Roti canai, a popular snack

Food Safety by CHIA JOO SUAN

If you like pancake or croissant, it is likely that you will also like roti canai. Visitors to Malaysia are often introduced to the roti canai which is touted to be the “Malaysian pancake”. 

The word “roti” means “bread” in Malay and Hindi, but the meaning of canai is somewhat uncertain. This humble version of unleavened bread, sometimes called roti pratta, is commonly served in Indian or Indian Muslim restaurants.  

The dish is simple yet satisfying and was served for breakfast in the old days.  

Its popularity in recent years is obvious from the number of roti canai outlets found throughout the country, some of which are open 24 hours.  

Art of making the roti 

Roti canai shares many ingredients used in cakes and pastries such as wheat flour, eggs, salt, sugar and water. Margarine or ghee and condensed milk bring forth the the bread’s unique satisfying taste and flavour. 

What is interesting is the skill of making roti canai into a flaky papery-textured bread. Watching the skill of the cook, who turns and tosses the dough in swirling movements, is enough to whet your appetite. 

The action of throwing, spinning, twirling and tossing a fist-sized dough, stretching and flattening it into a papery thin “disc” of about 40cm diameter is certainly not an easy task.  

Repeated oiling and folding turns it into a smaller disc-like piece of dough ready to be cooked on a hot griddle.  

When the white dough turns opaque and becomes light golden brown in colour, it is ready to be served. The flaky multi-layered bread is crisp yet fluffy. It is served with a mixture of curries and dhal gravy. 

Taken with a cup of teh tarik (tea with milk cooled by pouring it from one mug to another resulting in a drink with a foamy top), it could make a complete and satisfying meal. 

High calorie food 

Roti canai is an oily food containing very high calories. The dough is a mixture of fat and wheat flour.  

A piece of plain roti canai (about 95g) provides 300 kcal; a piece with an egg filling gives 356 kcal and half a cup of dhal gravy provides 58 kcal (Nutrient composition of Malaysian foods, 1997).  

The recommended daily calorie requirement for an adult is about 2,000 to 2,500 kcal. A piece of plain roti canai with dhal gravy and a cup of tea with one teaspoon of sugar, would give us about 390 kcal. If you opt for two pieces the meal provides about 700 kcl. 

Fillings as supplement 

As Malaysians are getting more affluent, roti canai has evolved into many variations. There are 20 or more choices, with different fillings. 

More significantly, the fillings supplement nutrients that are lacking in plain roti canai. Fillings of tuna, sardine, meat, egg and cheese supply proteins, vitamins and minerals required for various body functions.  

Egg and sweet corn also provide nutrients for our eyes. Local fruits like pineapple, nangka and banana have fibre for bowel health while the potassium in banana regulates blood pressure. Potatoes and onions are good choices for people who watch their cholesterol levels. Onions also reduce the absorption of toxins. 

Others offer wider choices by adding beverage ingredients such as Milo, cocoa and Horlicks.  

Furthermore, the yellow dhal dipping sauce nourishes us with magnesium, B vitamins and dietary fibre. Dhal is also a very good source of cholesterol-lowering fibre and lutein for our eyes. However, the pigeon pea used for cooking dhal is a legume that is often known as “noisy bean” since they can cause bloating and flatulence.  

Other options 

Dieters and individuals who are counting their fat intake for weight control and cholesterol levels should observe the calorie values of roti canai. Perhaps dieters could opt for dosai, a “cousin” of roti canai. Dosai is less oily and is made of rice; some may have additional ingredients such as black gram dhal (ulundu) or other legumes. 

Depending on its size, a slice of white bread gives about 50 to 100 kcal, a piece of dosai has 147, a bowl of white rice 207, a plate of chicken rice 278, a big piece of 100g capati 300, a plate of fried kueh teow 321 and a bowl of curry noodles 529. 

Other safety concerns 

Roti canai should be cooked to a light brown colour. If it is over cooked, it may contain a higher amount of the toxic residue acrylamide.  

Flour contains gluten. Roti canai is not suitable for those who are gluten-intolerant. Roti canai contains wheat flour and is a starchy food containing carbohydrates that are rapidly absorbed by the body and cause a surge in blood-sugar levels. This may be a concern to diabetics. 

  • Chia Joo Suan is a food chemist who advocates safe eating habits. She is the author of What’s in Your Food? (Pelanduk).