My Roti Valentine

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“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

That was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43. I wonder if she had to endure a modern Valentine’s Day where the ways that seem to count inevitably include a box of gourmet chocolates, a large bouquet of roses (their number and their colors each with a special meaning that a well-prepared gift-giver should have deciphered and assembled in advance), a glossy manufactured greeting card with an equally manufactured message, allergy-inducing soft toys and sparkling bits of carbon.

All of this tends to be terribly overpriced but who dares channel Scrooge on this special day? Where is the romance? Where is the love?

There should be a simpler way of loving, no? When love works, it ought to be a gentle thing, not an outlandish showcase once a year or a constant barrage of verbal reminders. Love is daily action, and daily practice. Love is a habit and an observance.

At least, this is what I have in mind when I think of you, my funny Valentine (and, as the song goes, my sweet comic Valentine). You make me laugh when you tell me there is no dal without some sambal. You tell me you have never enjoyed good roti canai in Kuala Lumpur. (You also call it roti prata, but I will forgive you that, you Southerner.)

You tell me that the best roti canai you ever had is now half a country away and a pleasure lost in the past. You challenge me without a challenge to find a substitute for this perfect bread – or something better – something that will surprise and satisfy.

And so we find ourselves here, at the appropriately named Roti Valentine. (The name, I felt, must surely be a sign.)

I have asked many of our friends where we could find good roti canai served with both dal and sambal – your idea of a perfect pairing of condiments. (I prefer a good mutton or fish curry, but this quest is not about my taste buds, unfortunately.) We sample roti canai under the canopy of trees; we investigate roti canai in hawker stalls and even air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls. Nothing quite worked for you – either the dal was too thick or it was too lumpy; the sambal was too spicy or perhaps too sweet. I would have imagined that you are simply too picky but I love food as much as you do so I understand.

Somewhere out there must be the perfect roti canai experience.

Fortune rewards the tenacious (and those gifted at googling). One cannot miss the stall – a bright yellow sign like a beacon announcing Roti Canai to all traffic along the busy road. (It’s also next to the car service center, if that helps.) It’s a little after four in the afternoon when we arrive but already the tables were filling up with eager customers.

We order our drinks and two pieces of roti canai each, one kosong (plain) and one telur (egg). We remember our friend’s advice to ask for the roti canai to be made garing (extra crispy). Even when the roti canai ends up getting soaked in the gravy later, it still tastes spectacular when partially flaky. The contrast is gorgeous.

Most folks would be content to wait patiently for their orders to arrive but being true-blooded Malaysians and proud gluttons we couldn’t resist cracking open one of the small packets of nasi lemak placed on our table. There is something strangely seductive about unwrapping the newspaper to reveal a compressed mound of coconut milk rice studded with a few ikan bilis, a wedge of hard-boiled egg and spicy-sweet sambal. It’s cold, of course, but delicious all the same. A promising appetizer ahead of the main attraction.

Over at the cooking area, we can see the roti canai man patting down rounds of well-oiled dough and kneading them into shape. When the dough is ready, he flips and tosses it over his head, making it larger and thinner with every turn before finally dropping it onto the very hot skillet. The dance of his arms swinging the dough is mesmerizing. How’s that for a dramatic Valentine’s Day performance? You crack up at this notion and tell me I’m a cheap date. But you are smiling.

“I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.”

You wipe your aluminum platter clean with the last piece of roti canai, mopping up every bit of dal and sambal. Your eyes are closed as you let out an “mmm” of contentment. You make me smile with my heart when you tell me that I have found the roti canai that hits the spot, the roti canai that you have given up on finding but I always knew existed, that I always sought.

“This is,” you say, “the best roti canai ever.”

I know you mean it. You called it by its correct name. Just the once. You can call it roti prata the rest of the time now and I shan’t ever mind. (Much.)

Who knew roti canai could be this romantic? (And when it was time to pay? Let’s just say this is romance without breaking the bank.)

Valentine’s Day need not just be that one special day once a year. We can express our love every day with the small things we do. Sometimes, love is simply ordering one more round of roti canai and sharing it, fingers tearing the bread into smaller pieces and dipping them into dal and sambal together.

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