Here In My Home - Malaysian Artistes For Unity

Monday, 29 October 2007

Roti John – Inventor Please Stand Up

Since I looked it up on the net, I accepted as a certain legend that Roti John was invented at a certain Shukor stall in Singapore during the seventies, with her daughter claiming it was 1975. That would make me about six years but coming through the fog of memories it seem that I had my first taste when I was much younger. And looking at the pictures of their version, it sure does not seem to be the same Roti John because as far as I remember it, although the Roti John is not exactly as meaty as the Muar version of my previous food reminiscing, it was meatier than those shown. Definitely not those brought home on my family members return from their sojourns south.

This has planted a kernel of doubt in my mind about such a claim, which took further root when I saw a picture of a real Malaccan Roti John, old school style. That brought back a flood of memories, since that was made with pounded sardines or ikan bilis mix as I remembered it. Mind you in my recent travels to Malacca I have had Roti Johns, though definitely thicker and nicer than those in KL generally, are analogous to those from Singapore as these may be prepared to suit the tastes of Singaporeans frequenting Malacca nowadays. I have also tried to get the famous Roti Johns of the beach areas, but without success as most times were actually busy stuffing ourselves with other Malaccan delicacies during dinner which is the only time these Roti Johns are available. But now through the wonders of the internet, I now know just where I can get this old school Roti John in the daytime. This is at Puteri Erra stall in a food court usually overlooked as it is located in the older side of town, thus hiding the jewel inside well. I am now determined to get some in my next visit to Malacca, failing which I have the fall back of getting it at the beach, as I also know now where exactly to get it. This is at Roti John Barkat Pantai Puteri, supposedly the best there and somewhat legendary.

Now here is where conflict may rise. In light that I have seen some audacious claims made by our southern neighbours on international food TV series that some things that actually originated elsewhere were invented there., like nasi kerabu of all things, the claim that Roti John was invented there has holes in it for me now. Our own take on how Roti John came into being in Malacca was that it was a favourite snack of humble fisherman out at sea. If you think about it, it is plausible to bring along some eggs and bread to sea would be natural for them, and to concoct something like Roti John using sardines and ikan bilis as embellishment would take no great leap of faith to believe. As it is Roti John Barkat came into being in 1978 to offer such a dish to the general public, very similar in timeline as per Singapore’s claim. The only thing left unexplained in this case is how it got the moniker Roti John, which Singapore’s claim has explained well.

Aaah again revisiting the cobwebby vault of memories that is mine, I remember reading our own Datuk Lat chronicling his visit to Gay Paree and the running joke was he could only afford to eat baguette sandwiches sold by street vendors. The clincher? These baguettes were sliced and were stuffed, like foot long sandwiches or hero sandwiches as the yanks would call it. Thus again it would not be a stretch of imagination that a Frenchman inspired the local version in the form of Roti John. This alleviates a little of my doubts in Mr. Shukor’s story, that he made a two in one meal out of toasted bread and omelettes for some homesick Johnny that resulted in Roti John. But if that Johnny was a limey, wouldn’t he have preferred sandwich bread and that would just make a plain French toast. So the key word here is French and since the baguette is French it really makes a neat connection. And upon further surfing, lo and behold they really have something similar called croques monsieur. And the regional countries where the French have left their mark like Vietnam and Laos also have their own versions of the baguette sandwich called Banh Mi and Khao Jee respectively, which also looks very much like our Roti John.

Banh Mi And Khao Jee Respectively.

So I will stretch my neck out and conclude that someone locally, be it from Malacca, Singapore or even Johor may have been inspired or instructed by a Johnny that is most probably French to make a baguette sandwich. However not knowing the original recipe, he may have inadvertently created something that has become uniquely our own, but with our own different takes on it. Just look at this version from Penang, called Roti John Hong Kong and you can see how at least this fact cannot be denied that Roti John has evolved into different regional versions, with those in Klang Valley seems to be the least inspiring. By the way that Penang version is not really original as the French has already their own version called croques Madame. Looking at the photo, I think you can guess why :>).

Risking cutthroats for a shave.

