fried noodles to fruity rojak. But of all the dining delights offered, the roti canai remains king.

What Is It?

Believed to have its origins in Northern India, roti canai looks a little like a Western pancake and is composed mainly of a dough containing ghee (clarified butter), egg, flour, and water. The mixture is kneaded thoroughly, flattened, oiled, and folded repeatedly, before being coated with oil and cooked on a flat iron skillet (with more oil). The ideal roti is flat and fluffy on the inside, but crispy and flaky on the outside – a consistency achieved on a remarkably frequent basis by mamak stall operators across the country. Paired with some dhal, a spicy gravy made from boiled chickpeas, roti canai is a readily available, delicious, and filling tea-time treat or lazy meal for those in need of a boost.

While the traditional, simple roti remains a favourite, a whole myriad of different varieties and versions of the oily, dough-based edible have sprung up, and anyone in the mood for trying something different should pull up a chair at the mamak and ask the stall holder what types of roti they have. Get ready for around 30 different types to bamboozle you! “Roti telur roti biasa roti boom roti tisu roti sardin roti…” So what to pick?

Which One To Have?

Roti telur (egg roti) is made, as the name suggests, with fried eggs and is a great option for all the gym junkies out there. For a little more zing, roti telur bawang (egg and onion roti) is quite a popular option, especially with visitors eager for a quick bite after a big night out.

If a light meal is more up your alley, roti tisu (tissue roti) is much easier on the stomach and probably the waistline too. Paper-thin, flaky, and often served in the shape of a conical hat, roti tisu makes for great photo opportunities, especially if you are pretending to be a wizard.

Contrary to popular belief, roti bawang (onion roti) does not and will not make your breath smell. The roti itself is cooked with chopped onions within, and then seasoned with salt and pepper. This version of roti has proved so delicious, it has even spawned a dosai bawang counterpart!

Roti planta is a hit with children, mainly because of its sweeter aftertaste. Stuffed with margarine and sugar, this roti it is cooked until it reaches a light, flaky consistency, and is usually eaten plain or with extra sugar – just in case it wasn’t already sweet enough.

If your taste buds prefer something a little more savoury, roti sardin (sardine roti) is your best bet. Stuffed with sardines (and sometimes with ketchup or spicy sambal), this roti it is similar to that other mamak favourite murtabak (roti-like dough stuffed with curry) but, thankfully, is not as dense. Fish lovers are spoilt for choice in this department, with roti tuna (tuna roti) being another sought-after version of this particular dish.

Vegetarians need not worry, as they have not been catered for in the roti arena. Roti tofu (self-explanatory, I think) is a particularly delicious vegetarian alternative, and comes jam-packed with tofu and, if you’re lucky, some onions for added flavour. Roti sayur (vegetarian roti) channels a bit of Popeye into the herbivorous category, where vegetables (usually spinach) are stuffed inside.


Once you have had your fill of savouries, make sure you save some tummy space for one of the “dessert rotis,” and prepare for the waistline to really come in for a pummeling. Out of all the options available, roti boom (bomb roti) is an all-time favourite. A smaller but thicker variation of the traditional roti canai, this is usually round in shape, sweet and crispy on the outside, and goes perfectly with any sort of curry.

Hot on its heels is roti pisang or banana roti, which is nothing like the Western banana bread we all know and love. With slices of small, sweet banana between the layers of the roti, this dish often has a sprinkling of sugar to complete the sweet treat.

A new and lesser spotted dessert roti is the roti Nutella, which slathers the roti with a lashing of nutty, chocolate spread that warms on the skillet and oozes out as you try to eat it. A sprinkling of sugar completes a devilishly good indulgence.

Roti kaya (kaya roti) rounds up the selection and is a hot favourite with most, mainly because kaya serves as standard breakfast fare for many. Originally a Hainanese delicacy, kaya is a spread made up of eggs, sugar, and coconut milk, and is sometimes also flavoured with pandan.

Go Forth And Eat!

At around RM0.90 a pop, roti canai (or roti biasa as it is called these days) and all its incarnations are extremely affordable and tasty meal options. Best enjoyed with your hands, a roti meal is not complete without that other mamak stall staple – a cup of steaming, sweet, milky tea.

If the al fresco setting of the mamak stall does not appeal to you (or if it is raining), these goodies are also available in frozen form. Processed through a blast-freezing technique to ensure a soft, fluffy texture upon defrosting, all you have to do is pop one on the frying pan to enjoy the doughy goodness in the comfort of your home.

Now, where’s my teh tarik?


Source: Senses of Malaysia Jan-Feb 2013

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