Well before Britain colonized both countries, India and Malaysia had had historical connections throughout the centuries through trade. Even before the 13th century (!) Indian ruling dynasties had established trading posts and even provinces in modern-day Malaysia. During colonization, however, the connection became more explicit when the British rulers “imported” thousands of very poor South Indians to became indentured labourers on various projects. Most were from the state of Tamil Nadu and many stayed, intermingling with the local people and leaving their mark on Malaysian cuisine.
If you have ever wondered why there is ‘roti’ in an Indian restaurant (round, flat wholemeal bread, somewhat like a tortilla) and ‘roti’ in a Malaysian restaurant (flaky, oily, pastry-like squares), this is why. The Tamil migrant workers set up kopitiams (coffee shops) and hawker stalls, and the food they made was known as ‘mamak’ cuisine. They took the bread of their homeland and (according to Madhur Jaffrey
) competed in the spectacle of tossing the bread like pizza to get it as thin as possible. Hence ‘roti canai’, the Malaysian word for this puffy, crispy, pastry-like bread, from Chennai, the original name of Madras, the city in South India from where many of these workers came.
I love Malaysian roti – it was a big part of our family BBQs. My dad would buy the square packets of three or four pieces and grill them on the BBQ or on a flat griddle pan before cutting into squares with scissors. We ate it with sausages or BBQd chicken – totally untraditional but we thought it was great. I had been dying to try Chillipadi Kopitiam Mamak, a new restaurant in Flemington which celebrates Mamak or Malaysian/Tamil Muslim-style food, especially after Bryan’s gorgeous ‘happy roti man
’ post. When Penny organized a meetup of some of Melbourne’s food tweeting fraternity for a six-course roti banquet, despite being the crappest tweeter know to humanity, I just had to go.
Chillipadi make all the roti right here. Oiled pastry knots are rolled and slapped out, twirled until paper thin. But instead of being folded into little parcels, here they were twirled back into coils before being grilled and presented like roti escargots in little baskets. The textural variation is just gorgeous. There’s the soft, feathery interior then the flaky, crunchy exterior, sloughing off dark, crackly flakes.
It is traditional to have roti with a small bowl of curry. This beef rendang was absolutely off the hook. The chunks of beef were so tender – you could tear them with your fingers, the meat shredding into strands. The sauce was just divine, very oily but that is the idea, that you just have a little to pinch between pieces of warm roti bread. So fantastic!
These chilli prawns were similarly gorgeous. The sauce is quite sweet and is thickened with strands of beaten egg, like egg drop soup or stracciatella. The prawns were pretty special, juicy and fat, definitely fresh, not precooked. According to Bryan the sauce here is very similar to the sauce for chilli crab. It was only manners that kept me from licking the plate.
Next was roti jala. A thin batter squiggled onto a griddle to create “nets” of pancake-like bread.
This came with excellent chicken curry with just the right amount of coconut creaminess and lots of lovely warm spices like cardamom. As is apparently traditional, the use of coconut milk is quite light here compared to how Australians might normally think of Malaysian curries. The curries here are seriously good. We ate the roti with the chicken on top like spaghetti. It was fun, but I wanted more of the original roti canai!
Roti Ruben, Chillipadi’s own creation. Soft, doughy pieces of square roti filled with chicken, mayonnaise, sweet chilli sauce and an egg omelette. I actually really liked this but others on my table found it too stodgy. It was so sweet, it almost could have been a dessert, but it was tasty and well-made. It you go with a group, get one to split - I think it is a winner!
I was so keen to try this. Dosa is a famous South Indian delicacy, a huge, thin crepe made with fermented ground rice and lentils. It is crispy and tangy and is often served stuffed with fillings such as spiced potato, egg, mince or cheese. This had also come to Malaysia via the Tamil migrants, morphing into "thosai". Instead of the traditional sambar or very thin, spicy red dal/soup of the Indian version, it came with dalcha, a thick puree of mildly spiced yellow split peas and a small serve of thin, coconut-based curry sauce. I was so full by this stage I just had a mouthful but it was lovely - looking forward to going back to have another.
Roti bom, the original roti canai squiggled with condensed milk and chocolate topping. OMG! Pretty intense but good.
I was absolutely far too stuffed to do anything but jaw-drop at this. Roti tisu, a Matterhorn of crispy roti bread with slalom trails of condensed milk and chocolate sauce careening down it.
Ice kacang, a traditional dessert of shaved ice and various toppings - there could be condensed milk, palm syrup, corn, candied fruits, jellies etc. I am not an enormous fan of ice kacang in general but it is certainly fun. I think this is the dessert about which on Food Safari Maeve O'Meara said, "That's a party in a glass!"
Chillipadi have a really great drinks menu. This is the longan drink, served in a Fowlers Vacola jar (#20 for preserving nerds out there). It was really delicious, sweet but not cloying, long and refreshing. Bryan did laugh at me because I couldn't eat the longans or round, lychee-like fruits at the bottom. I just cannot get into chunky "things" in drinks. The fact that the Malay word for longan is "cat's eye" only adds to my distaste.
Bryan had raved about the teh peng here. The tea or coffee is a big part of the kopitiam or Malaysian coffee shop experience. So I went from a cat's eye drink to this teh peng, where one sip and my mouth went like the other end of the cat. It was so astringent and tannic. If my tea overbrews I will tip it out - I like strong tea but not overbrewed. Bryan came and tasted it and said that is the taste he craves, that traditional, powerful astrigency, blended with lots of condensed milk. It's poured multiple times from a great height to create the bubbles on top. So interesting - the childhood taste he was after was diametrically opposed to how I, with an Anglo-Saxon background, think of tea. Good to see that Chillipadi have not toned this down for a Western palate!
Now I know everyone loves Laksa King, but go a bit further down the road and try Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam out - I think they are great. They have a fabulous-sounding mamak nasi kandar
, somewhat like a thali with rice, two curry sauces, two meat and one veg for $10.50. Also check out Addictive & Consuming
and Let's Get Fat Together
who between them I think have pretty much eaten the whole menu!
Disclaimer: All attendees paid for their meal - although there was a set menu, this was a meetup, not a PR-style invite dinner.
Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam
295 Racecourse Road, Kensington (map)
Phone: 9376 0228
Hours: 7 days