I recently went for a shave at the nearby Indian barber shop after having been a caveman for a while since my wife forgot to pack my razors for the Eid Holidays. I usually go for such a shave when I have my bi-monthly haircut and this is usually at a Malay barber shop as they usually charge less, mainly because I am a cheapskate. The reason I go for such regular clean shaves at the barber shop despite having my own razors with the so called advances in razor blade technology is that a man really needs to be periodically shaved by another man to obtain a balanced smooth beard growth. You really cannot evenly shave your own face as there are areas and angles that you cannot easily get at, so there will be patches of uneven growth. Why do you think the rich guys get shaves at the salons then eh? Remember digital shaves, the close crop beard popularised by George Michael? Bet you he cannot get that effect on his own.

But I digress. What I wanted to write about is that this barber shop is usually manned by an old Indian man and since moving to KL, I feel that he is the best shaver that I have had. No nicks, no cuts with smoothness all the way. However this time there was a younger man in his place as the old man has gone back to India for his Deepavali holidays. Surprisingly the younger chap’s shave was just as smooth and after making some small talk it surfaced that he came from a family of barbers, so he was trained well despite making a later entry into his family business. So I remarked that he must have been trained to use the old style cutthroat razor, which was an excellent tool for shaving as the balanced heavy blade with its hair splitting edge sharpness allowed a barber to use the light touch when shaving while still getting an even cut. Its shape has also been optimised through the years, so only someone else using such a razor on you can actually do a proper job of shaving off your facial hairs.

Amazingly he replied that he has only experienced using the disposable razors now affixed to the cutthroat razors that they used nowadays during his ten years of experience. It seems that such by the time of his entry into the industry, such razors has become mandatory due to the HIV scare. So even though he was only two years younger than me, funnily enough he himself has not been shaved with the old school blades and experienced the smoothness. He admitted that he personally uses the cheapest disposable razors that he thinks is the norm in the business and in his early years has nicked many a customer with such blades. It appears that you need experience and a patient hand to come to a stage where you can do a smooth shave without a scratch, though many barbers do not seem to bother. It also transpired that you need time that is such a premium nowadays to do a really good shaving job after more shop talk. In fact since at the time I was the only customer left, he took time to shave my ears and other parts of the head that needed attention before cleaning up my face with a minty solution as an aftershave. Refreshing! What a rare treat to experience a full service shave that was common not that very long ago before barber shops started to transform into a pale imitation of hair saloons with hair colouring service and such.

Back to the old school cutthroat razors, I asked him if I kept one for my own personal use would he be willing to use it when I patronise him. He said that he personally has not seen such blades being sold anymore, but if I can find one he has no objection. Now to look for one and I hope some shops still has it. Jalan Pasar here I come.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Murtabak, The Singapore Version

Would you pay seven ringgit for a murtabak? I would if it is a well-made Murtabak Singapore as shown by these photos of the authentic version as prepared by Zam Zam Restaurant in Singapore. Why did you say? Because this will be an upsized version of a mamak murtabak, more like a lasagna with alternating layers of mincemeat mix and over fried paratha squares, wrapped in a whole paratha skin that is then topped with a whole egg, lightly spread and then further sprinkled with the mincemeat to make a crust. As such you know that they are making real murtabak Singapore when the murtabak chef have a ready pan of mincemeat meat on hand when they are making the murtabak.

This is definitely a far cry from the roti masquerading as murtabaks at night market or Ramadan bazaars that are really scrambled eggs and mincemeat filled roti canai, more like onion roti telur with the mincemeat added as compared to a real murtabak. For me this would have at least one layer of the alternating square pastry to deserve the moniker, as the mamak version must have a more generous filling of the mincemeat though maybe not as generous as the Singapore version in order to gain that square shape. Wouldn’t this be logical since murtabak comes from muttabaq, the Arabian original where tabbaq means to fold? To illustrate my favourite murtabak stall prepares their murtabak by first putting the roti square as a sort of tile for the murtabak egg mix to fry on the griddle, before turning it over once it sets and repeating the whole process, making sure both sides cook evenly before wrapping it in roti canai that in this version will fit two pieces. This will then be topped with the heavenly minyak sapi (ghee) or clarified butter, with the chef using the spatula to poke holes into the murtabak to ensure that the butter seeps properly through to give it the die for taste. You just cannot beat this version, because if it was done right you actually get a two in one since you will get well flavoured roti canai as excess once you cut it up, and confession time, I actually prefer to eat this roti canai cover separately and just enjoy the murtabak mince meat with the pastry layer.

