The world can be divided into two types of people. The first type wants to hold a gathering of family or friends with the least possible amount of work. Nobody is to be in any way inconvenienced by actual effort of any sort – it needs to be easy. A tray of sausages, or a cold chook and some salad will do. For the second type this approach is an anathema, a barren wasteland empty of the truest of soul sisters: food and love. It will not surprise anyone to know that I am of the latter type. I cook as an expression of creativity and, most importantly, love. Friends and family are your heart and soul. They should be honoured with offerings, things you have pieced together in love with the express intention of bringing them pleasure. This is why I cook. It is my devotion. I learnt this from my Nana.
The cuisines I most like to cook for people are all Asian, specifically south east Asian, Indian and Chinese. I love these foods, they are my culinary heartland. I love the cunningness of Chinese cooking, the mad combinations, the double cooking, the peculiar textures. I love the delicacy and balance of south east Asian food, finding the perfect balance on a narrow flavour profile where the slightest mis-step is the difference between sublime and banal, or even downright awful. I love how food from this region is created from stinking, pungent, difficult ingredients and transformed into something beautiful and sophisticated. It’s like starting with Courtney Love and ending up with Audrey Hepburn. I love the huge variety of spices and methods in Indian food, the profound sense of satisfaction in creating a curry paste from scratch and the total sensual immersion required to cook it well.
I love to cook bog-standard b-grade meals for my family on a nightly basis, to know that they are well fed and a bit more educated about the world of food. I love to cook for guests. When Pete has people to stay (usually old friends or Kendo players) I’m always seeking an opportunity to make them sit down for a meal I have cooked. But most of all I love to cook for special occasions and this is where I really shine – in the kind of meals that take at least a day to make. Blissful, complicated hours of dedication to food to be destroyed in a single act of consumption like the dissolution of a sand mandala. And here I have added a new weapon to my arsenal: I have all but mastered the art of making beautiful, light flaky south east Asian style Roti.
Roti take time and patience, but otherwise they are not too complicated. I have not yet mastered the art of throwing the bread like a proper roti-wallah, and given the way I nearly broke my wrists and dislocated my shoulder in the first attempt I probably never will. The tragically unskilled white girls way of doing it is serving me just fine so far. I should probably stop perving at the roti guy at Rich Maha, however. My interest may be misinterpreted. The secret is in the oil bath. The little balls of dough like to relax covered in oil. They need at least 4 hours. Seriously, don’t even bother trying less than this. My experience suggests they don’t like too much more than 8 hours, though, or they become too relaxed and can’t focus on the task at hand. Give these a try – they are delicious, impressive and will cause sighing, shivery delight among those you love.
- 3 1/4 cups plain white flour)
- 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1 tbsp white sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tbsp milk
- 3/4 – 1 cup water
- About 1/2 cup of peanut oil, plus extra to cover. You could also use canola.
Sift the flour, salt and sugar into a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Make a well in the center and add the egg and milk before folding them into the dry ingredients. Add the water slowly while working the flour with your hand to form a moist, sticky dough. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is soft and elastic. You’ll know when its there – if you’re having doubts, you’re not there yet and need to keep going. Cover the dough with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rest for a couple of hours.
When its had a nice rest, pull off enough of the dough to form a round ball about the size of a lime. Knead until you get a smooth, creaseless ball. Place on a tray greased with oil and continue until you get about 12 balls. When you’re done, place them in a large shallow bowl and cover them with oil. Cover them with gladwrap and place them in a cool place for 4 – 8 hours. If they go into the fridge, take them out at least an hour before you plan to cook them. They will be much more relaxed and elastic at room temperture.
Oil a work surface and press a dough ball into a flat disc. The trick now is to stretch it as thinly as you possibly can, pulling, stretching, whatever, until it is big flat sheet of super thin dough. You will find that it pulls back quickly and is thicker around the working edges. I guess this is where the proper roti throwing techniques would come into their own. When you’ve got it as thin as you can, hold it one hand so it hangs down in a long string and swirl it into a snail-shell like disc. Place on an oiled surface and continue until you have completed them all. Heat an iron pan or griddle over a medium heat and when hot pour a splash of oil on it. Pick up one of your discs and flatten it out until its about 6 inches across. Remember they are very elastic and will contract very quickly. Shrinkage is completely normal. Fry on one side and then the other until golden brown.
The last and most fun step is to tale a piece of paper towel in each hand and hold the edges (not the surface) of the roti between your hands, resting it on the work bench. Then you are basically going to clap your hands together while rotating the disc around. Smash it this way a few times until it becomes flaky. You’ll figure it out. Place the bread in a bowl lined with kitchen paper in a warm oven and repeat until finished.