A Vain Attempt to Perfect our Roti Canai

Having Betsy here re-acquainted us with the joys of South Indian-style breads here in Malaysia.  We are pretty sure that her single favorite dish from the entire time we were here was roti canai, the stretched, folded, flaky, flat, fried Indian bread whose recipe we posted here.  We tried it a couple times at several different places, and JM and I  agreed that our existing recipe is almost entirely unsatisfactory.  The problem is the thin flakiness.  No matter how thin you roll out those doughs, they will never have the light and airy quality of real roti canai as thrown by the roti canai man.  It’s not even close.  And the multiple-layered quality is what makes roti canai so good.  The outside layers are crisp and brown, and the inside layers are soft and chewy.  We can sort of get the crispy brown outside right, but our inside layers are doughy and raw, not soft and chewy.  Soft and chewy != doughy.

So last night we bought a whole bunch of flour and ghee and spent the evening following some recipes we have seen online to make roti canai the authentic way.  Simply put, the theory is to make a dough, stretch it out incredibly thin, gently fold it a couple times (trapping a bit of air between the layers), and then toss is on the griddle.  We ran into all sort of problems, although we had a nice time.  The most immediate problem is that the dough recipe make a dough that doesn’t make sense to someone familiar with Western-style breads and pastas.  To us, the dough seems intolerably wet.  The dough recipe that we followed called for 2 lbs. of flour along with 2 cups of water and about a half cup of ghee and two eggs (along with some other things).  If you mix that together, you get paste, not dough.  You can’t even knead it because it just sticks to your hands.  When we made our dough, we didn’t even use the whole 2 cups of water.  Even a cup and a half seems wrong.

JM tried another dough recipe that we saw.  This one was simple: 10 oz of flour, half a cup of water, half a cup of ghee.  This simply didn’t work.  We could not shape it into anything, even after letting it rest for 3 hours.  We just had to throw it away.

We pressed on with my dough, though.  We used about a cup and a half of water, let it sit for half an hour, divided it into 12 balls, and then let it sit for a half hour more.  At this point, we tried to emulate the workings of the roti canai man.  In a very loose way, the roti canai man works sort of like someone tossing a pizza.  In this case, though, he stretches the dough far thinner, and his dough is very sticky rather than smooth and pliable like a good pizza dough.  So instead of tossing his dough, the roti canai man has to sort of spin it around his hand, gently but firmly, until he has a piece of dough about half again as big as a large pizza, but transluscent.  We couldn’t get this motion down without tearing the dough.  We also couldn’t figure out how to prevent the dough from collapsing back and sticking to itself instead of staying stretched.  We did manage to get it thin enough to see through, but only in the middle of the dough, and only when we gently stretched it out on the counter.  The corners still were far too thick, and this is fatal for roti canai, because it can’t cook right if this is the case.  We furthermore learned that with this dough, you only get one chance.  If you toss it and it tears irreparably, you cannot just kneed it again and start over.  The dough will just tear.

So, we made a whole bunch of gimpy roti canai.  About half our dough attempts were unsalvageable.  About a quarter more ended up black on the outside and raw in the middle.  The remainder were a reasonable approximation, but without nearly the correct inner flakiness.  I (TP) have toyed with the idea of simply asking a roti canai man what his recipe is and how he does it.  I am not particularly optimistic, though.  I’m not sure what language I would use to converse with them, to begin with, as many working class Indians speak only limited Malay and English.  They also think that we are idiots at our favorite roti canai stall because we always order it at around 2 in the afternoon, and everybody knows that you eat roti canai before noon or after 4.

We have found some illustrative pictures online.  Here’s a picture of roti canai on the griddle, and this picture shows the dough.  (Roti prata is the name for roti canai in Singapore.)  This series shows roti canai being made: Flattening, stretching, spinning.

Comments 13

  1. James May 30, 2005

    Tom, from observing the roti women in Mauritius, I have some advice.
    1) I saw several roti workers ply the dough with their hands to make it big and round as you described, but I also saw two other techniques: a) rolling pin, followed up with a flashy spin in the hand, and b) pounding a ball of dough flat on a counter, then picking it up and stretching/spinning it further.
    2) Add the full amount of water in your recipe. You’ll end up with sticky paste, but what the recipe doesn’t say is that you’re adding the rest of the flour you need to make dough when you work it in your hands. From watching roti women in Mauritius, they also start with a wet ball of paste in their hands. But they’ve got so much flour in their hands (or on the counter with the rolling pin) that the paste becomes dough soon enough. Also, what sort of flour are you using? You may have a too low gluten content.
    3) Google a few soft-shell tortilla recipes. The water/flour ratios and the hands/rolling/spinning techniques might be helpful guidelines for you.

  2. Tom May 31, 2005

    Hey, your rolling pin idea might work. But it’s not how they do things here–that, of course, does not mean that I won’t try it. As for pounding the dough flat on the counter, that’s definitely the first step here. It’s just that they then go crazy with the spinning.
    We checked the flour, and it’s the right kind. Just regular all purpose wheat flour. I should note that the roti canai/roti prata men here do not use bench flour at all, either on their hands or on the counter, to prevent sticking. Rather, they lather themselves up with ghee and spread it all over the counter. We tried this, and it’s the best possible way to keep the dough/paste from sticking to you.
    One thing that I have yet to observe is how much they knead the dough. Our recipes say nothing about how long to knead it. And anyway, you couldn’t knead the dough much anyway because there’s nothing to grab onto. It’s more like mixing up a paste.

  3. James May 31, 2005

    Yeah, don’t knead it, I’ve never seen anyone do that. Another idea occurs to me. Could you treat the dough more like a crepe, and stretch it out on the hot griddle itself?

