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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 :>).

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