Let’s face it, when considering Singapore’s lineup of fantastic food, flat bread is not the first thing that comes to mind. But in truth, fried Indian flatbreads are among the most popular foods here, ranging from simple flour/water ingestibles to complex-flavored creations of eye-popping beauty. In Singapore and Malaysia they fall into the three general categories below. From there they go off into a gastronomic world of options. But it all begins with that simplest, most basic of all Indian flatbreads: the roti prata.
Praise the prata
If you've walked more than a couple of blocks in Singapore you've seen it stretched like pizza dough, slapped on greasy metal counters and tossed like a Frisbee onto hot griddles. It’s the remarkable roti prata, falling under any number of names, such as paratha, roti canai or simply prata. This fried, flat miracle of bread originated in the Channai region of Southern India centuries ago and has since spread via Malaysia throughout the region; most notably to Singapore.
Roti prata is a simple food; just an insipid-looking disc of flour, water, salt and sugar. What makes it special is the dramatic stretching and snapping of the dough. With almost instinctive movement, a skilled prataman pulls, flips and manipulates the slick, oil-brushed lump into a thin veil before folding and frying it on a hot griddle until golden. The resulting round, fused layers of unleavened bread is then “clapped” between the hands to fracture its crispy outer surface and soften the chewy insides. It is round, simple and always served with a side of curry gravy for dipping. It's a thing of beauty.
There’s not much more to it than that – until you consider the delicate, flakey and almost-but-not-quite-burned hue and toasty flavor of the bread. Perhaps it’s the beauty of simplicity that makes this rustic bread so popular. Or maybe it’s the “comfort food” factor: warm golden bread dipped in rich, savory gravy, eaten slowly, deliberately, and washed down with a sweet morning teh tarek. It’s a reassuring meal to start the day, and for so many here it does more than merely nourish their bodies; it helps hold their lives together.
The mighty murtabak
A step beyond the simple prata is its flavor-crammed cousin, the murtabak. Best described as a “roti prata on steroids,” this distinctly Muslim Indian food is made from roti prata dough which is stretched and pulled into a tissue paper thin skin and reinforced with a pre-cooked prata placed in the middle. Sort of like a plate within the wrapper, the inside is coated with a raw egg and stuffed with chopped onion and a choice of filling. The skin is folded into an overlapped square, enveloping the tasty stuffing, and slid onto an oiled griddle to brown. The edges are crispy and flaky, but your teeth break through into soft, slightly chewy layers of cooked bread and well-seasoned fillings. A thin dal or a mutton curry with robust, spicy flavors rounds out the flavor experience.
Murtabaks are often found in the same establishments as roti prata, but oddly the reputations of those restaurants center only around the one dish or the other. Which suggests that perhaps it’s the flavor of the fillings that separate the prata professional from the murtabak master. Those fillings typically include minced mutton, chicken or sardines, but today’s young cooks are creating new variations of murtabak breakthroughs, including egg, exotic cheese, wild mushrooms, masala, fruit, chocolate, Nutella and even ice cream. Roti prata – so much lighter and delicate than its counterpart – is more fashionably a breakfast food, whereas the murtabak is a hungry-man meal in itself, usually reserved for later in the day
The Delicate Dosai
If roti prata is the strong, silent first-born and murtabak the boisterous little brother, then dosai is the attention-seeking baby sister with dreams of stardom and admiration by all. Large, flat and delicate as lace, the dosai (also called dosa or thosai) is both genteel and flamboyant at the same time. She’s the debutante that everyone notices; the dish for which all others are pushed aside to make room. She is, indeed, the Big Show.
But the dear dosai is not just a pretty face. Beneath her thin veneer of tanned, crispy skin is a crepe-like batter of ground lentils and rice flour, fermented just enough to impart a slight sourness and tingle to the mouth. A staple dish in much of South India and Sri Lanka, dosai is popular throughout the day and healthier than her flat bread brethren. The batter is protein rich, gluten-free and loaded with vitamins B and C. It’s also laden with carbohydrates while containing no salt, sugar or saturated fats.
But the real beauty of the dosai is in her seductive shape – a structural wonder worthy of applause, both for the creation itself and the cook who achieves it without breakage. The batter is ladled onto a hot griddle to form an enormous pancake. Flipping it demands one fluid motion, following which the chef bends, folds or rolls the massive, paper-thin crepe into its final form, which within seconds can harden to brittle permanence. The smoothness of the gentle folds reveals the expertise of the chef who makes it look so simple – just a relaxed turn of the wrist – tempting foolhardy wannabes into believing they can do it, too. But some things just need to be left to the pros.
Dosai come in many variations of batter, fillings and texture: crisp or soft, stuffed or hollow, fan-shaped, half moon or rolled like a scroll half a metre long. The pastry is both crispy and soft at the same time, and they’re always served overhanging the edges of a thali plate or banana leaf with 3 dipping sauces: chili, coconut chutney and sambar. But the fun only starts there, with constantly-evolving variations of new masterpieces – like chili crab dosai – or countless variations of dosai desserts, their fragile golden frames filled with fruit, sweets and ice cream. But when first discovering the dosai, be sure to meet the king and queen of the ball before all others: the ladylike paper dosai – so simple and refined, and the masculine masala dosai – rolled like a mysterious map leading you to a land of exotic savory goodness.
So right up there with Singapore's iconic foods, like Chili Crab and Chicken Rice, are Indian Flatbreads. Hey, no big surprise, right? They may, after all, be the most ubiquitous food on the planet – eaten by nearly every culture – so why should Singapore be an exception. And if you haven’t tried one yet you should just close your browser and rush out to get one now!