Roti Canai: Breakfast, Malaysian Style

Roti canai served with curry at Penang Malaysian Cuisine in West Covina
Roti canai served with curry at Penang Malaysian Cuisine in West Covina

In many ways it's breakfast that most reveals a culture's culinary history. From hobo bindle-sized San Antonio breakfast burritos to the delicate simplicity of fish, soup, and rice in Japan, the ingredients of a people's first meal of the day reflects the most readily available ingredients and the distinct tastes favored by a region. And although vegetables, dairy, and meat are all part of the global breakfast vernacular, carbohydrates rule as the foundation of breakfasts around the globe.

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Americans are only the most recent in a lineage of breakfast carb-loving people. Ancient Greeks ate curdled milk and flour pancakes. Somalis enjoy their own tangy fermented version of flatbread drizzled with honey and ghee to accompany a morning cup of tea. South Indian households ferment, then steam rice and black lentil batter to form small airy pancakes the size of makeup sponges to dip into chutney or sambal. The Chinese are big on fried dough, some recognizably the Asian cousins of the cruller, others so large they can eclipse a dinner plate."¨

In Malaysia, it's the roti canai (rho-tee chan-ai) that graces breakfast plates. Conjured from flour, water, clarified butter, with a touch of condensed milk, the dough is flipped, flattened, folded, and slapped down like a '90s Bell Biv Devoe ditty onto a hot oiled griddle to proudly puff. Roti canai is prepared with mesmerizing efficiency, and it's obvious why it's commonly referred to as "flying bread.""¨

Roti canai's origins are often connected to the influx of immigrant laborers from India's Chennai region (still commonly known by its colonial name, Madras) across the South Asian sea. Along with their manpower the South Indians brought over the layered flatbread, parotta. Cheap and easy to make, the thin bread quickly gained popularity and can now be found at food stalls and restaurants all over Malaysia, enjoyed plain or sprinkled with sugar, with new variations even offering fillings like Nutella or mayo-spiked salads of chopped cabbage and carrots. But most often roti canai is traditionally accompanied by a small bowl of potato coconut curry for dipping."¨

Where to eat roti canai:"¨
Penang Malaysian Cuisine is turtled into the corner of Hong Kong Plaza, a West Covina shopping center laid out like a Globe Trekker-edition Monopoly board: options include Korean BBQ, Vietnamese pho, Mexican fare, a greasy spoon coffee shop, and a fantastic mall food court adjacent to HK2 Food District supermarket. The restaurant announces itself with humorous hubris. "You've tried the rest now try the best;" and in fact Penang is oft mentioned as amongst the better Malaysian restaurants in SoCal for their spicy and pungent sambals and made-to-order roti canai. "¨

Slightly crispy outside, the layered interior of the roti canai gives way to a satisfying chewiness.
Slightly crispy outside, the layered interior of the roti canai gives way to a satisfying chewiness.

Penang's roti canai arrives with the spectacle of a pontiff's hat ... a steaming cone pointed upward. Or maybe it's a twisting Frank Gehry skyscraper realized in doughy miniature. Whatever you imagine, the taste and texture of Penang's roti canai matches its impressive feat of verticality, and it's all too easy to find yourself ripping down the hot flatbread to nothing quickly, dipping without pause into the small accompanying mutton-laden bathtub of mustard-yellow curry while mulling over the rest of the menu.

The flatbread's texture resides somewhere between a crisped crepe and a croissant caught relaxing, a hint of sweetness only evident after you've swallowed. For light eaters, the appetizer could be a meal in itself; for more robust eaters, the temptation for a second round can become a dilemma.

Quick tip: Upon entering Penang, while being walked to your table, place an order for a roti canai and a glass of barley ice. You'll be thankful after being handed a large three-ring binder to study, a visual supplement to Penang's regular menu filled with a dizzying amount of options for first-time visitors. The service at Penang is relaxed, so a plate of roti canai can tide you over during the turtle race between your indecision and a leisurely waitstaff."¨

Penang Malaysian Cuisine
971 S Glendora Ave
West Covina, CA 91790

Roti canai can also be found at:
721 S Western Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Koreatown, Wilshire Center


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