A lunchtime adventure in the village of Pulau Ubin, Singapore
We still can’t decide if it was the ambience that increased our enjoyment, but eating roti jala and rendang outdoors in Pulau Ubin does make for a delicious and authentic mealtime experience.
There is something about being among the trees, dining without walls and sitting adjacent to a rustic kampong house that made our lunch memorable. Memorable for the distinct combination of spices and aromas, and memorable for the warm village hospitality of our Hosts, the sisters Kemariah and Samsiah Abdullah.
One of the dishes served by the sisters in their home at Pulau Ubin is a true kampong classic. Roti jala might look like a lace doily, hence some reference to it being called “lacy net bread” or a “lace pancake/crepe”, but for some reason these terms don’t quite do the dish justice. Made with flour, ground turmeric, eggs and coconut milk, roti jala is delicate yet robust, fine yet malleable to touch, light and spongey enough to absorb the curries, rendangs and sambals it’s typically served with. Roti jala is hearty enough to replace a side dish of rice, yet light enough to munch on as a tea time snack.
Origins of Roti Jala
Looking up its origins, we find references to the Malaysian state of Johor Bahru and weak ties that lead back to India. But nothing particularly substantial stands out that points to the true origin of this delicacy. Regardless, we’re putting roti jala in the category of being a quintessential Malay dish. Served with chicken curry or a rich beef rendang at kenduris (banquets or parties) and especially popular during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, roti jala is a kind of side dish for all seasons. As much at home at a glorious wedding feast as it is a casual weekend picnic.
If you hear roti jala referred to as “roti renjis” (rinsed bread), this is related to the way it was once made. Cooks would drizzle liquid batter onto the pan using their fingers in a motion similar to rinsing your hand under a tap. This has every potential to be rather messy so it comes as no surprise that someone decided that there had to be a better way.
Hence the evolution of the roti jala spout. There’s the version made from banana leaves secured with sticks, the punctured condensed milk can, the tin and brass versions, and now, most commonly found in the shops, you’ll find the brightly colored plastic funnels. We often read of cooks, unable to find their spouts, substituting with plastic squeeze bottles with holes made in the bottle caps. Seems to work as well.
A recipe for roti jala can be found at Serious Eats.