What is roti canai, and why can’t people in Southeast Asia get enough of it?

Roti isn’t so much a food in Southeast Asia as a way of life. This humble Indian pastry transcends all races in Malaysia and is adored by young and old, men and women. Photo: @breadetbutter / Instagram

Circular, flat and crunchy – these words best describe the Indian-influenced roti canai (pronounced “cha-nigh”), a staple snack, breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night curry accompaniment for all ethnicities in Malaysia and Singapore (though it goes by the name roti prata or prata bread in the latter). But what’s the real story behind this crowd-pleasing dipping dough?

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What’s in the name?

In Malaysia, locals recognise “roti” as the Malay catch-all term for any sort of bread, but the word also carries the same meaning in Sanskrit and most other Indian languages. Meanwhile, “canai” has long been troubled with a disputed origin: It is said to have been derived from Chennai, the Indian city formerly known as Madras, or from the same Malay word which means to knead. Others surmised that it may have derived from chana, a Northern Indian dish made with boiled chickpeas in a spicy gravy, with which this type of bread was traditionally served.


Despite the possible Chennai link, there isn’t much weight to the theory that roti canai is related to the capital – many Malaysian Indians can trace their lineage to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, but some 20 per cent are from present-day Sri Lanka. It’s also worth noting that the roti in Northern India is different from the one served in Malaysia. The latter is more like the South Indian parotta and is often served with dal or lentil curry rather than chickpeas.


Which leaves us with the Malay word “canai” as the most plausible explanation, as that’s exactly what every roti maker standing before a hot grill does with the rounds of dough that are destined to become roti canai.


In Singapore, the dish is known as roti prata, which sounds remarkably similar to the Indian paratha or parotta – the Hindi word “paratha” means flat. Despite being considered as a variation of the paratha, the dish does not exist in India; the closest to roti canai is believed to be the Malabar or Kerala paratha.

Equally popular in Indonesia, the dish is often spelt as “roti cane” and is usually served with kari kambing (mutton curry).

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The roots of roti canai

The existence of roti canai in Malaysia can be trailed back to the British colonisation of the peninsula. Although there was an Indian presence in pre-colonial Malaya more than 10 centuries ago, a steady influx of Indians occurred when the British arrived and assumed control, importing labour from the state of Tamil Nadu to build up the newest addition to their empire.

The existence of roti canai in Malaysia can be trailed back to the British colonisation of the peninsula. Photo: Handout

With Indians arriving in British Malaya in large numbers by the turn of the 20th century, first to work on rubber estates and later oil palm plantations, Indian street vendors began peddling what back home is called paratha. This is evident at the arrival ports of Penang, Malaysia and Singapore where roti canai goes by the name roti prata. By the 1920s, the dish was being served in Indian Muslim-manned mamak (derived from the Tamil word for uncle) stalls in rural and urban areas throughout the Malayan peninsula, including Kuala Lumpur, the new administrative centre.

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How is it made?

The basic roti canai dough consists mainly of flour, water (or milk), salt, a little sugar and a whole lot of ghee, a form of clarified butter. These are mixed until the dough is formed, and then it is allowed to rest. The dough is kneaded and allowed to rest once more before being cut and rolled into balls. The balls are coated with more ghee (or oil), covered with a damp towel and allowed to rest for the third time.

Making roti by hand. Photo: Handout

When an order for roti canai comes in, the rested dough ball is stretched, folded, flattened and pounded several times over while slapped against a work surface that’s brushed with ghee (or oil) to keep the layers separate during cooking – this helps the roti become almost paper-thin.


It’s not uncommon to see the roti either folded like a square envelope or into a flat circular shape. The only thing you should care about is the result: a wonderfully cooked bread that’s fluffy, layered, flaky and crunchy on the outside and slightly soft and chewy on the inside.

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A main meal, not a side

Available around the clock – mamak stalls often keep long hours until four or five o’clock in the morning, the comforting combination of roti canai and meat-based or lentil curry is one of the most popular dishes that can be enjoyed throughout the day in Malaysia and Singapore. The roti is nothing more than a side dish in South Asia but in Malaysia, locals have turned it into a meal in itself with countless variations of preparation and flavour – the perfect expression of the country’s colourful food culture.


Usually served in compartmentalised metal trays similar to India’s thali, the Malaysian roti canai comes in every conceivable stuffing. Familiar variations include roti telur (egg folded in before cooking), roti pisang (chock-full of chopped, creamily melted bananas) and roti susu (dusted with sugar and served with condensed milk for dipping).

Recent creations include roti Milo (sprinkled generously with Milo chocolate powder, a Malaysian staple) and roti banjir (“banjir” means flood in Malay – the roti is soaked in curry). You could also have roti sardin (stuffed with canned sardines, sliced onions, chillies and beaten eggs) or roti bawang (peppered with chopped red onions).

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For a spectacular sight, order the roti tisu – the name translates to tissue bread and it’s literally as thin as tissue paper, as the dough gets stretched out super thinly and shaped onto a towering cone once cooked.


For a decadent, delicious treat, go for the roti bom. It has more layers and thickness than a regular roti canai as it is coiled during cooking, so the inner part of the dough is harder for the heat to reach. The result is a much softer inside and a crispy, browned outside. Depending on your order, you could find anything from margarine and sugar, cheese, kaya or honey hidden inside the coils.


Be sure to eat your roti fresh and piping hot. When left to cool, roti canai loses the flaky, crispy texture that makes it such a delight. Most variations available in Malaysia can be found in Singapore, too.


Roti isn’t so much a food in this part of the world, but a way of life. You’d be hard-pressed to go anywhere without seeing someone scarfing them down, or a restaurant selling them. Available all day long at most street corners, this humble Indian pastry transcends all races in Malaysia and is adored by young and old, men and women.

Where are Singapore noodles from? How are century eggs made? Are French fries improperly named? And what’s the final verdict on where tikka masala was created? With the Origins series, STYLE delves into the often surprising beginnings of iconic dishes or foods, how they’ve evolved over time and the many ways they’re enjoyed today.

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