A Vain Attempt to Perfect our Roti Canai
Having Betsy here re-acquainted us with the joys of South Indian-style breads here in Malaysia. We are pretty sure that her single favorite dish from the entire time we were here was roti canai, the stretched, folded, flaky, flat, fried Indian bread whose recipe we posted here. We tried it a couple times at several different places, and JM and I agreed that our existing recipe is almost entirely unsatisfactory. The problem is the thin flakiness. No matter how thin you roll out those doughs, they will never have the light and airy quality of real roti canai as thrown by the roti canai man. It’s not even close. And the multiple-layered quality is what makes roti canai so good. The outside layers are crisp and brown, and the inside layers are soft and chewy. We can sort of get the crispy brown outside right, but our inside layers are doughy and raw, not soft and chewy. Soft and chewy != doughy.
So last night we bought a whole bunch of flour and ghee and spent the evening following some recipes we have seen online to make roti canai the authentic way. Simply put, the theory is to make a dough, stretch it out incredibly thin, gently fold it a couple times (trapping a bit of air between the layers), and then toss is on the griddle. We ran into all sort of problems, although we had a nice time. The most immediate problem is that the dough recipe make a dough that doesn’t make sense to someone familiar with Western-style breads and pastas. To us, the dough seems intolerably wet. The dough recipe that we followed called for 2 lbs. of flour along with 2 cups of water and about a half cup of ghee and two eggs (along with some other things). If you mix that together, you get paste, not dough. You can’t even knead it because it just sticks to your hands. When we made our dough, we didn’t even use the whole 2 cups of water. Even a cup and a half seems wrong.
JM tried another dough recipe that we saw. This one was simple: 10 oz of flour, half a cup of water, half a cup of ghee. This simply didn’t work. We could not shape it into anything, even after letting it rest for 3 hours. We just had to throw it away.
We pressed on with my dough, though. We used about a cup and a half of water, let it sit for half an hour, divided it into 12 balls, and then let it sit for a half hour more. At this point, we tried to emulate the workings of the roti canai man. In a very loose way, the roti canai man works sort of like someone tossing a pizza. In this case, though, he stretches the dough far thinner, and his dough is very sticky rather than smooth and pliable like a good pizza dough. So instead of tossing his dough, the roti canai man has to sort of spin it around his hand, gently but firmly, until he has a piece of dough about half again as big as a large pizza, but transluscent. We couldn’t get this motion down without tearing the dough. We also couldn’t figure out how to prevent the dough from collapsing back and sticking to itself instead of staying stretched. We did manage to get it thin enough to see through, but only in the middle of the dough, and only when we gently stretched it out on the counter. The corners still were far too thick, and this is fatal for roti canai, because it can’t cook right if this is the case. We furthermore learned that with this dough, you only get one chance. If you toss it and it tears irreparably, you cannot just kneed it again and start over. The dough will just tear.
So, we made a whole bunch of gimpy roti canai. About half our dough attempts were unsalvageable. About a quarter more ended up black on the outside and raw in the middle. The remainder were a reasonable approximation, but without nearly the correct inner flakiness. I (TP) have toyed with the idea of simply asking a roti canai man what his recipe is and how he does it. I am not particularly optimistic, though. I’m not sure what language I would use to converse with them, to begin with, as many working class Indians speak only limited Malay and English. They also think that we are idiots at our favorite roti canai stall because we always order it at around 2 in the afternoon, and everybody knows that you eat roti canai before noon or after 4.
We have found some illustrative pictures online. Here’s a picture of roti canai on the griddle, and this picture shows the dough. (Roti prata is the name for roti canai in Singapore.) This series shows roti canai being made: Flattening, stretching, spinning.