Malay street food : Roti Canai (flaky Indian flatbread)

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We’re going mad for breakfasts lately, or maybe it’s just that Malaysian breakfasts are so good!

Recently, I wrote about nasi lemak and how it’s probably the best breakfast around but when you cant find good nasi lemak what do you do? Answer – you have roti instead.

Roti canai, or chanai is a more than adequate substitute, a real Mamak dish and something I love eating.

The word roti literally means bread in Hindi and it’s also available and popular in Singapore but known as roti prata.

Roti canai can also be known as flying bread partly because of the theatrical way it is made. A roti begins its life as a little doughy ball, which is stretched out on an oiled surface and thinned out by kneading and folding. once this is done and it looks a bit like a flattened parcel it’s put on a hotplate and flipped over. The whole process is great to watch and the chef’s possess skill and often flair not unlike a cocktail barman.

roti chanai

roti canai

The ideal roti is hot and fluffy with buttery texture and a crispy flaky outside.

Roti is served in many ways, but the most common savoury variation is with assorted curry sauce, or gravy including a daal, you just rip it apart, dip in your sauce, eat, make appreciative noises and repeat.

Roti canai will cost you no more than a couple of ringgits in most Mamak stall and makes a great way to start the day washed down with a delicious cup of teh tarik!

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Malay street food : Teh Tarik (stretched milk tea)

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Tea, the Chinese have been enjoying it originally as a medical concoction for thousands of years and has spread through Europe since the sixteenth century. It was popularised in Britain and was for many years and expensive luxury item until plantations in India yielded increasing supplies and the value decreased as the popularity increased amongst everyday Englishmen.

According to Wikipedia tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, beaten only by water and an important part of social life in many areas of the world. Tea is very important.

The delicious nectar

The delicious nectar

Malaysia is no exception and the tea culture here is an integral part of community and peoples social lives. Malaysia has two elements in its recent history which to me would suggest it’s a tea-mad country – the large population of Indians, who are well known to be keen on chai and the recent colonial history and involvement with the British, well known throughout the world as a nation of tea drinkers.

Teh tarik is drank by all in Malaysia and is a popular drink to while away time in a kopitiam or Mamak bar. Taking influence from Indian chai, teh tarik is sweet, rich and milky.

The word tarik literally translates as pulled and can sometimes be called stretched tea also. Black tea is brewed and combined with sugar and condensed milk before being repeatedly ‘tariked’ between two vessels to create thick, rich creamy tea full of bubbles.

There is sometimes a certain amount of showmanship in creating the drink as servers will pour the tea between increasingly widening cups without spilling a drop.

The tea is served in a glass cup so you can view the rich, viscous pulled tea in all its bubbly glory. The  perfect way to start the day or as an afternoon pick me up.

One final thought – The Englishman, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero once said “Where there is tea, there is hope”.

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Malay street food : Nasi Lemak (coconut rice breakfast)

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I’ve said it before, when I wrote about kaya toast – Breakfast in Asia is awesome and nasi lemak is probably my favourite breakfast, ever.

A bold statement, indeed.

I mean, who doesn’t want to eat the most delicious mix of crispy fried chicken known as ayam goreng, fluffy coconut enriched rice served with skin on peanuts, crisp, salty little anchovy fillets known as ikan bilis, boiled egg, sliced cucumber and the heavenly chilli flavours of Belecan shrimp paste sambal?

OK, so maybe not everyone wants to eat that for breakfast, but I do. Everyday!

Is this the most delicious breakfast on the planet? I think so...

Is this the most delicious breakfast on the planet? I think so…

Nasi lemak is a well known Mamak staple and considered a national dish in Malaysia.

The name literally translates as ‘fat rice’ which is due to the rice being soaked in coconut and steamed which thickens, enriches and generally makes it awesome.

As a meal, it’s something that can be found all over Malaysia and also Singaporean food courts. In Malaysia it’s often sold at roadside hawker stalls, kopi (coffee) stands as well as in Mamak restaurants. At the stalls and kopi stands they tend to wrap it into newpaper and leave them out in a tray for customers to pick up ‘to go’. Often you won’t get all the previously mentioned ingredients, but whatever they have available – In this instance it was rice, fried fish and sambal only. For around two ringgits i’m not complaining.

During our stay in Kota Kinabalu we were also pleased to find an alternative cooking style. The chicken has a delicate spice crust and wrapped in banana leaves, which helped to keep it really moist when it was fried – the girl who worked at the restaurant said it was a traditional way to serve it. I’m not sure if she was just referring to the banana leaf element, in Kota Kinabalu or in general but it was a nice variation nonetheless and the only time we’ve seen it prepared this way.

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Understanding food culture : Mamak.