What actually got me started to write this piece on murtabak Singapore was that either by design or otherwise, of all the Ramadan bazaars I visited last Ramadan, the one in Bandar Tun Hussein Onn actually had two stalls located close to each other claiming their murtabaks as murtabak Singapore when I cannot even find one elsewhere. Thus it was disappointing to see that upon closer inspection that even though the first stall offered thick murtabak not usually found in such markets, it did not have the aforementioned meaty egg crust that would have qualified it as a Murtabak Singapore in my books. The other vendor offered both murtabak versions, with their Singapore version coming with the requisite larger size and crust. However this was a much thinner version without the layers and was a bit too dry compounded with the mincemeat mix lacking spices, so it was definitely a one time buy even though it cost me the abovementioned seven ringgit. This means that the last time I had a good murtabak Singapore after a very long time was when I made a transit at Air Hitam where I enjoyed one made in one of the stalls opposite the old pottery row. Surfing the Internet, it seems that one place that comes close is located in Section 2, BB Bangi and what seems to be the real McCoy is served at a restaurant in Taipan USJ. At least now I know where to go if I get the munchies.

As a postscript, I would like to say the southerners must really like their mincemeat. In my previous post I have declared that a real Roti John must have a thick mix of meat and eggs to be considered genuine and are not the French toast like versions usually on sale whereby I would usually do a Wendy and ask “Where’s the beef?” Well take a look at this version offered in Muar, that is one heck of a meat filled Roti John. This time I would be asking "Where is the eggs?" then Nyum! Nyum!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007


Some people may be wondering why I have not joined the crowd thumping their chest in cyberspace at the success of Malaysia reaching space when our Angkasawan has already gone and returned from his visit to the International Space Station, commonly called ISS. Well to be frank for a guy who has been in the periphery of space business in Malaysia for the good part of the last decade, this has not been such an astonishing achievement to celebrate. Not many people are aware that even though Malaysia is a winnow amongst the world’s nations, is actually mighty in the space race, right up there in the front pack of the marathon.

From having our first ground station in the seventies, launching our own satellites, using space technologies like remote sensing and even making our own satellites, which does not include all the planned and announced space ports that has yet to materialize, sending a man to outer space only marks a milestone in our march to the cosmos. This march has been well mirrored by the evolution of our national space authority from its beginnings as a unit within a ministry to the full fledged agency it is now. Not many also realized that we have also taken the right step of establishing a commercial astronautics company to ensure our interests in space technology remain viable and useful to the nation.

Yes we got a lucky break when Russia offered a seat on this trip to the ISS as counter trade for our Sukhoi fighter purchase. And with the imminent purchase of a fleet of military helicopters, Russia has again offered another sweetener to launch another Angkasawan to space post 2010. Hopefully this time the trip will be a space stay rather than a space sojourn, though symbolically even this short trip to space has had the same impact to Malaysians as Yuri Gagarin’s short but historic trip to space for the Russians and the world at large as the first man in space. How else can you explain that even the makciks and pakciks in the kampongs are now talking about rockets and other space thingys, March On Malaysia!

Monday, 22 October 2007

My Favourite Ramadan Bazaar

Well we are now entering the second week of Eidil Fitri so it is a good time to review which Ramadan Bazaar was the best for this year’s fasting season. To be fair I will only look at the Bazaars mainly around the Cheras vicinity in my home ground although I did go to the famous Raja Alang Ramadan Bazaar this time, but I actually ended up buying the Sate Padang there as my main breaking fast dish for the day. Well most of these bazaars’ problem to me as a Malay as compared to non-malays is that while they may find most of these dishes as exotic and only available during Ramadan, these are actually normal stuff for us and this monotony is further exacerbated by the duplication of dishes by almost every other food vendors within these bazaars. Thus finding nuggets of rarely offered dishes or originally prepared dishes as compared to the masquerading dishes claiming to be the real stuff in certain bazaars certainly earned them more marks in the favourite stakes. Finding real nasi kerabu, Malaccan Roti John and Apam Sarawak in the Kota Cheras bazaar certainly earned it more points than the one in Len Seng which is a perfect example of “clone food” central. Meanwhile Desa Tasik loses points as even though their exotic Roti Farina or fried popiah skinned wrapped meat buns as shown above and real Sarawak mee kolok and manuk panggang prepared by a Sarawak family has become mainstays, the rest of the fare served there has turned into clone foods that even though you may walk the mile there, you will be hard pressed to find some stirring stuff except the occasional specials like tapai pulut wrapped in rubber leaves that was only available on Sundays as it was specially brought in from Kelantan. Even my favourite Kathira drink is no longer sold, as the drinks vendor says that KLites just does not take to this interesting Johor origin drink.

