Malaysian Food · December 27, 2021

roti canai feature

Roti Canai: The Greatest Dish that Brings Malaysians Together

Roti Canai: The Greatest Dish that Brings Malaysians Together

Roti Canai is one of the most iconic dishes of Malaysia. This fried unleavened flatbread, reminiscent of Indian chapatis, has become a beloved staple not only in Malaysia but also in neighbouring countries like Singapore and Brunei. While its name and ingredients might scream “Indian cuisine,” Roti Canai is actually a unique creation born out of the Indian immigrant community in British Malaya.

At the turn of the 20th century, a wave of Indian immigrants flocked to Malaya, initially to work on rubber estates and later on oil palm plantations. Indian street vendors began peddling flat bread and curries throughout the Malayan peninsula. By 1920s, the street vendors slowly evolved into Mamak stalls (Mamak meaning ‘uncle’ in Tamil), where Roti Canai is still commonly served today.

The word ‘roti’ refers to the Malay term for bread, while the origin of ‘canai’ is unverified. Some speculated that it was derived from Chennai, the Indian city formerly known as Madras, or that it was derived from chana, a Northern Indian spicy chickpea dish served with bread. While some stated that it came from an old Malay word, which means to knead and roll thinly. Roti Canai is sometimes called Roti Prata in the southern part of Peninsular Malaysia, based on the Hindi word ‘paratha’ meaning flat.

The basic Roti Canai dough consists of flour, water (or milk), salt, sugar, and ghee. To achieve its signature texture, the dough undergoes several kneading and resting cycles, enhancing its stretchability. Once ready, the dough is skillfully stretched, flipped in the air, pounded, and flattened until it becomes paper-thin and translucent. It is then folded back onto itself, creating pockets of air within, before being stretched and slapped again. Finally, the dough is fried on a hot plate generously oiled with ghee. Within a minute or two, the transformative process turns the dough into a delectable flatbread that is simultaneously flaky, fluffy, aromatic, layered, crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside.

Traditionally, Roti Canai is served with dhal or various types of curry. However, its versatility shines through as it can be prepared and enjoyed with an array of ingredients. From savoury options like meat, egg, sardine, onions, and cheese to unconventional combinations such as condensed milk, bananas, Maggi noodles, or even a sprinkle of Milo powder, Malaysians embrace the art of experimentation, resulting in a diverse range of Roti Canai variations. These culinary creations are a testament to Malaysians’ adventurous palates, inventive minds, and vibrant food culture.

Finding Roti Canai is a breeze in Malaysia, as it is readily available at street corners from bustling Mamak stalls. These vibrant hangout spots welcome people from all walks of life, regardless of their race, religion, age, or background. When ordering, don’t expect a menu, as locals seem to have memorized every possible variation of Roti Canai. As you can see, it has become more than just a dish; it is a way of life.