By Aun Koh
Aun Koh is one of the co-founders of The Miele Guide, the first independent guide to Asia's top restaurants. Koh has worked for the International Herald Tribune and Newsweek, and has also launched several publications, including EAST magazine, an Asian regional lifestyle publication. Between 2004 and 2006, he ran the visual arts and literary arts divisions for the National Arts Council Singapore. He has written three cookbooks: The Six Senses Cookbook; Chiva-Som's Thai Spa Cuisine; and French Classics Modern Kitchen. He also runs one of Southeast Asia's most popular food blogs, Chubby Hubby. In his dispatch for WWB, Aun talks about the early morning hunt for the perfect Roti Prata in multi-culti Singapore—Editors
In Singapore, people often argue about what to eat. It's become as enjoyable a pastime as the act of eating itself—which our former Prime Minister once declared was one of our two unofficial national pastimes (the other was shopping). Singaporeans are obsessed with food. They are obsessed in the same way that the Swiss are obsessed with punctuality; Parisians with being well-dressed whenever appearing in public; Sydneysiders with being cooler than their peers in Melbourne; and Thais about being unfailingly humble and polite.
Singaporeans are always talking about and fighting over food. We eat an inordinate number of times in one day. Many of my fellow countrymen are happiest having an early breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a small afternoon tea, dinner and a late night supper. For most Singaporeans, what favourite food to indulge in at each of these occasions is one of the great debates in life, and one they'll happily tackle several times a day. The wonderful thing about a place like Singapore, renowned the world over for the variety of food available here, is that the sky really is the limit. And the possibilities endless.
Breakfast, though, is the one meal of the day in which my fellow gluttonous countrymen and women, appear to agree on what to eat. For the most part, there are two quintessential Singaporean breakfasts. One of these consists of thin sandwiches of char-grilled toast with cold pats of butter and kaya—a local egg and coconut milk jam whose roots can be traced back to the Portuguese traders that came to this region during the heyday of the Spice Trade—served with soft-boiled eggs and thick, sweet coffee.
The other breakfast, and the one that I love best, is roti prata. Roti prata is the Singaporean version of an Indian paratha. Roti means bread in Hindi, Urdu, and several other North Indian languages; prata means flat in Malay. It is essentially an Indian flatbread, made with flour, water, ghee (clarified butter), salt and maybe some sugar. The dough for the bread is kneaded until very elastic. It is then stretched, flipped, folded and fried on a hot plate, usually in a little oil or some more ghee. A well-made roti prata should be crispy on the edges, and light and fluffy everywhere else. It is usually consumed with a nice spicy curry or dhal. Inexplicably, some prata punters like to eat theirs with a little sugar.
Traditionally, roti prata is eaten plain or stuffed with a beaten egg and maybe a little onion. Over the years, though, several shops have rightly or wrongly been experimenting with various unconventional stuffings and additions. Some even specialize in serving up new and occasionally disconcerting creations. One of the most popular nouveau prata combinations is the cheese prata—made, as you would imagine, by melting cheese into the prata. At the other end of the spectrum are ice cream pratas, raisin-kaya pratas, and durian pratas. I mean, who really wants to eat bread stuffed with a fruit that smells like a teenager's sweat sock? Especially topped with curry.
A well-made roti prata (plain or with some egg) is a thing of beauty. The bread should be buttery, crisp, fluffy, light and yet rich and savory. The curry—usually a chicken curry—should likewise be delicious and somewhat mild. The biggest problem in Singapore today is finding the one stall or shop that serves both a perfect prata and a yummy curry. Truth be told, I am still looking. Too often, I find that people will only get one thing right. In Tekka market, which has an excellent hawker centre that my wife and I frequent often, I have found two stalls that I like—one for its curry and the other for its prata. And on occasion, I have even purchased my breakfasts from both, only to chuck out the second-rate sauce from the former and the imperfect prata from the latter, thus combining the best of both to create the better, albeit costly, breakfast experience.
Of course, there are some Singaporeans who prefer to eat fish porridge, fried bee hoon noodles or even sweetened bean curd for breakfast. After all, there will always be dissenters. But for me, give me a roti prata any day of the week. Just don't tell my wife. A plate of bread made with clarified butter, fried in more butter, and consumed with curry isn't her idea of the most nutritious way to start the day. But it sure is the tastiest.
Published Jun 23, 2008 Copyright 2008 Aun Koh