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One of the best things about trying to write about food is learning about food. The more we travel and the more I try to gauge and understand a culture by it’s dinnertime options the more I learn that there is often another culture; a bigger , historical culture that the food culture is born out of. Malaysia is especially pertinent in this respect, with such diversity and an integration of many nationalities and races in recent history.     

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We’ve got a confession to make. As temporary Australians and keen eaters we (I, mostly) became pretty obsessed with the popular Sydney resto Mamak. It became a bit of a ritual to go there to gorge on food, and escape from Sydney into a small, pretend Asia. To queue for ages and eat our dinners elbow to elbow with other tables and be ushered out past the register whilst we’re still chewing the last mouthful. To be served roti and nasi lemak with belecan shrimp paste spiked sambal and curry sauce capable of producing sweaty faces.

All in all, it basically made me want to visit Malaysia immediately.

Fast forward a few months…

So what does Mamak mean?

The literal translation means uncle in Tamil language. I’ve read it’s a term used in the past for shopkeepers and a respectful term for elders.

Historically, Mamak food in Malaysia has come from the Tamil Indian population who migrated to Malaysia centuries ago from South India bringing with them heaps of flavours and culinary skills which have throughout the years percolated down through generations to become an important part of Malaysian food culture. It’s Indian food, but probably not as you know it.

Culturally they serve as a kind meeting place or a club for people to drink kopi or eat and chat. Similar I suppose to pub culture in the UK, but without the alcohol. The restaurants are very informal, often plastic tables on the side of the street and/ or functional benches in the restaurant. Mamak places will never win any design awards, but they are friendly and welcoming, even to confused looking foreigners. There’s never any rush to chuck you out, either.

Things to know about mamak joints

Traditionally they are a 24/7 restaurant and a go to place for breakfast, lunches and dinner as well as a kopi or teh pitstop. Some of the places I have visited close later in the evenings.

They are predominantly canteen style, you go up to the counter and see what they have and pick and choose your dinner. In the bigger cities, they will have menus in English (although, often lacking description) and will offer table service to tourists, but it’s better if you head up to the counter as you can pick the piece of chicken or fish you want and be more specific about how much of everything you want. Drinks and roti are made fresh, to order.

Mamak restaurants are run by Muslims. That means no pork, ever.

The menu may not show prices, but there is usually a board behind the counter that does – a Mamak meal is one of the cheapest and tastiest ways to eat in Malaysia. When you’ve picked what you want, sat down and started eating someone will come around with a little ticket book and tally up your meal. They leave it on your table and you pay on the way out.  You’ve really gone to town if you’ve managed more to rack up more than ten or fifteen ringgits per head.

It’s all about big flavour – there’s nothing pretty here.

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Singaporean street food : Kaya toast & C coffee

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Breakfast, for me is one of the best meals of the day and Asia doesn’t usually disappoint with great meals like nasi lemak, roti chanai, fried rice and congees. Cornflakes are boring, anyway.

Add another breakfast champion to the list, kaya toast!

Kaya, in Malay means rich, which is  very accurate as the spread put onto the toast is a thick, off green colour of coconut, sugar and pandan which is thickened and emulsified with egg. The resulting jam is thick, creamy and has a custardy consistency.

The jam is made into sandwiches with griddled, smokey bread and generous lumps of proper butter. Healthy stuff.

A regular and popular addition with the Singaporeans is ‘soft boiled egg’s which, to a European like myself would imply a soft boiled egg, or dippy eggs but they are served with the albumen half turning white, in a semi-translucent soupy mess. The eggs are mixed in with sweet soy before eating with the toast.

Kaya toast

Kaya toast, including soft boiled eggs (left) Original Kaya toast (top right) Coffee C (bottom Right) and french toast with kaya spread (centre)

Due to having our camera stolen in Indonesia, I don’t have any original images from our eating adventures. Images here are used under a creative commons license via Flickr. These image has not been altered and you can view the originals at the following link – Thanks, Hajime NAKANO

Coffee C is the perfect accompaniment, thick, dark coffee which is brewed the old-fashioned way and poured from a jug that looks disturbingly similar to a watering can.  The ‘C’ is for condensed milk, which is added to sweeten and lighten the treacle like coffee.

Kaya toast is another famous heritage dish of Singaporean food culture, it has been around for a while and like a lot of Singapores staples has arrived with the Chinese population many generations ago.

Ya Kun, a recently franchised chain in Singapore is an old favourite. The story goes, that Loi An Koon, set sail from Hainan to Singapore in 1926 and began working for a coffee stall, his entrepreneurial spirit drove him and two other Chinese immigrants to open their own stall. Three then became one, but he married and his new wife was the creator of their famous kaya spread. He roasted his own coffee and carried on for decades being very popular as a street vendor until in the late 1990’s one of his children franchised the brand and now they have outlets all over the city.

It might be excellent marketing, it might be a nice story of triumph, but either way they still make very good, popular coffee and deliciously moreish toast.