Since other bazaars in the Cheras vicinity does not even deserve a mention, this only left me the area’s Ramadan bazaar central, which has six different bazaars within its five kilometre radius, Bandar Tun Razak as a hunting ground. Surprisingly the customary bazaars in Velodrome and Taman Mulia has seen a drastic reduction in size, shrinking mainly due to the very high trading fees imposed as advised by one of my regular drink vendors. Thus it was mainly the established sellers that remained, but although you are assured of quality, established here also means standard foodstuff. Boring! Luckily my sister-in-law mentioned that there was a newly established Ramadan bazaar at Taman Tasik Permasiduri, beside the KL football stadium but I only got a chance to go there in the later half of Ramadan. Well it soon became an favoured haunt, as it turn into an every other day visit. The reason was simple. The variety of food on offer was sufficient to ensure you had a different dish at every visit. No clone foods here. Instead you can find real nasi ulam, Indonesian rissoles, laksa johor, mee siam goreng that does not stinge on the dried prawn paste, and that does not include the east coast specialties that was on offer, with the different versions from each particular state. Yup, I found lompat tikam, puteri mandi amongst others with ease here.

You can also find the atypical karipap telur, a sauce plate sized crimped puff filled with a savoury egg custard and hotel class butter bread puddings with real custard as shown. And talking about hotel class fare, here you can also find a team of enterprising chefs that took up space to offer authentic Penang chow kuer tiow and chow mien, cooked with high flame as it should be done to give it that genuine charred touch. You can be sure that there was a queue at this stall, and what better stamp of approval that can be given when you find the Chinese and Indians also in the queue. You will also find real longan drinks like what you can find at Petaling Street here, in addition to non-watered down sugar cane and young coconut juice. And one stall sold fruit cocktail air bandung, not quite Kathira but a good enough replacement, in addition to real mango juice. In fact my wife remarked that maybe for this particular bazaar, DBKL may have vetted the stall holders so that it became a showcase, as it seemed they took the best sellers from the area to sell their goodies here, as they were some familiar faces that was missing from the first two bazaars that I had mentioned that were actually the better vendors. There was also some from the other bazaars that I did not visit this Ramadan, so I cannot comment whether they also upped and moved here or opened a branch. Nonetheless if the same traders continue here next season, I am sure to keep this bazaar as my favourite bazaar for buying Ramadan break fast meals.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Wendy's coming back, Carl's Jr is already returned

Surprise!Surprise! After writing about Wendy's previous short stay in Malaysia, Berjaya Corp just announced that they are bringing back the franchise by end of the year at the earliest. (No mentioned of Wendy's earlier foray eh?). Anyway as far as I remember there was nothing memorable about Wendy's burger except for that advertisement campaign, so I guess they have their work cut out to re-establish themselves in the land of McD, A&W and BK (I guess the joints with acronyms made it easier to be more memorable to assist their staying power in the Malaysian market). If they manage to survive, at least it gives me a wider choice of burger to chomp on. But today it will be 1901 hot dogs for lunch.

Now when will somebody bring over the "Red Lobster" franchise? Come on, dare to be different. There is a market for premium quick service. Vic Station can survive for 18 years already, why not Red Lobster whenever it arrives?I cannot wait to sink my teeth into lobster served without all those sassy stuff to make it a premium dish. I just wanna taste the sweet meat only laaa. And if their surf and turf menu is a bargain like shown here, that will surely be my favourite dish to order whenever I dine there.

