Give us this day our daily roti

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The "Roti House" is a small bamboo hut with a Malaysian chef standing inside, surrounded by low tables and chairs also made of bamboo

Most people, including me, understand roti is a kind of Indian bread, usually had by dipping it into spicy, delicious curry.

Well, I have just learnt that outside India, in several Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, it is also a much favored snack topped or stuffed with fruits and even chocolate.

This knowledge was happily bestowed on me during and after several visits to a new eatery in Ho Chi Minh City called "Roti House."

Roti, which means bread in Hindi, Urdu and many other languages in North India, also takes on the same meaning in Malay as well. But in the Southeast Asian countries where it is consumed, it has also been transformed from a main dish into a snack or a dessert, salty or sweet, based on your mood for the day.

I stumbled upon "Roti House" one evening as I was driving slowly along Vo Van Tan Street.

I was struck by the quaintness of the eatery with a small bamboo hut, surrounded by low tables and chairs also made of bamboo. I decided immediately to check the place out.
It looked like a place selling sweet porridge, but standing inside the hut, under a roof made of dried leaves, was a foreigner wearing a chef's hat.

And there were several mẹt (flat round bamboo basket) hung under

 
 A roti with egg
the roof that served as the menu, announcing Roti sầu riêng (Roti with durian), Roti chuối (Roti with banana), Roti phô mai (Roti with cheese) and so on.

"Is the chef Indian?" I asked the place's owner as she welcomed me warmly.

"No, he's Malaysian," she said. "Oh, because he is making roti I thought he was Indian," I said.

"You're not wrong. Roti is from India but it is also a common food in Malaysia and Indonesia as well," she patiently explained and invited me to sit down.

I took a careful look at the eatery's menu. Apart from the bread that goes with chicken curry, what I have eaten several times, there were ten different kinds of roti with stuffings of either tuna, chicken, cheese, banana, egg, strawberry, durian, cream, beef or chocolate with prices ranging from VND10,000-20,000.

People passing by can miss this place because "Roti House" is not emblazoned on a signboard, but just written on wooden menus.

The owner explained that "Roti House" opened just a couple of weeks ago, and belongs to the restaurant named "Banana leaf," standing right behind it.

Apart from Vietnamese food, "Banana leaf" offers Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean halal food, basically meaning food that is "lawful" or "permissible" for Muslims. The restaurant is popular among Muslim residents of the city, I learnt.

The restaurant's owner opened "Roti House" to promote the Malaysian style snack to young people in Ho Chi Minh City who like to eat in open spaces. At the moment, the place serves around 20 people on tables and chairs placed on the side walk.

"We can add anything we like to roti," a waiter told me. "Here we are selling these ten kinds of roti first to get feedback from customers."

For me, the highlight of "Roti House" is its Malaysian chef. When customers sit outside and wait for their food, they can enjoy themselves watching a skilled chef demonstrate the art of making the roti.

He kneads a piece of flour with his hand and dabs some cooking oil on it. Then he swats it and makes some skillful, twirling and slapping movements so that the piece of flour goes up and down on a stone platform, becoming a very large and thin sheet without using a rolling pin.

The thinned flour is then placed on the stone and the ordered stuffing is placed in the middle. Then the chef folds the flour to make sure it covers all of the stuffing. Then he places it on a hot tava, adds a little oil, and browns it on both sides before serving.

Rotis served at the "Roti House" taste best when they are still hot. The cover is crunchy and yet soft, while the inside is soft and yet a bit tough.

My own experience after several times of eating there is that the roti with cheese and cream are not as good as the rest, while the one with chocolate should be eaten by two people as it is too sweet for one person to finish"¦ but that's me. You might find it very different. 

Roti House- Banana Leaf

57 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3,Ho Chi Minh City

Another Indian/Malaysian specialty customers can also enjoy at "Roti House" is Teh Tarik, made with black tea, milk and sugar. It can be hot or iced, but a hot cup of Teh Tarik is the traditional beverage. It is a very popular drink, I could see, but I am yet to acquire its taste. The first time, I was even a little disappointed with its somewhat bitter, acrid taste; had to ask the waiter to add sugar, and the next time, a little sweetened condensed milk. There hasn't been a third time, so far.

But I am perfectly happy with another one of the eatery's special concoctions iced tea with kumquat. On hot days, this "Roti House" specialty refreshes me with its natural taste of tea, the sourness of kumquat and the slight sweetness of a little sugar. I always finish my cup very quickly and order another. 

Rush hour at "Roti House" is between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Be prepared for slow service and longer waiting periods. That said, I have never felt uncomfortable because the waiters and waitress are always agile and very friendly.
And I enjoy sitting on a sidewalk in Vietnam, watching a Malaysian man making a snack that actually originated in India.

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