Roti canai is considered a cousin of the paratha, but the dish cannot be found in India, even though the Malabar parotta is similar.
Malaysians use the word “roti” for all types of bread, much like Indians, as the word has the same meaning in Sanskrit. “Canai” has disputed origins: some say it comes from Chennai, while others believe it is derived from the same Malay word, which means “to knead”. It is also believed that the word could have come from “chana”, the North Indian dish that has chickpeas in gravy and is eaten with a similar kind of bread. Roti canai is considered a cousin of the paratha, but the dish cannot be found in India, even though the Malabar parotta is similar.
The presence of roti canai in Malaysia can be traced back to its colonisation by the British. Although there were Indians in “British Malaya" (states on the Malay Peninsula and Singapore that were controlled by the British) before, more Indians emigrated when the British started importing workers from Tamil Nadu.
As more Indians arrived in British Malaya near the 20th century, they began working as street vendors, selling what they called paratha. The influence of paratha is evident in Penang and Singapore where roti canai is also called roti prata. By the 1920s, roti canai was the main dish served at Indian stalls in both cities and villages throughout the Malayan peninsula.
Roti canai is made with maida flour (similar to cake flour), oil and water. The dough is stretched until it becomes thin and translucent, and then flipped in the air, much like how Italians make pizza. It’s then folded and layered, creating pockets of air, which give it its characteristic flakiness. After being fried in ghee, it becomes fluffy. The ready roti canai is served wrapped in a sheet of newspaper.
Despite the story of its origin being rooted in Malaysia, it’s clear that the flatbread was brought over by Indians and has colonial roots. Indian Muslims or mamaks are responsible for spreading the dish throughout the country. Mamaks even added their own spin to dishes like dals (thickened them with coconut milk) and curries (scented them with pandan and fried coconut paste). Along with these other dishes, roti canai can easily be termed immigrant food.