Grocery Ninja: Crisp, Golden, Buttery Roti Prata—the Asian Croissant
The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read all her mission reports here.
Before I knew the gentle, sit-down joys of a warm croissant, I knew the theatrical flips and flying acrobatics of the roti prata. Crisp, golden, with multiple, tissue-thin layers of buttery flakiness, the roti prata is Southeast Asia's street food answer to the West's more gentrified pastries.
Flour, water, and copious amounts of ghee (clarified butter) are formed into a dough, kneaded, allowed to rest overnight, then formed into balls. Each ball of dough is then stretched paper thin, tossed in the air, twirled, slapped onto a greased work surface, slathered with more ghee, folded, and repeat. This goes on until the roti prata man has worked sufficient layers of ghee and dough together, and finally lays it down on a hot plate to be fried to a golden crisp. This is what's known as "roti prata kosong" (literally, "roti prata empty"), and is usually served with a dish of curry for dipping, or crunchy, coarse-grained sugar crystals for the sweet-toothed.
If you had ordered a "roti prata telur" ("telur" means egg), the roti prata man would stretch the dough ball out on his griddle—like a hanky—crack an egg into the middle and muddy the yolk, before folding the four corners in and flipping the prata onto its now egg-filled belly. As you can imagine, enriching what is already a very rich dough with egg makes for even more deliciousness, and roti prata telor is an undisputed brunch and supper favorite in Southeast Asia.
Here in the U.S., I don't have the luxury of strolling to the neighborhood coffee shop for my prata fix. But I do have the option of picking up a pack of frozen pratas from Ranch 99 and sticking it in my freezer for a 3 a.m. craving—which is exactly what I found myself doing last weekend. There are, of course, basic recipes for making your own roti prata at home, but like croissants or pizza dough, they demand plenty of commitment and a somewhat glinty-eyed zealousness.
The boyfriend and I are decidedly commitment-phobic (especially when commitment means climbing up on a high stool to pick roti prata dough off your ceiling) and so we've been taste-testing frozen roti prata brands instead. So far, Raya and Spring Home are clear favorites, and we've heard good things about the Kawan brand too. In fact, at a foodie meet-up group, the buzz was that someone who knew someone at Spring Home heard that the owner of the company had spent $3 million experimenting on the yummiest roti prata recipes (take from this what you will, but they are certainly tasty).
There are many stories surrounding the origins of roti prata, but the one that sounds the most plausible to me involves migrant workers from Chennai, India, who brought with them a flat bread or "paratha" that they ate with a side-dish of dahl (lentil curry). In Malaysia, this flat bread is known as "roti chennai" (usually spelt "roti canai"), and in both the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the neighboring city-state of Singapore, "cosmopolitan" versions of roti prata/canai can be found. Savory versions include roti prata with eggs and caramelized onions, spicy minced mutton, tuna, sardines, garlic, or cheese. While sweet versions can be found enveloping kaya (a rich, creamy, coconut jam), caramelized bananas and peanut butter, fudgy durian puree, ice cream, or simply drizzled with condensed milk and/or chocolate syrup.
The supermarket version the boyfriend and I "made" involved heating up a pan and griddling the frozen roti prata (no need to defrost) till they were golden brown. We thought about fixing up some Japanese curry for dipping, but were too lazy (it was a Sunday, after all) and found that the roti prata did an excellent job of sopping up leftover oxtail stew. It also served admirably as a delivery vehicle for the obscenely creamy scrambled eggs the boyfriend whipped up. Later that night, we did a sweet version by wrapping the roti prata around dollops of Japanese an (azuki bean paste), as well as topping the roti prata with mango gelato.
There may not have been theatrics, or a skilled roti prata man involved. But I had a masterful scrambled egg man, and roof burns from being overly eager. Yum.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.