It’s always fascinating to find recipes that have much more to offer than just their ingredients and listed steps.
Few recipes, however, transcend as far and mean as much as kottu roti does to Sri Lanka. Even as a relative newcomer to the cuisine, kottu roti has become an incredibly popular and all-encompassing symbol of Sri Lankan food.
With our first taste, we could easily understand why.
Kottu Roti: A Sri Lankan Phenomenon
Generally, we try to stay away from grandiose terms like “phenomenon,” but for what kottu roti has become in Sri Lanka, it seems the most appropriate word to use.
But why? What is so special about kottu roti?
For starters, it is one of the few Sri Lankan dishes that just about everyone loves to eat… even across any type of traditional socioeconomic borders. First made somewhere in the 1960s-70s along the Eastern coastal towns of Sri Lanka (especially those around the cities of Batticaloa and Trincomalee), kottu roti was originally intended as an inexpensive to-go meal for the lower socioeconomic classes.
Especially as the fast food movement began picking up steam, the kottu roti recipe – and with it an inherent pride in having a Sri Lankan fast food in place of Western newcomers like McDonalds and KFC – spread rapidly throughout the country as a popular grab-and-go meal. The dish even made its way into South India, making kottu roti one of the few Sri Lankan inventions to influence its larger neighbor as opposed to the other way around.
Nowadays, kottu roti is eaten by Sri Lankans of all types. In the few decades since its advent, the dish has become a fan favorite of both younger and elder generations alike both as a full-fledged meal as well as a quick snack on the go. Perhaps most notably, however, is that the humbled-beginning kottu roti has become a very popular snack for the younger and more affluent crowds as late night sustenance to keep the impending hangover at bay following a night of partying.
The Sights and Sounds of Kottu Roti
Another reason that makes kottu roti so special is not just the taste of the recipe but also the theatrics involved in preparation.
Especially amongst a sea of street vendors, kottu roti is most commonly prepared by piling all ingredients together on a heated flat griddle. After adding all the requisite ingredients and spices (and, of course, the roti), the chef will take two large metal chopping blades to vigorously mash everything together.
What you end up hearing is a soundtrack of the various “tings” and “clangs” as the vendor pulverizes your kottu roti before your very eyes. Some vendors (like this artist in his own right) will make it a point of pride to add a rhythm and melody to mark their own special brand cacaphony.
Extrapolate those sounds by the slew of other vendors down the very same road, and suddenly the midnight Sri Lankan streets are as lively as the clubs from which everyone just came.
About the Recipe
Despite the hoopla and the cult status of the dish, the actual approach for making a good kottu roti is, in fact, really easy. As a dish originally intended to feed less affluent members of society, it had to be.
The etymology of the name kottu roti comes from the Tamil language, where the phrase translates into English as “minced roti.” Originally, the type of roti used in kottu roti was “Godamba roti,” or a flat bread created out of a simple mixture of whole wheat, sugar, salt and water. As the recipe has become more ubiquitous and trickled throughout the country – including households and haute cuisine establishments – kottu roti can be made with other types of breads as well.
When made at home, one of the beauties of the kottu roti recipe is that it can be flexibly made with anything you, the chef supreme, would like. If you have anything leftover like bread and vegetables, you’re more than halfway there.
And while you might not necessarily have a large flat griddle with large metal chopping knives handy, it’s perfectly doable and easy to make kottu roti with the help of a wok or a kadai.
In your kadai, start with some oil and any aromatics. Some recipes will start with a paste or the sauce prior to the vegetables, whereas other will start with your vegetables and then with your sauce. Again, the beauty of kottu roti is that it’s completely up to you.
Depending on the order you place, you’ll have added your pastes, sauces, spices, vegetables and any meats or eggs (if going non-vegan) and mixed them around slightly. Before the chopping and intense mixing begins, you’ll have to add your piece de resistance: the roti. It’s helpful to pre-cut your roti ahead of time so that you can mash it into smaller, more distinctive pieces as it softens and absorbs much of the flavors.
