Here In My Home - Malaysian Artistes For Unity

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Then and now – Roti Edition

Some of you may have noticed that I waxed lyrical on some nostalgic Malay dishes in the Malay language in several of my previous postings. The reason for this is that only by writing in Malay can I do justice to their memories but I hope that now I can do the same for this topic in English.
Now I know many people especially the younger set may not know that their favourite roti canai or parathas as some may call it was originally prepared with ghee in the dough and then fried with a mix of liquid ghee and vegetable oil, bringing the taste of the humble roti canai to the Nth degree. When prepared this way, the roti canai becomes so flavourful and fluffy, very unlike the stiff rotis masquerading as roti canai in some places these days that if thrown at a brick wall, a dent is the result. And what’s more, if the ghee roti canai is tapaued in banana leaves like my father used to do in my childhood days or served on one, I can guarantee you that the taste and smell is so heavenly that even eating it cold with just sugar is syiok enough. No need for the usual curry, dalcha or parpu and definitely you will not ‘banjir’ it to soften the hard rotis as so often the case is nowadays, as that defeats the point as you lose the taste. Aha I see some of you scratching your head wondering what the heck is parpu. Well in the north where you can still get fluffy roti canais but alas without the ghee, parpu is the simple yellow lentil curry that has been subtly spiced to perfection. A very good ‘training’ condiment for the kids. Although you can still find parpu in the Klang valley in shops that betray their northern origins, like the ghee roti canai both have gone the way of the dodo. This methinks is basically due to economic costs as I suspect by replacing the parpu with dalcha curry allows the shop to offer a dish that can last till dinner and the morrow perhaps. However I was lucky enough in one of my recent balik kampung trip to the wife’s village in Rantau, the mamak shop proprietor there was kind enough to make the roti canai with ghee after hearing me reminisce about how it was prepared in the old days. The funny thing was that although he initially wanted to charge extra when I made the order, he forwent the surcharge when he revealed he was also a displaced northerner and pined for the old ways. I suspected as much since he had parpu anyway but at least my family managed to get a taste of what I have told them many times before.

Next I would like to remind you of a dish that supposedly originated in Singapore but now is found everywhere locally, a fact that I shall not contest because I personally first tasted it over there umpteen years ago. This is the Roti John, basically sliced baguette halves topped fried with a mix of egg and spiced minced meats, reassembled and served with cucumber slices and chilli sauce. I have no idea if the roti john over there remains the same nowadays, but the version we have here is a far cry from the original. What we have now is to me just French toast made with hot dog rolls, and some sweet rolls no less and usually there is no meat at all. Although there are still pockets of holdouts if you are lucky enough to find them, the bread used are still hot dog rolls. (Come to think of it, the large roti john rolls would be perfect for foot long hot dogs don’t you think). The closest to the original taste I had recently was at restaurant Apple Burger in Bandar Baru Melaka, but unfortunately I failed to see if they still make it the original way in Klebang, as it seems it now only opens at night. But I will try my best to have this the next time I am in Melaka, as Melaka is reputed to be only the other place that used to serve real roti johns and I hold out the hope that the bread shall be baguettes.

As it is I am glad that traditional style kopitiams are now making a comeback and I pray that it will not be a passing fad. At least I can get again real roti bakar, made with roti benggali, butter (no margarine mind you) and seri kaya, albeit at inflated prices. You have to pay the cost of progress I guess. Now to those of you who think that roti bakar made with sandwich bread, margarine and factory made kaya is the real thing, you have my sympathies. Real roti bakar must be made of thickly sliced fluffy bread or roti benggali, grilled on the pan or charcoal grill if you are lucky. Those toasted in toasters are just that my dear, plain old toasted bread and undeserving of the moniker roti bakar. And you better make sure it served with butter cut from the block and homemade seri kaya, otherwise you will not be in roti bakar heaven. You can see the butter peeking from the photo, and that is how it should be made.

While we are at these most Malaysian Chinese of bread, shall I touch on the difficulty for a Moslem like me to get good halal cakoi that I can get easily in my hometown? Over here the ones made by the Malays are not as flavourful or fluffy, something to do with the air kapur that is usually deleted in their recipes methinks, and once cold becomes pitiful chewy things. How I salivate when passing pass Chinese cakoi stalls that over here I do not dare to buy from, as they are not as sensitive to Moslem needs as in the north. There used to be a good one sold by a Malay man hailing from Taiping, but he no longer sells at the old location so it is a lost cause for me. So if you know of one, kindly drop me a line okay.

Have any of you heard of cream horn? This is a hard pastry shell shaped like a spiral horn with the most delicious white cream filling. In Ipoh when the roti man comes around these will be bought as a treat, either as a reward by my parents or with my hard earned savings. Fortunately my own roti man does bring some around if I am lucky, and I will buy a whole pack of five to savour or share it with my sister in Bangi. Yet our kids do not seem to take to it though, so it may be that cream horns will only be comfort food for my siblings. Continuing the theme of now and then, those that my roti man brings are quite true to the original version, but again the buttery taste of the pastry is quite negligible, another victim of economics. And the most common ones available nowadays usually have custard fillings instead and shouldn’t these be called custard horns instead right?

Well talking about custard fillings, custard puffs or romsus as my family calls it is another extinct species of roti. I remember that each time a family member travels to Penang, a box of romsus is a compulsory souvenir as we consider the best comes from there. But these started disappearing in my teens and nowadays is a hit and miss affair to find them. The funny thing is that cream puffs are now easy to find, so it seems cream horns and custard puffs have switched their fillings. Nonetheless recently I had my fill of custard puffs at my dear friends’ barbecue party as the wife comes from Penang and she made it right, oh so so right. That should appease my longings for a while.

I cannot think of other roti to finish on but I would like to end by saying that if you have the time and find yourself traveling the Cherating trunk road northwards in the evening, once you pass the resort area do keep a sharp look out for a small crude sign that says “roti panas” in front of a decrepit wooden house along the road. If it is your lucky day, it will be baking day, as the alternate days are the days when the baker makes his own seri kaya. This is used as the filling for the most utterly delicious wood baked buns filled with the aforementioned seri kaya, red bean paste, coconut candy or sweet milk buns. Bite into one and you are biting into heavenly roti and would now understand the loss I feel for roti now and then. But hurry up, the baker is old and his treasures may be lost to mankind anytime soon.

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