In the vibrant tapestry of Southeast Asian cuisine, no one can deny that citizens from both Malaysia and Singapore are very passionate about their beloved dishes, even going as far to claim ownership over dishes that have existed in each of the countries even before the two countries became separate nations.
A lot of these dishes may have minor differences and variants across the border due to culture, but these differences are so minute that it doesn't warrant any of the countries to rename the dish to make it unique and exclusive to the nation.
However, there is Roti Prata and Roti Canai.
TasteAtlas, a food encyclopaedia based in Croatia, also seems to agree, and thinks there is a big enough difference to rank the two dishes separately with the release of their "100 Best Rated Breads in the World" list on 10 September.
The list, determined by 9,461 ratings from its audience at the time, placed Roti Canai from Malaysia at the top, while Roti Prata from Singapore came in at 12th.
The list is also dynamic, which can change at any given time. At the time of this writing, Roti Canai is at the number 2 spot, while Roti Prata is at the number 11 spot.
TasteAtlas proclaims their methodological rigour, ensuring that only legitimate ratings from real users are considered, thereby excluding any bias from nationalism or regional pride.
To accompany this list, they even released an article detailing the "differences" between the two dishes as well.
What is the problem with the article?
In it, they state that the ingredients for both the dishes are different.
No, they are not. But more on this later.
They even get the picture of Roti Prata wrong in their article (at least it's not any form of prata we've seen in Singapore).
Now, we do not debate that there may be slight differences between Canai and Prata due to preparation techniques, but there is no fundamental difference between how the dough is made (or how the dishes look) in both the countries.
The differences lie in how each individual chef decides to spice them up, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
As far as the Canai and Prata-loving Malaysian and Singaporean co-writing this article are concerned, releasing the misinformed article together with the list only misleads their audience about the controversy surrounding the food rankings and how these two food items are made.
There are big reasons why people are up in arms over the silly rank placements, because the two dishes are literally the same thing flipped differently at the end of the day.
If TasteAtlas themselves do not recognise the actual differences of these two dishes, this will ultimately make their methodology moot, because people are just going to vote the name that is familiar to them on their site if the dishes are essentially the same thing.
So here we are, writing an article with actual facts on how the name "Roti Canai" and "Roti Prata" came about, together with recipes from both countries to show case how they're made, and with input from chefs to explain the actual "differences", if there are any to begin with.
Hopefully we are able to educate the masses on why these two dishes are just the same thing to us Malaysians and Singaporeans, aside from their names.
A brief history on the origins of Roti Canai and Roti Prata
These two circular, crispy flatbreads have long been a staple snack, breakfast item, lunch, dinner, and late-night curry accompaniment for people of all ethnicities in Malaysia and Singapore.
According to origin articles from both sides of the causeway, the two cherished South Asian flatbreads share a common historical origin rooted in India's paratha and parotta traditions.
They arrived in Malaysia and Singapore during the 19th century, courtesy of Indian immigrants, predominantly from Tamil Nadu. These pioneers skilfully adapted their traditional recipes to accommodate local ingredients and preferences.
Roti Prata emerged as a culinary gem in Singapore, bearing a name derived from the Sanskrit word "paratha," blended with the multicultural linguistic environment.
In contrast, Malaysia, particularly in Penang and the north, welcomed "parotta" as "Roti Canai". The origin of the term "Canai" is a subject of debate. Some suggest it may have its roots in Chennai, while others believe it is linked to a Malay word meaning "to knead."
Additionally, there's a theory that it could be connected to "chana," a North Indian dish featuring chickpeas in gravy, often enjoyed with a similar type of bread.
Despite the difference in terminology, these breads' fundamental preparation and characteristics remain largely similar. It's as if they're engaged in an identity crisis on a culinary stage, trying on different names while staying true to their roots.
Dough, diversity, and deliciousness
At their core, both Roti Canai and Roti Prata share a common doughy ancestry. The dough is typically crafted from a blend of wheat flour, water, and a touch of fat or oil.
According to recipes from both countries, a ratio of ghee and condensed milk are also thrown into the mix. It is not exclusive to either country, as TasteAtlas claims.
Ghee is not exclusive to Roti Canai, and condensed milk is not exclusive to Roti Prata. They both use them.
While the precise ratios and ingredients may vary slightly, the end result remains a delectable canvas for culinary creativity.
In fact, it really depends on the chef on how crispy or chewy they want their Roti to be.