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Indonesian street food : Sate ayam (chicken satay)

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You can’t go very far without seeing the smoke of the sate seller in In Indonesia. Sate is everywhere, on every street corner a man, or woman will be busy cooking the skewered meat over hot coals and incessantly fanning to keep the heat high and the fat spitting.

Westernised satay, to use its alternative spelling is nothing compared to the rich flavours and tastes of Indonesian sate, the depth, spiciness and smokey flavours are intense and moreish.

Traditional sate is full of big hitting flavours including both a sauce and a marinade.

Sate ayam

Sate ayam

The marinade, is generally made with a combination of spices and Indonesian soy. kecap manis is one of two types of soy that appear on almost all Indonesian warung (a small, simple usually family run restaurant)  tables.

The meat is sliced into slithers, unlike westernised satay which is usually big chunks of breast, or lean meat, Indonesians will use thinner slices of fattier meat.

This ensures that when they are cooked over high heats the meat is flavoured by the fat which renders down and drips onto the coals – creating more smoke, which helps to flavour and cook the meat. The circle of life, illustrated in ‘meat on stick’ terms. The meat has had so much heat and smoke by this point that the cooking process is a combination of both methods.

Sate vendor fanning the sate coals. The green cylinders in the bottom left are lontong.

Sate vendor fanning the coals, the tray shows lontong, too.

Due to having our camera stolen in Indonesia, I don’t have any original images from our eating adventures. Images here are used under a creative commons license via Flickr. These image has not been altered and you can view the original at the following links – Thanks,Gary Romanuk

The meat is served with a deep, spicy sauce. I once worked with a chef whose idea of satay sauce was blending coconut milk and peanuts together, I recall my complaints meant that he added a few dry chilli flakes and pressed the blitz button again. This is not satay.

The sauce will contain heaps of flavours and spices, lemongrass, garlic, coriander seed have all been noted in previous grazing tests, mixed with peanuts, sugar and shallots. The best Indonesian satay we had in Probolinggo, (at least something good came out of that town) the vendor chucked in a huge spoonful of sambal too. Amazing.

The meat doesn’t have to be chicken, it can be lamb, beef or pork and in Bali they have a type of sate (which is really just a word to define the skewer, not the meat) which is minced fish, often tuna and lemongrass moulded onto skewers called sate lilit bakar. This satay is not exclusive to fish, it just means that the meat has been ground and remoulded to a skewer. I’ve also read about, but not seen lemongrass being used in place of the skewer. This is also commonplace in central Vietnam for the dish nem lui.

Bakar, coincidentally is a good word to know when you’re looking at hawker stalls as it mean grilled, as opposed to goreng which is fried.

The skewers are often served from street vendors in a banana leaf with sliced up lontong – a type of compressed rice which is wrapped in banana leaf and boiled – and smothered in sauce. Satay is also a regular component of the popular Indonesian dish nasi campur.

expect to pay around 10 -15’000Rupiah for a serving (around ten sticks)

Phrases worth knowing
Satu
 – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
silakan (see luh kan) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you (people may respond with ‘sama sama’ which means’ you’re welcome)
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry

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Indonesian street food : Nasi Campur (mixed rice)

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“Nasi, Nasi!”

Nasi one of the most commonly heard words in Indonesia. We would be walking through a train or bus station, or just happily sitting on a train and women will be wandering around with wicker baskets full of banana leaf parcels, offering their foods to everyone.

“Nasi?” 

“Nasi Ayam?“  

Nasi campur is a meal you can get all over Indonesia – It literally translates as ‘mixed rice’ and is equivalent to an everyday meal as it is as simple as rice with side dishes.There is no definitive recipe for nasi campur as it can be a buffet style meal, or meze style with a selection of different dishes.

Meat, vegetables, egg, krupuk and rice.

Meat, vegetables, egg, krupuk and rice.

Due to having our camera stolen in Indonesia, I don’t have any original images from our eating adventures. Images here are used under a creative commons license via Flickr. These image has not been altered and you can view the originals at the following link – Thanks,Todd Lappin

Traditionally, it will contain a selection of vegetable dishes, some Curried or stewed meat, or fish and/or fried tempe; a soy product similar to tofu. It just depends on what’s available.

From a street cart the rice might be wrapped up in a banana leaf, but in a warung it will usually be presented as rice in the centre of the plate, or banana leaf tray with sides scattered around it.

Warungs, especially in Bali will serve with a couple of sticks of sate ayam and krupuk, a type of Indonesian prawn cracker. Again, it depends on what’s available and how much the meal costs as to how elaborate the spread is. Malaysia has a similar dish called nasi kandar.

Commonly the dish will feature around four or five components with rice and is a cheap, filling meal.

Phrases worth knowing 

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
silakan (see luh kan) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you (people may respond with ‘sama sama’ which means’ you’re welcome)
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry

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