Sunday, January 4, 2009
ROTI CANAI - PRONOUNCED 'CHANAI'
Roti canai is an Indian food that has been popularized in Malaysia as a 24 hour food, literally, day in and day out and is swiped, slurped and gulped down with a curry by every Malaysian like nobody's business. It is the most popular roti in the country because it's cheap and it's available everywhere and at any time.
Many say that the name' canai' has been derived from the city of Chennai, formerly Madras, (hence the name roti canai/chanai), introduced and popularized by Indian immigrants. On the other hand 'canai' is also a Malay word meaning knead, hence roti canai or kneaded bread. Many Malaysians also believe that this roti is more prevalent here than in India which seems to imply that it is actually a roti that had been invented here and then exported and introduced to India.
But whatever the story is behind this roti maybe the unique characteristic that distinguishes it from other breads is in the way in which it is made. After kneading the dough it is left to rest for a few hours. It is then flattened, twirled and tossed into the air until it becomes so thin that you could almost see through it.
Not a particularly easy roti to make if you haven't the guts, the adventurousness, the patience or the opportunity to learn. But not impossible at all. Like everything else once you get the hang of it (pun not intended) it's easy peasy.
This roti like many other Indian rotis is eaten with all kinds of curries under the sun. A tad greasy (understatement intended) but it seems that nobody cares, at least nobody in Malaysia anyway. After all it's no more greasy than your neighbourhood McDonalds, KFC or the English fish and chips. So don't complain!
I will show you the sequences of making this roti with a lot of help from pictures as it is quite hard to explain in words so I do hope the pictures that I have, with much inconvenience and a with a whole lot of trouble, taken, (in between greasy hands, greasy table and greasy dough) and with the help of one of my wonderful sons, will aid you in getting a more vivid view of the process.
But first a little personal history. I had learnt to make this when, at the age of sixteen, my mother had brought me along to watch an old Malay man (yes, not Indian (long story)) share the secret. I was very lucky to have had that opportunity and he was a very good teacher because after that lesson, no practice, and a year later at the age of seventeen I was making my first roti canai for relatives whom we had invited for dinner. And my rotis were a success.
As they say show not tell is a better teacher. So look at all the pictures and I hope you will be brave and give it a go!
THE RECIPE :
600 gm all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp sugar (2 hours)
1/2 tsp sugar (8 hours)
1/2 pint water
pinch of salt
Sift flour into a large bowl or your mixer bowl. Beat the egg and add it to the water, add salt. Stir. Pour the egg mixture into the flour and turn on your machine or knead by hand until you get a smooth ball of dough. Not much different from kneading any other bread dough. This recipe is very precise so it is quite unlikely that you will need to add more flour or water at all. If you do need to, do it a little at a time. Once the dough is smooth roll it inot a long sausage shape and then cut it into 10 pieces. Leave that for a moment.
Get a medium sized wide bottomed bowl or a bowl like the one in the picture and fill it with oil about 2 inches high. Now roll each piece of dough into a nice round ball and place them one by one into the bowl of oil. If necessary add more oil to completely submerge the balls of dough. Don't worry the oil will not be wasted. You will be using it, though not all of it and the rest can be used for cooking ( no it will not be dirty at all unless you have ten other people dipping their hands in it.) Cover with cling film and let rest for either 2 hours or 8 hours depending on the amount of sugar you used.
Grease the surface of your table very well with the oil from the bowl. Better more than less. After the dough has rested for the said number of hours take one ball of dough out from the bowl, place it on the oiled surface/table. Drip some oil from the bowl onto the dough for smoother handling and proceed to flatten it with the palm of your hand as much as you can or until it is about the size of a teacup saucer like in the picture below.
Note : As you take out a ball of dough from the bowl you may find that it sticks to the other balls of dough in the bowl. Do not be concerned. Just detach it from the other pieces and proceed.
Now, using the palms of both hands rub the dough in a circular motion all over and you should find the dough becoming a larger and thinner circle. Get it as thin as you can by doing this without tearing the dough or puncturing it. In between all that you may need to sprinkle oil from the bowl onto the sheet of dough if you find difficulty in rubbing the dough or if the surface of the dough seems somewhat dry . Usually this roti is made on stainless steel counters which does not cause as much friction so less oil can be used in the process. Look at the two pictures below to get an idea.
Now, using both hands, because the sheet is very delicate by now, lift off an edge gently and by pulling and stretching the sheet around the edges you will be able to get the sheet to become thinner and larger. Try not to tear a hole in the sheet, but if you do it is not the end of the world. Just proceed, gently pulling and stretching avoiding hte hole as much as possible, until the sheet is thin and almost translucent. The stretching of the dough lends some airiness and lightness to the dough and sometimes I shake/wave it (like you would if you were shaking a bedsheet) to trap some air underneath. Of course when the experts do it the dough gets very light and it gets a good airing due to the flipping and tossing of it into the air. I can't do that so this is the best that I'm willing to go. Watch the pictures below.
Once the sheet is as thin as you can get it lift it up at one edge and about an inch or two off the table with your fingers like you would a filthy piece of rag. Look at the picture below. Then let it down again onto the table but this time as you let it down swirl it around until it rests on the table like a swirly little turban. Look at the following pictures. This is where you get the last opportunity to trap some air into the mound of dough to give it the lightness later.
Once that is done, and using the pads of your fingers rather than the palms of your hands pat the little turban all over until it flattens out into a larger circle, about the size of a dessert plate. Observe the pictures that follow.
Done. It is now ready to be pan fried. If you are working the dough some distance away from the stove I would suggest that you place the flattened dough onto a saucer and carry it over to the pan for easier handling. Heat up the pan first until hot, add about a teaspoon of oil and wait for that to get hot then place the pancake into the pan. Fry both sides until a golden brown and crisp. The heat should inflate the roti a little through the air pockets that were formed due to the earlier stretching and the final twirling into a turban.
The final product.
TIP : The most hassle free way of making this roti is to finish up the dough by making all the 10 pancakes and keeping each one aside (you must have a surface large enough though) or you could place each one on a saucer each and put aside until the rest are all ready. Then fry them one by one. If you do it this way you will not be running up and down between stretching and pulling the dough, wiping your greasy hands on your tea towel/shirt/jeans/pyjamas/hair/face etc and frying the roti.
This same dough sheet is used to make 'roti bom' which is a smaller and thicker version of the roti canai, 'roti planta' which is roti canai with added magarine of the 'Planta' brand, 'egg roti' which is roti canai with an egg broken into the dough and folded up before frying, and 'murtabak' which is a meat filled roti canai.