Somehow, food always seems to taste better when it's shared. And not just as it's passed around a table, but also when it travels across borders. The South Asian subcontinent has passed down its plates far and wide, providing the inspiration for new dishes through its native ingredients like pepper, ginger and cardamom, as well as incorporating itself into a wide world of meals through its unleavened flat bread, roti.
From South Africa's Cape Malay roti to the Caribbean's wrap roti, just as the use of spices spread across the globe, so has the use of roti and roti-like breads. Yet our favorite takes on roti don't wander too far from home. In L.A., some of the best roti comes from Southeast Asian restaurants like Gindi Thai, Simpang Asia and Penang Malaysian Cuisine.
In Thailand roti is street food. It can be a snack on its own, dipped in pungent curries or filled with savory or sweet ingredients. At L.A. Thai resturants, roti is paired with hearty massaman curry at Toluca Lake's Rustic Spoon or guacamole at Vegan Glory in West Hollywood. But when seeking roti that goes exceptionally well with Thai flavors without ruining the appetite for the courses yet to come, we go to Gindi Thai in Burbank for the roti and green curry appetizer. Gindi Thai's roti has a flaky exterior, soft interior and buttery flavor throughout, and is served with a green curry sauce that's thin enough not to weigh down the delicate roti but not so watered down that the spicy sweet heat gets drowned out.
The word roti is so great in Indonesia that it encompasses a wide variety of breadss. There's the sesame-topped roti gambang, an ideal match for Indonesian black tea, and roti bakar, toasted bread with fillings including cheese, kaya spread and/or chocolate sprinkles. In Palms, Simpang Asia serves both sweet and savory roti, including its take on flaky roti paratha.
At first, Simpang Asia's roti paratha looks remarkably similar to Gindi Thai's — it even comes with a curry dipping sauce. But this roti has feathery inner layers and a top layer that isn't so much crispy as it is blistered, deliciously scarred from where the dough met the searing pan.
One of the few Malaysian restaurants in L.A. County, Penang Malaysian Cuisine in West Covina has long been known for its gauzy roti canai, which is the first item listed on the menu. Roti canai in Malaysia can take on many forms — as roti dough is stretched out to its absolute limit and then folded, rolled or filled. When filled with egg, it is called roti telur. Which just happens to be Penang Malaysian Cusine's item No. 2. This roti telur is a standout, because unlike the other roti that are meant to be starters or accompaniments, it can be a meal on its own. As the roti shell is griddled crisp, it acts a shield so that the egg mixture cooks up remarkably fluffy in the high heat. Together they fuse to create a dish that is a step beyond bread.
Penang Malaysian Cusine's roti telur arrives to the table cut into strips, which both allows the steam to vent and also makes it easier to pick up. And folding the strip creates a scoop just right for dipping into the small bowl of brick-red Malaysian chicken curry that comes with it. The brightness of the onion and chiles from the roti brings out the nuances in the rich complex curry — demonstrating yet again the advantages of learning to share.