It's the art of stretching, flipping, and folding this dough repeatedly that gives these flatbreads their distinct flaky and crispy texture. This practice really is the spectacle of any kind or Prata or Canai making, and is the main reason why there is a possible variance between the two dishes.
Both versions can also come in multiple variants of stuffing besides the original famously known as 'roti kosong' (empty), like egg, cheese, onions and some even go as far as durian.
However, it's not just about the dough, but also the company it keeps. Both Roti Canai and Roti Prata often arrive at the table with a trusty sidekick — a steaming bowl of curry or dhal (lentil soup). This dynamic duo invite you to tear, dip, and savour each mouthful.
But don't just listen to us, listen to food experts
We reached out to a couple of culinary experts and restaurant business owners in Malaysia and Singapore on their thoughts on the matter.
When discussing the distinctions between Roti Prata and Roti Canai, celebrity chef and TV personality in Singapore, Shahrizal Salleh, also known as Chef Bob, highlights that "sometimes the prata in Singapore isn't fully flipped; it's just that the middle is paper-thin while the edges remain thick".
"Consequently, when they fold the prata and cook it, the thick layer becomes very chewy and somewhat clunky in texture."
Comparatively, Chef Bob observes that in Malaysia, "they flip it more than five to six times for each Roti Canai, whereas in Singapore, they usually only flip it two to three times before folding it."
This difference in preparation technique may contribute to the popularity gap, he added.
Sugeen Poovandran, the sous chef at Nadodi, a South Indian fine-dining establishment in Kuala Lumpur paying homage to early South Indian and Sri Lankan immigrants, shared his initial surprise at seeing Roti Canai receive global recognition despite its origins in India and its evolution in Malaysia and Singapore.
"To be honest, the first reaction I had was shock. For a bread variety that originated from India and somehow made its way to Malaysia and Singapore, and was done in a way to cater to the locals, getting global recognition was truly astonishing and an amazing achievement," he added.
Speaking to Yahoo Southeast Asia, he expressed his pride in discussing this matter as someone who grew up in Penang, where he was surrounded by a vibrant community of Indian Muslims renowned for their expertise in crafting Roti Canai.
Sugeen underlined that what sets the bread-making apart are the skills and techniques passed down through generations, alongside the variety of condiments that complement the dish.
While acknowledging the value of such rankings in promoting Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine worldwide, Sugeen cautioned, "It is also important that we recognise that food is very subjective and saying one is better than the other might overshadow the other equally unique dishes.
"I think the best way to promote these dishes to a wider international audience is to concentrate on the cultural stories and people behind these dishes. Because I think they are just as important."
Kian Liew, one of the owners of the restaurant Bol in Kuala Lumpur, renowned for its contemporary Peranakan cuisine, likened the discourse around the ranking to a "brotherly and sisterly relationship".
He pondered the similarity between Roti Canai and Roti Prata, suggesting that the distinction might not be significant to him.
What truly mattered, he emphasised, was the deliciousness and the representation of Southeast Asian culture through their culinary creations.
"To me, it's quite similar, I suppose. As long as it's delicious and represents our culture, our Southeast Asian essence, that's what truly matters. Food, after all, is about uniting people. For us, it shouldn't become a point of contention, whether it's ranked number one or 12," he explained.
If Roti Canai is rank 1, then Roti Prata should be as well
Based on the responses of the professionals and also our research on the matter, it is safe to say that the "differences" of Roti Prata and Roti Canai only come down to one factor: the chef and their skills on preparing the dough (not the ingredients).
Some may flip it a little more to make it crispier, some may flip it a little less to make it chewier.
We hope that TasteAtlas will do more research on the matter before trying to educate the masses on the "differences" between the two, and also on the other food items in their list as well.
In fact, we might even argue that if a Roti Canai chef goes to Singapore, Singaporeans will only recognise it as a crispier Roti Prata. A Roti Prata chef in Malaysia will only produce a chewier Roti Canai.
If Malaysia's Roti Canai is the 'number 1' flatbread dish, the Malaysian in this article's writing team will also gladly proclaim that Singapore's version of the Roti Prata shares the same numbered spot.
TasteAtlas's version of the Roti Prata is nowhere near the same dish that is actually present in the country. This may have skewed the rankings if they do get "legitimate reviews", simply because both the dishes might look the same to them, and hence, may they have labelled them as "Roti Canai" instead.
Who knows if any other food dish on their site are not what they actually seem.
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