In England, there are pancakes. In France, crêpes and gallettes do the trick. But in many other parts of the world, particularly throughout Asia and the Americas, people choose to transport both sweet and savoury ingredients to their mouths and stomachs via the ubiquitous “roti” – a type of food whose name is derived from the Sanskrit “roṭikā,” meaning “bread” (in this case, unleavened bread).
Found in homes and on street stalls throughout countries including Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand in the East, and on islands including Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies, the roti is popular with both locals and foreign visitors – and it only takes one bite to understand why.
Described by one German tourist as “Something that falls between thin bread and a pancake… When cooked, it’s crispy on the outside, and when it’s packed full with chocolate and peanut butter, like mine usually are, it’s really hot and melting on the inside,” the roti is a treat for the senses – and an attack on the waistline for anyone who chooses to indulge frequently!
A cheap and robust “food delivery” system!
But rotis weren’t – and are still not – always used as a base for a sweet snack. In fact, with only flour, salt and oil required for making them (omitting the milk used in pancakes and crêpes, which can be expensive and difficult to buy in hotter parts of the world), rotis serve as a cheap and filling substitute for rice alongside all kinds of curries, vegetables, and side dishes. Their robust form means they’re good for carrying those dishes from plate to mouth!
They’re easy and quick to make, too – although the preparation of the dough requires a little forethought, as noted in this basic roti recipe. That’s one of the reasons the roti makes the perfect street stall snack; the vendor can prepare all the dough earlier in the day and cook it on a hot plate or griddle in front of the customer before adding whatever fillings the hungry diner has chosen, resulting in a piping hot dish of bread-encased goodies!
The business of making rotis
Serving up rotis from a small roadside stall is precisely how Gayani and her husband, Chaminda, started their business in the town of Mirissa, on the South coast of Sri Lanka. There, a stuffed roti is considered a main meal in itself and not just a snack or accompaniment to a variety of other dishes – and Gayani and Chaminda’s traditionally-filled rotis (mainly including fish and vegetables) satisfied the appetites of everyone from local fishermen to thrifty travellers.
The couple’s business has since grown into something much bigger and diverse, however, and can now be found inside a proper building with a large outdoor eating area, away from the main road. Named Dewmini’s No. 1 Roti Shop, the enterprise is a tribute to their daughter, Dewmini (aka ‘Pinky’) and a favourite on Trip Advisor, which ranks it as the number one place to eat in the area. And it’s all thanks to some open-mindedness on their part and a few ideas from appreciative customers, as Guyani explains:
“A German chef came to eat here one day and he showed me how to make a banana roti, then an Australian visitor suggested adding chocolate to that. Later, an English tourist showed me how to make banoffi pie and I created a roti version. That person also asked if I could make a savoury roti filled with avocado, cheese, and tomato. My ‘Western’ rotis became so popular that lots of other businesses in the area copied us!”
The rise of the flatbread?
Maybe it’s time for England and France to take a leaf out of Gayani’s book and adopt the customs of the roti-eating world. After all, you can’t serve a crêpe or a pancake with a curry, chopped fish, and vegetables, or bananas and chocolate spread, but you can serve a roti with anything your heart (or your customer) desires!