Thursday, September 20, 2007

Roti John

There is a cuisine prevalent in Malaysia and Singapore known as 'Mamak cuisine'. The term 'Mamak' refers to the Indian community in Malaysia, mainly Muslims from Tamil Nadu. In fact, even the word is reportedly a corruption of Mama, the Tamil for maternal uncle.

Given its provenance, it hardly comes as a surprise that much of the cuisine derives from Indian food, with interesting localised twists added on. Popular items include Thosai (identical to our Dosa), Murtabak, a thin Paratha stuffed with egg and minced meat (somewhat similar to the Bengali Mughlai Paratha), and the composite Rojak. And, of course, Roti Prata.

Roti Prata can be considered the genre's signature dish. It is uncannily similar to the Parotta one gets in south India; rectangular, flaky and brittle. Prata joints usually sell several versions of this, including garlic, banana, mushroom, cheese, even chocolate, besides something called Italian Prata made of cheese, tomato, mushroom, mutton and heaven knows what else.

[By way of an aside, due to this Islamic predominance, some even refer to the cuisine as 'Muslim' food. Which is rather silly, since 60% of the Malaysian population happens to be Muslim. In fact, Article 160(2) of the Malaysian Constitution characterises ethnic Malays in terms of inter alia their belief in Islam. Or perhaps 'Muslim food' happens to be a uniquely Singaporean term.]

Prata Cafe on Evans Road, also called Mr Prata, is one of the better-known Prata shops in Singapore. I recently discovered this lovely article on it. Of especial interest was an account of its origins. The founder's partner once overheard some students in conversation. They were complaining about the lack of eating places near Evans Lodge, the students' residence they were staying in. His partner persuaded him to open an outlet right next to Evans Lodge, where it still stands.

It so happens, these days I live in Evans Lodge myself. Prata remains the only feasible dinner destination in the vicinity. The NUS canteen closes by 6.30 and the nearest other eating place is at Adam Road, a good fifteen minutes' walk away. Prata boasts the virtue of remaining open 24 hours.

Frankly this fact, coupled with the lack of alternatives in the vicinity, are the main reasons why we frequent it. I've never been impressed by the food. What's more, in contrast to most of Singapore, the place exudes a dowdy, faded air, just as Evans Lodge itself does.

By and large, I confine myself to the simpler Pratas, easy on stomach, palate and wallet alike. The first time I ate there, I had asked for garlic Prata. Reasonably tasty, but a bit pricey at a Dollar and a half. Thanks to a useful tip-off from my roommate Ananth, these days I usually ask for Plain Prata. At eighty Cents it offers much better value for money. Two of these nicely fills you up; three will have you too stuffed to get up properly, even. It comes with as much Dal and fish-head curry as you want (just the curry, no meat), so as such there's no need to order something to eat the Pratas with.

The other day, however, I decided to be adventure. After going through the menu several times, I decided on this peculiarly-named confection called Roti John. Unlike the other things I've talked about, Roti John has its origins in Singapore. The story goes, this guy called Shukor ran a stall at Clementi. Some European customers of his would regularly order omelette with a hunk of French bread on the side. One day he experimented with adding the bread to the omelette while it was frying, and then embellishing it with a special chili sauce. And that's how it was born, Roti John! In Singapore-speak, Caucasoids are referred to by the generic term 'John', which clues us into how the name came about.

The Roti John I got at Prata was somewhat different. I ordered the mutton version, priced at three Dollars. They gave me a hunk of French bread slit on the side, with a layer of mutton inside the slit, no chili sauce, and no egg (omelette or otherwise). It did have lots of mayonnaise on top, though. Now mayonnaise is pretty much a standard accompaniment to Roti John, but this was different. They had it piped to read 'Mr Prata', just like the icing on fancy cakes!

Nice to look at, but didn't do much for the taste. As such I wasn't terriby impressed. My biggest grouse was about the mutton filling. It was bland, and tasted strongly of turmeric. I suspect they had simply taken out some meat from the mutton curry, shredded it, then stuffed it into the bread. The lack of chili sauce deprived it of much needed zing. Even the bread was on the dry side. The mayonnaise was nice; thick and creamy. But that alone was not enough to single-handedly redeem the entire preparation.

The verdict? Average. Pleasant to eat, filled up my stomach and all. The quantity was meagre; for three Dollars I expectd a lot more stuff. More significantly, it was plain mediocre cooking. Nothing remotely inspired about it.


Kaushik said...

What a pity the fish head curry doesn't have fish head. Was salivating at the thought of fish head curry and paratha.
By the way the link to Mughlai Paratha leads to Murtabak

Abhik Majumdar said...

Kaushik, many many thanks for pointing out the wrong link. Have incorporated the necessary corrections.

And actually the fish head curry does have fish head. You can order it as a separate dish. It's just that when you order plain Prata, they give you for free a little bit of curry sans fish head.

..::Ev︼@ngel::. said...

nice thing there
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Shalaidah said...

Good post.