Southern Cooking – Thai Style
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Hot summer days make me miss my homeland across the Pacific. Walking down Bay Area streets just isn't the same without the festive ambience and alluring scents and sounds of street vendors, purveying tantalizing selections of irresistible, fresh-cooked foods at very affordable prices.
Often the goodies are made to order right in front of your eyes, sometimes with dramatic flair and showmanship. Such unsolicited, three-dimensional, live entertainment and expert, complimentary cooking demonstrations by seasoned cooks easily match shows on the Food Network.
One street food which has a special drawing appeal to many foreign visitors is the Muslim pan-fried bread, roti. Unlike what you might expect to get in India, this Southeast Asian version is most frequently served, not with meals, but as a sweet snack dripping with sweetened condensed milk and plenty of grease. But to American travelers, such white-flour-and-sugar treats with hardly any redeeming food value are difficult to resist in a region where the main food is rice rather than bread.
Watching a skilled roti vendor flip the dough into the air, stretching it see-through thin, and then slapping it down on the stainless surface of the street cart, can be an exciting experience. In fact, many Bay Area residents who travel with me to Thailand each year are frequently awed by the drama and then, think they are in heaven when they sample the deliciously rich, crisped chewy bread.
Some with hopeless sweet-tooth syndrome dream of having it for breakfast every morning, in place of the more nutritious rice congee and noodles I've been feeding them. I must admit a really good roti is a special treat once in a long while when accompanied by fresh-brewed espresso coffee, which is all the rage these days throughout Thailand.
Although street vendors making such sweet rotis can be found throughout Thailand, they are most prevalent and make the best breads in the southern region of the country (as well as down the Malay peninsula all the way to Singapore), where the Muslim population is densest.
On one of my special tours to southern Thailand several years ago, the group became "addicted" to rotis and it seemed as if we were forever in search of the perfect roti. Our best find turned out to be at the edge of a night market in the seaport town of Songkla. The operation was not just a street cart, but a more permanent small shop (as is common in many towns in the southern region with a sizeable Muslim presence), with rickety tables and stools set out on the sidewalk.
On a specially built countertop just outside the shop, a pleasantly plump young woman wearing a black T-shirt and pants was flipping gigantic white rotis at least two feet across, the largest I'd ever seen! And with such extraordinary skill I have yet to see duplicated anywhere. She's a crowd pleaser and her dramatic antics and impeccable showmanship elicited cheers from everyone. Best of all, we were delighted by the exceptionally delicious breads she made for us.
Not only did we have them sweetened with sugar and condensed milk and stuffed with banana, as are common elsewhere in the country, we also sampled her scrumptious rotis dipped in curry sauce and stuffed with curried meat and vegetables (called "mataba" in Thai, "murtabak" in Malaysia and Singapore), as are also commonly served in roti shops in the deep south.
It's been two years since I was last in Songkla. I hope she's still there doing her magic as I plan to take my travel group there next February for a front-seat, repeat performance and feast to replenish our energies in-between precious moments island-hopping and snorkeling the incredible reefs off Thailand's Andaman seacoast.
In the meantime, I am practicing my roti flipping ability just for the fun of it. Though it's hard to do, I've attempted to describe the motions as best I can my Roti recipe. Those of you who have seen it done before in your travels to Southeast Asia may have the advantage of the mental image retained in your memory.
Do remember: practice makes perfect. Make lots of extra dough as it may take a few dozen tries before you are able to confidently do what roti vendors are so adept at doing. But if eating them rather than flipping them is more your cup of tea, roll the dough as thinly as possible with a rolling pin, then proceed with the rest of the instructions. Enjoy and don't think much about the empty calories!
See also: Kasma's Roti Recipe.