by Tan, Bonny
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 once common form of address for Caucasians (“John”) while roti is a Hindi term for “bread”, which is also used in Malay.1
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.2 Good roti john is 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.3 Variations of this dish use chicken, beef or sardines instead of mutton. More recent innovations include the addition of melted cheese and mushrooms.4
In a 1988 The Straits Times article, Khng Eu Meng reports that according to local legend, sometime in the 1960s, an Englishman asked a Malay hawker in Sembawang for a hamburger. As hamburgers were not available, the ingenious hawker spread minced mutton and onions between slices of French loaf and fried the concoction in egg as a substitute. 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”.5
An 8 March 1973 Berita Harian article credits the adaptation of roti john to local tastes to a Cik Zawiah Anuar at Geylang Serai Food Centre. The original, the article reports, was made of fried scrambled egg, salad greens and tomato on French bread. It was reportedly sold by Indians wherever there were British soldiers. Cik Zawiah’s recipe comprised mutton, egg, onion, peas and tomato on French bread.6
In the 1970s, a man named Shukor set up a stall at the Taman Serasi hawker centre near the Singapore Botanic Gardens serving Eurasians and Caucasians, many of whom frequented the nearby Tanglin Club.7 Shukor obtained the recipe for roti john from a fellow hawker in Geylang and began offering the dish at his stall in 1976.8 His recipe 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, before being pan-fried on a hot griddle.9 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.10
Shukor’s innovation is considered by some to be the original roti john and his eatery remains the legendary benchmark for the dish.11 After his death, his wife, Khadijah bt Mohd Salleh, continued running the stall.12 The stall, Shukor Makanan Istimewa, originally located at Number 9 Taman Serasi Food Centre, made the hawker centre synonymous with roti john.13 When the hawker centre was torn down in 2001, the stall moved to the Serangoon Garden Market with Shukor’s daughter Nurhayati Shukor taking over the reins.14
Today, roti john is served throughout the Malay Peninsula, with a popular variation that uses a sardine toppings rather than meat.15
1. Khng, E. M. (1988, September 17). Local spreads. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Naleeza Ebrahim & Yaw Y. Y. (2006). Singapore: Not just a good food guide. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 233. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
3. Naleeza Ebrahim & Yaw Y. Y. (2006). Singapore: Not just a good food guide. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 233. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
4. Katrina Karim. (2003, July 19). A twist to tradition. Today, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Khng, E. M. (1988, September 17). Local spreads. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. A. Ghani, Rokambol. (1973, March 8). Roti John ciptaan Zawiah Anuar digemari orang2 segala kaum. Berita Harian, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Kong, L. (2007). Singapore hawker centres: People, places, food. Singapore: National Environment Agency, p. 116. (Call no.: RSING 381.18095957 KON)
8. Chan, M. (1986, November 2). A sandwich once made for ‘John’. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Chan, M. (1986, November 2). A sandwich once made for ‘John’. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Kong, L. (2007). Singapore hawker centres: People, places, food. Singapore: National Environment Agency, p. 116. (Call no.: RSING 381.18095957 KON)
11. Woon, A. (2005, July 23). And the best soup tulang is in... The New Paper, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. A sandwich once made for ‘John’. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Lim, H. H. (2002, November 20). Revamped food centre draws lunchtime crowd. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Sim, C. Y. (2002, November 6). Taman Serasi hawkers return… in Serangoon. The Straits Times, p. 10; Khairul Bahriah Mahfud. (2007, December 2). Asal usul ‘roti john’ diabadikan dalam buku. Berita Minggu, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lam, C. K. (2011, August 14). All-time favourites and more. New Sunday Times, p. 9; Mustapha, K. (2008, August 31). Respect, understanding matter the most. New Sunday Times, p. 11. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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..