The final step to creating your kottu roti is, as you’d expect, to mash and chop up all the ingredients together. Instead of using large metal blades, pressing down firmly with your ladle or a large metallic spoon will do the trick. What matters, of course, is that you can successfully mix and mash the ingredients into smaller pieces.
Our Take on the Recipe
One thing that became clear to us as we researched and developed our kottu roti recipe (based on this delicious original reference) is that there are some recipes that are made healthier than others. For our part, we always prefer to go the more nutritional route where we can.
For our own kottu roti, we also opted to make a vegan-friendly version of the recipe. Again, this is completely up to you whether or not you’d like to include meat and/or eggs in yours, but for this particular instance, we didn’t. The dish had enough flavors, due in large part to the wonderful array of spices, as it is.
For the ingredients, we swapped tomato paste for ketchup and added a few extra green chilis for added bite. Of course we had to add garlic to our recipe, too, and we also made liberal use of more vegetables like extra bell peppers and carrots in our meat-free adaptation.
One fairly significant deviation we took from our source recipe was the creation of a base paste. As you’ll see in the recipe itself, we processed together many of the aromatic ingredients (including additions of tomato and ginger) into a fine paste that went first into our wok before the sauces, spices and other ingredients were added. Coupled with the dark soy sauce and the tomato paste that came after, this helped create a more easily distributable flavor throughout the rest of the dish and into the roti as well.
Finally, in order to make sure that everything would be nice and well-chopped by serving time, we put our food processor to work ahead of time as well. Using a particular grater head on our particular machine, we pre-grated much of the vegetable ingredients as well as pre-shredding the roti. It was a move that was both convenient and helped us create a more consistently minced end product.
In the end, though, what we did to our kottu roti is entirely optional for what you might want to do to yours, and therein lies the beauty of this recipe. Regardless of how you make it, you’ll come away with an exotic (yet so incredibly simple) recipe that will seduce your senses.
How do you make your kottu roti? Comment below!
- 2 whole roti, cut into very thin strips
- 2 medium sized jalapenos, thinly sliced
- 1 inch piece of ginger, whole
- 4 garlic cloves, whole
- 1 medium sized tomato, whole
- 2 medium onions - keep ½ an onion intact, the other 1½ onions sliced thinly
- 2 bell peppers (preferably one green and one red), xyz
- 1 medium sized carrot, peeled
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon Sri Lankan curry powder (or regular curry powder or garam masala)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Lemon wedges
- Coriander leaves
- In a food processor, combine your garlic, ginger, tomato, ½ an onion, and 1½ jalapenos. Blitz together until you have a paste formed
- Take a wok over high heat and add your olive oil. Once warm, add your fennel seeds and begin toasting them
- As the fennel seeds begin to toast (about 30-45 seconds), brown and pop, continue by adding your paste
- Stir the paste around and heat it up for about 1 minute. It should start to get fragrant around the 45 second mark or so, which is a good thing
- After 1 minute, add the tomato paste and dark soy sauce, then stir around. The paste should turn a dark brownish color and develop another fragrance. Stir for 30 seconds
- Add your coriander powder, chili powder, ground cumin, curry powder and/or any garam masala into the brownish paste. Stir thoroughly through to distribute the spices and keep stirring for another 1 minute thereafter
- Add your remaining onion, carrot, bell peppers and stir into the paste. Reduce the heat to medium high heat and cook together for another 2 minutes. Note: if it starts to get a little dry, feel free to add a dash of water
- Finally, add your roti in, and stir well into the paste. Continue to cook for at least 2 more minutes, using the back of your ladle or spoon or fork to mash the roti into smaller pieces.
- After 2 minutes of cooking and mashing, take your kottu roti off the heat. Be sure not to cook for much longer so as to not overcook and discolor the vegetables