And my oh my, what a surprise! It seems that Carl's Jr has silently returned to our shores with the opening of their new outlet in 1Utama in July this year. Not my area so I didn't have a clue they are back. Anyway looking at the reviews, Carl's has returned as a premium quick service outlet with prices to match. The cheapest combo seems to be around RM12 upwards but they said that the burger size fits the bill, so that should be okay. Look at the size of the burger that I cilok from this blogspot. Now waiting for an outlet to open nearer to downtown or my home and then will check it out for my self. Now who says there is no market for premium quick service eh? I hope they have a long stay now.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Food Franchises Flying High!

If memory serves me right, it was in the beginning of the eighties that the American fast food franchises started their invasion of Malaysia, bringing a piece of American Pie onto our shores. Without any apple pie sighted, KFC and A&W managed to entrenched themselves into the Malaysian food market, spinning out of their early beachhead as the place for family treats and cool hang-outs for the Americana aspiring youths to the current plain vanilla spot to grab a quick bite of chicken or burgers and fries. To be seen in one was no longer a special occasion, just like going to a warong somewhere.

Their success brought in the next wave of mostly chicken and burger franchises to challenge the status quo, with only the global juggernaut McD managing to carve out their own piece of empire locally. Wendy’s that had the cheek to ask their competitors “Where’s the beef”, Grandy’s, THE innovator of free refills and brought the first taste of their 'sinnamon' cinnamon rolls to the Malaysian masses, White Castle that had excellent steamed mini burgers and Popeye’s alternative southern-style fried chicken tried to take their bite of the Malaysian market but found themselves biting the dust instead as they failed to capture our national taste buds. Even the Japanese burger chain MOS with their oriental tasting burgers like teriyaki and rice burgers failed to convince the masses to take a different approach to having their burgers and chickens. Only the latecomer Burger King managed to do so with their outsized packaging that played well to our national more for less psyche even when Carl's Jr that tried that same tactic with their oversized charbroiled burger failed earlier due mainly to their poor marketing, indifferent products and location methinks. Imagine you needed to go to the KL Bird Park to get a bite and that's about the only place I know where they had an outlet. And those who has been there would remember well the indifferent service you got there. Fast food at its worst I could say.

Instead it was the pizza palazzos like Pizza Hut and Shakey’s that managed to cut a slice of the increasingly crowded fast-food market, by offering fast food for families in a faux fine dining atmosphere. Malaysian finally had an alternative to fried chicken and burgers and fries in order to take their family out for some economical western food, in a real western style restaurant even, without resorting to the pricier and haughtier real deal that can actually be daunting to some. Now you have the ‘starter restaurant”, where you can learn to use the western concept of fork and spoon and rolling spaghetti and meatballs without embarrassment as the waiters and waitresses are just ordinary people like you, not some high and mighty maitre-de wannabes. And when Pizza Hut introduced the concept of home delivery, not only students adopted it as their lifeline but families took to it like ducks to water as they now do not need to dress up to go out. Throw in the initial snob appeal of silently shouting to your neighbours that we are having western food delivered tonight, and you get the idea why this caught on like wild fire. This even led to the introduction of the competing Domino's pizza that emphasized their home delivery service.

Cottoning to the niche that fast food needs to cater for family dining, initially struggling chicken franchises like Kenny Rogers and Nando’s began fine-tuning their outlets to cater for these families who want convenient meals in a fine setting and they finally now has better response than before. Nonetheless real upscale franchises has actually made silent inroads into the local market, the more visible being Chili’s and Dome. Finding a ready market in the Yuppies of the nineties, they have evolved into family fine dining restaurants as we turned into a baby boomer society ourselves. Now new franchises has ventured into the market like Tony Roma’s, and one in particular that I hope will soon arrive is Red Lobster that should bring a more affordable culture of fine seafood dining to the Malaysian palates, though we already have Manhattan Fish Market, a Malaysian Chain masquerading as a foreign origin. But we have to tip our hats to these local franchises like those that readily come to mind like 1901, Marrybrown, Jollybee, Sugar Bun that has given the foreign franchises a run for their money, not only locally but internationally. Now if only the government initiated franchises, remember Sate Ria and Murtabak Pak Din, can actually make their own mark instead of becoming short fused shooting stars, then maybe we can really become a kitchen to the world as we really have a great food culture to capitalise from.