  4. Kara December 30, 2005

    I’m also a sucker for the stuff, and have never satisfactorily made it myself either. However, I have noticed that a) yes, more ghee is the best way to deal with stickiness and b) time helps. From some food science reading, it seems that when you add water to flour and knead it, gradually, gluten forms. Gluten is what makes it elastic. But it takes time.
    I was suspicious that the roti men might make the dough the night before & leave it overnight to ‘rest’, and the time I did that, it was *much* better.
    Another thing I used for the thinnification was a pasta roller – easier to continually fold & roll, fold & roll than trying to hand roll or stretch it – at least for most of the phases.
    but I really think that letting it sit is the key part. I’ll be making some for a new year’s day brunch this weekend, so if I pull it off, I’ll let you know.

  5. Su Yin April 19, 2006

    hi there, just this morning, I was up to some roti canai experiments on my own. I got upset at the results and started to google for some tips :); and found you! please let me know how your canai ‘research’ is coming along, and if youve found a good recipe. Mine was 400gs flour (i used plain flour), 1 egg, 50 g sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup milk. The dough was workable…not too soft nor sticky. However the strecthing and flipping was an issue for me as well.

  6. speedoflight May 18, 2006

    I’m laughing, not at you but with you. My wife and I have been trying to make roti canai for a week and it’s been a very frustrating and perplexing experience. The recipe seems simple enough…well, until you make it. We ran into the SAME issues. We got paste when we should have dough. We tried to stretch the paste as much as we could, with a rolling pin and threw it on the skillet. The paste would cook but tasted horrible. It turned out biscuity instead of the wonderful gooey taste the roti should have. So we found yet another recipe that we’re trying that calls for 3 cups of flour. This is double the amount of flour the other recipes had. We got dough this time instead of paste and with the oil/ghee put in, it actually is looking like it could work. The dough is now sitting as I write this. I hope it will turn out. I will keep you updated.

  7. speedoflight May 22, 2006

    My dough turned out good!!! No pasty stuff that can’t be worked. What a change!! Now, all I have to do is focus on making the dough thin and fold it in several times well enough to create that layered effect. Make sure you put enough ghee on your skillet when you “fry”/grill your roti. You don’t want dry dough. My first attempt using the recipe below was very good. The dough did not taste horrendous (dry and biscuity) like the previous recipes.
    3 cups flour
    1 – 1.5 cups water
    1 tablespoon margarine
    salt to taste
    2 tablespoons evaporated milk
    1 tablespoon cooking oil
    Extra margarine
    Method :
    1. Mix well water, salt and evaporated milk
    2. Add the liquid into the flour bit by bit if kneading manually
    pour the whole amount into the flour if using machine
    3. Add in cooking oil
    4. Add in margarine
    5. Knead to form a soft dough. Leave it covered with a damp cloth for about 30 minutes.
    6. Divide the dough into 10 portion and mould into balls.
    7. Coat the balls with margarine so that they won’t stick to each other. Leave to rest for not less than 2 hours.
    8. Spread each ball on a smooth surface to form a very thin layer. Fold the four sides into the middle and fry.
    9. Enjoy.

  8. Clara August 21, 2007

    I’ve studied YouTube roti canai makers and tried every recipe provided. The secret I’ve found to perfect roti is what you put in the dough. The flashy rolling technique can be instead done thinly using a rolling pin if you prefer or a pasta maker.

  9. hafiz September 6, 2009

    hi guys,
    if you done the dough alright, to make the bread thin another method is to find a big round tray, and put it on a big stable tin (or anything stable, but smaller than the tray)..and use the pulling method..once you pulled the dough pass the edges of the tray, you can slowly pull the thick parts and make it thiner..than fold and cook..all the best..

  10. Rhali October 6, 2009

    I found that using gluten – free flours is the secret.
    here’s what i used.
    tapioca flour
    green chives
    mix together to make a thin batter.
    fry both sides. lovely and crunchy!

  11. Za April 5, 2010

    I tried the 3 cups of flour recipe and the dough while resting didn’t keep it’s shape and started sticking to each other. So I’m guessing that it must have been too soft. I wish someone would show the texture of the prata dough when adding the water. Oh well…I still managed to do something with it. It didn’t have the softness but the tatste was close (maybe needs a little more salt). I believe its the consistency of the dough that failed me here. Sigh….still must persevere.
    I checked out this link http://ariffsa.blogspot.com/2007/11/roti-canai.html
    and I don’t think the flour to liquid ration is correct. There’s just too little flour to make into dough with so much liquid added!!!!

  12. Sha April 20, 2014

    I’m a Malaysian, born and raised here, and I can attest to what Hafiz said above, as that was how my now-almost 90-year old aunt used to make roti canais at home when I was a kid, living with her. Trying to recall here..let’s see, she normally prepared the dough the night before, and I do remember some kneading going on before she left it to rest over night.

    Next morning, she would take the individual balls of dough and stretched a ball at a time, on top of an OVERTURNED huge round tin pan (we call it ‘talam’ here) stabilized on top of some square cracker tin container (think ‘Jacobs’ ;D ). She stretched the dough until it covered the whole talam and she would pull the edges till they hanged over the talam like random shaped scallops. Then she rolled half of a side towards the middle, and repeat with the other half so that you have a long piece of two-attached ‘cigarillos’, and then take one end and rolled it so that it ended up with a shape like a snail drawn by a preschooler (not sure if you can imagine what I’m trying to explain here LOL).
    Once that’s done, the final step would be to flatten it to your desired size and put it on a heated girdle or pan.

    BTW, I was searching for a gluten free roti canai recipe and that was how I chanced upon your blog. Sorry for my poor English!

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