Roti John

Roti john is a local dish consisting of the sliced halves of a French loaf fried with a topping of minced mutton, sliced onions and egg. The dish is unique to the Malay Peninsula, with its origins linked to the resident English, Malay and Indian communities. Literally translated, roti john means “John’s bread”; the dish takes its name from a previously common form of address for Caucasians (“John”) while roti is a Hindi term for “bread”.

The dish
Sometimes called Singapore's version of the burger, roti john is made using a local bread loaf similar to the French baguette, but shorter in length and with rounded ends and a softer texture. Good roti john is considered to be crispy on the outside, while the meat and egg mixture remains soft and the onions crunchy. It is usually served in bite-sized slices with green chillies, tomato sauce and sweet chilli sauce on the side. Variations on this dish use chicken, beef or sardines instead of mutton. More recent innovations include adding melted cheese and mushrooms to the topping. The Malaccan version of this dish uses longer bread with a topping mainly of sardines and ikan bilis with onions, eggs and chilli.

According to local legend, sometime in the 1960s an Englishman asked a Malay hawker in Sembawang for a hamburger. Because hamburgers were not available, as a substitute, the ingenious hawker spread minced mutton and onions between slices of French loaf and fried the concoction in egg. The name for the dish is also attributed to this anonymous hawker, who was overheard saying to the customer, “Silakan makan roti, John”, which literally translates as “Please eat this bread, John”, but can also be understood as “Please eat this dish, John’s bread”.

Although roti john is often classified as Malay cuisine, partly because it is usually offered by Malay stalls, its origins, ingredients and taste meld together the diverse flavours of the English, Malay and Indian communities. The dish is sometimes considered as being of Indian origin possibly because Shukor, the hawker who popularised it, was of Indian ancestry.

In the 1970s, Shukor set up stall at the Taman Serasi hawker centre near the Botanic Gardens serving Eurasians and Caucasians, many of whom frequented the nearby Tanglin Club. Shukor obtained the recipe for roti john from a fellow hawker in Geylang and began offering the dish at his stall in 1976. Shukor’s recipe for the dish contains up to 30 eggs beaten with onions, minced mutton and sambal (minced chilli). Some of the mixture is slathered onto sliced halves of a local bread loaf similar to the French baguette, then pan-fried on a hot griddle. So popular was the dish that Shukor sold up to 800 loaves on weekends and over 100 plates a day at his Taman Serasi stall.

Shukor’s innovation is considered the original roti john by some and his eatery remains the benchmark for the dish. After his death, his wife, Khadijah bt Mohd Salleh, continued running the stall. The stall, Shukor Makanan Istimewa, originally located at Number 9 Taman Serasi Food Centre, made the hawker centre synonymous with roti john. When the hawker centre underwent changes in 2001, the stall moved to the Serangoon Garden Market where roti john is still sold by Shukor's daughter Noriani Shukor.

Today, roti john is served throughout the Malay Peninsula, with variations in Malacca and Penang that use toppings of sardines or ikan bilis (anchovies) rather than meat.

Bonny Tan

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Kong, Lily. (2007). Singapore hawker centres: People, places, food. Singapore: National Environment Agency.
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Roti John, our burger version [NL13992]. (1983, April 10). The Straits Times, p. 10.

The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Cookery, Malay
Cookery, Southeast Asian
Cookery>>International and regional cooking>>Southeast Asian
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Food--Malay Peninsula
Ethnic foods

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