I often feel that my deep-seated fascination with food, the way in which I relish it so much, comes from my Singaporean genes. My mother is Singaporean – from a Portuguese Eurasian family – and, as a young child, I spent four happy years living in Singapore. This vividly-remembered period of my life has left me very nostalgic for the dishes I remember eating as a child. As a treat, my mother would take me to night markets to visit the hawker stalls where I could choose from wonderfully tasty dishes to eat such as char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles) or crispy goring pisang (fried bananas), freshly cooked before my eyes.
Forever on a hopeful quest to find decent Malaysian food in London, the other day I ventured into Asian Twist Delicious – a small, cheery, new Malaysian café I’d spotted tucked away among an unprepossessing stretch of shops and restaurants on Charing Cross Road. I ordered roti canai (a traditional Indian Malay flatbread) and waited for it to emerge from the kitchen . Mass-manufactured, ready-made, frozen roti – fried in minutes – are the norm in restaurants in the UK. Instead, to my surprise and delight, a tall, Indian man walked over to a small counter in a corner of the restaurant by the window, picked up a piece of dough, patted it out, then deftly and skilfully, flicked it out, stretching it into a large, flat circle of thin dough which he fried on a griddle and – a minute later – I was served with two rotis together with a tasty dipping sauce of chicken curry. Watching him make the roti and then eating the roti – tearing pieces of the gloriously light stretchy flatbread and dipping it into the spicy curry sauce – transported me back at the hawker stalls of my Singaporean childhood.
“I’ve been in London ten years,” Sugendran, the ‘Roti King’ told me. “My family are from Ipoh in Malaysia; that’s how I learned all this trade. I learned how to make roti for fun when I was 14; now it’s my speciality. I call myself the ‘Roti King’.” As we talk at his work counter the waitress brings a steady string of orders for assorted roti, which Sugendran calmly and efficiently makes freshly each time – with the sound of the patting out of the dough punctuating our conversation. “The roti came to Malaysia from South India,” he explains. “It’s called a paratha. In Malaysia they improve it, they make it lighter.”
Sugendran had worked at the food court for Oriental City, the much-missed Colindale-based restaurant and food shop complex, closed down by developers in 2008. “That was a lovely place,” he says wistfully. He is very happy, however, to have a new showcase for his culinary skills. “If you go to London anywhere, you don’t get fresh rotis. This is authentic. It’s particular dough. I use two types of flour: one is Chinese which is soft, one is local flour. It’s a very soft dough. The whole thing comes from how you make it thinner and the way you flip it, that’s the secret. It takes time to learn.” As I watch him effortlessly flick out the dough so that it stretches and stretches out and becomes so large and fine that it resembles a piece of material rather than a piece of dough, I can totally believe that.
Not only are his rotis here the real thing, so, too, are the traditional accompanying sauces. “All my mother’s recipes,” says Sugendran, gesturing to the sauces. “For the fish curry sauce – I mix the fish curry sauce and the dhal – sambhar – together – it’s very authentic,” he says proudly. “If you go to any Mamak shop in Malaysia (in Malaysia, Indian Muslim shops are called Mamak shops), that’s where you get roti canai – you get this sauce. We do all the roti you can get in Malaysia and murtabak too.”
As well as catering for nostalgic ex-pat Malaysians and Singaporeans, Sugendran has adapted his menu to his London audience, offering fillings aimed at a British audience. “I do cheese and onion, cheese and spinach for the locals. They like it. I want to sell to the locals, because some of them they don’t want to try. When they see cheese, they want to try. Curry they don’t want. “ Just as a crepe stall offers both savoury and sweet crepes, so he also offers roti in assorted sweet versions. “I make a roti very crispy, a lot of butter and sugar, lay it on top, make it like a cone, put a bit of chocolate on top .”
“I go back to Malaysia every year,” he tells me. “ I have to go to recharge my batteries and I eat out there, that’s my job!” he says, laughing. “I just eat all the time, eat the food, see if there is anything different. In Malaysia cheese is very expensive, so you couldn’t use it. This is street food – you can’t have an expensive roti canai.”
Here at the newly opened Asian Twist Delicious, Sugendran is working in partnership with the restaurateur from Kopi Tiam. “ He does the drinks and other Chinese dishes and I myself do the roti; we each bring some custom in. There are lots of choices on the menu. We can’t afford to have a food court,” he laughs, “but this is what we’ve done. Eighty or ninety per cent of our customers are all Malaysian and ten per cent are locals who know Malaysian food. Some of the tourists when they pass by and see the Malaysian flags and look in the window and see me work, they say wow roti canai, we didn’t know we could get this in London.” And with that, the Roti King returns to his work, bringing an authentic taste of Malaysia to the heart of London’s West End.
Since writing this post, The Roti King has moved to set up his own place, Roti King, 40 Doric Way, London NW1 1LH, hidden in a basement on a side-street near Euston Station. Well worth the hunting out. Read Guardian restaurant reviewer Marina O’Loughlin on The Roti King here: http://bit.ly/1hzrNwr