You can find roti canai almost everywhere in Malaysia. Roti means bread and canai ([pronounced ‘channai’) literally means ‘flipped over’. It was, inadvertently, the first dish we ordered on our first day in Brunei last year and it was also the first thing we ordered here in KL when we arrived. Served with a sidedish of dhal, for around 1RM (20p) for a plain one, it provides a cheap, filling meal. Anyway, we all love it and when we first discovered the LaZat cooking school up in Penchala Hills back in July, we heard that Ana, the manager, can find us a roti expert and run a special class, providing we have a minimum of eight people.
And so, yesterday, along with the Denham family, who arrived here a week ago and whom I met through a friend of a friend, and my friend Katrin, we formed a party of eleven and headed up to the traditional wooden Malay house in the leafy hills.
Ana was her usual bubbly self, and, as we sat and got to know each other over a cup of homemade ginger and lemongrass tea (you boil fresh ingredients in water, with some palm sugar to make this). It had been LaZat’s annual open house the previous weekend and so, despite it being 3pm and so neither lunch nor dinner time, we were given beef rendang, nasi lemang (rice cooked in bamboo) and prawn fritters with homemade chilli sauce to nibble on before we started work on our dhal.
Downstairs in the kitchen-classroom open to the air, at that time blissfully cooled by the rain that battered down outside, I was delighted to be hugged in welcome by Saadiah, who had been our teacher last time. As usual, they were well-prepared and we each had trays of ingredients at our work stations. Dhal, that sloppy yellow curry that no Indian meal is complete without, was just a load of lentils, right? How wrong I was.
First we made a paste in a brass wok by frying shallot, dried chilli, curry leaves, mustard and fennel seeds, then switching off before adding turmeric, coriander and cumin powder. With a little salt and X too, of course. We set this aside and began boiling yellow lentils in water with crushed garlic and ginger til they were almost soft, then adding cubes of carrot and potato and boiling again til soft because we want the veg to melt into the water and make a thicker soup-like consistency. Now we were allowed to add cubed brinjal (the longer, thinner sister of the aubergine) and a red and a green chilli. Once this had come to the boil we could add some tamarind juice (made by soaking tamarind in water for a few minutes and straining off the water only) and coconut milk. At last we could add our previously made paste and the dhal began to look right. A sprinkle of coriander and this too simmered until the brinjal was done and the sauce thickened. Saadiah showed us to how to peel a chilli, leaving the seeds in the centre, in a perfect totem pole shape.
Now, it was time to meet Rashid. Ana met Rashid six years ago when she was looking for a roti teacher for the school. He runs a stall in Seksyen 17/25 in Petaling Jaya, from 4pm to 1am, in the nightmarket there. He’s done so for 28 years and sells 150-300 rotis a night. This is the man who introduced the first roti stall to China in 1993 and who, here at LaZat, trained the guys who set up the first stall in Australia. We knew he’d be good.
It was a shock to discover that the dough has three 20 minute proves and can then be shaped into egg-shaped balls which must then rest for four hours before using. This will never make it into Jamie’s list of Fifteen-minute Meals. We didn’t have that amount of time, but Rashid had brought 100 dough balls with him for us to play with.
It was a shock to discover that egg, condensed milk and sugar are used in the dough mixture, as well as salt.
It was a further shock to discover that there is an art to that flipping and stretching process that makes the lacy, layered flatbread we have sadly come to love, particularly when cooked with banana. How can anyone lose weight here?
Rashid was a patient and humorous teacher, showing us how, with the flat of his right hand under flattened disk of dough and his left hand over but with the thumb under, he flipped left 180 degrees, then made the full circle closer to his body, slapped it on the work surface and repeated until he had achieved a stretched, see-through sheet the size of A3 paper, that looked like the delicate skin of an animal. Next this stretched dough was picked up and coiled, and left ready for flattening into a plate-sized disk and frying on a flat pan the size of a helipad, with room for at least six to cook at once. Flipping and flipping until they were golden in places (that’s the sugar) and pronounced ‘done’. Once ready, he scooped it off the pan with a wide flat scraper and onto the counter before smashing down onto it with his bare hands, and karate chopping it in from the sides to break up the bread and create those cracks and splits that define this style of bread and make it possible to tear up one-handed.
“If too hot, cover with a towel,” Rashid advised and a stack of towels stood waiting ready for us. “I am used to it. Nothing happen,” he said, showing us his pink palms, steaming from the heat.
We reached out to sample the bread and all recoiled in horror. It was waaay too hot to touch. How did he do it?
While we blew on our fingers and roti, desperate for a taste, he showed us how to add banana or raw egg (he had this natty trick of cracking the egg on his knuckles to break it) or, the piece de résistance, a mixture of cold beef rendang and beaten egg. We started to salivate at the thought of bacon and egg roti for breakfast. I wondered if they’d ever suggest the contestants tried roti on the Great British Bake Off.
“I’m starving!” wailed one of the boys (not one of ours, I hasten to add, I mean they’d already had lunch and a snack at three) and magically Ana produced bowls of baked banana in coconut milk with sugar and fennel seeds. Funnily enough we’d had this on Lang Tengah last week and thought it was something we had to learn how to do. Ana’s was better and we are delighted to discover that they teach you how to do this at LaZat too.
First we practiced flipping with a plate, then a teatowel, and finally, on the dough itself. It was very hard. When you flip it over and slap it down it has a tendency to fold over itself and glue back together. Then Ian suggested I pull my left hand to the left a bit as I did the second semi-circle flip and that certainly helped. But I was disheartened. There were five young men there, all under 25 and they were all doing better than me. Grr! Mary Berry would have given such a big sigh if she’d seen how hard I find it to make things look pretty, let-alone match. Then the angel that is Saadiah appeared at my side with two dough-balls in her hands.
“Look, Jo,” she said. “We do together.”
And so, I mimicked her, action for action, flip for flip and saw how she eased up the edges and shook a little to stretch the dough further and how the eventual coil was more a pinwheel than a pile of poo. I’d cracked it.
Meanwhile, the kids were busily at the hotplate cooking up the 100 rotis we’d flipped and stretched and coiled between us, adding egg, creating their own concoctions, being macho and burning their hands and eating and eating til they held their tummies in pain. I tell you, this would make a brilliant birthday party for twenty-somethings!
We were supposed to go up to the dining room to eat our roti and dhal in a civilized manner, but we couldn’t resist, poured our dhal, fragrant with that curry leaf, into bowls, dipped in our bread and ate standing up. It was quite simply the best dhal I had ever made.
Night had fallen by the time we left, armed with plastic boxes full of spare dough balls, cooked roti and dhal. Everyone was in tremendous spirits, as usual and we all pledged visit Rashid on his stall in PJ sometime soon.
As for Ana and Saadiah, Josh and I are back to learn how to make nasi lemak on Tuesday.