Following our huge guide to the best Indian restaurants in Singapore, it’s only right to move onto one of our favourite parts of the food – the flat breads. Despite their pervasive presence, Indian flat breads are not the first thing people think of when considering the food of Singapore. But in fact they’re among the most common dishes here, so let’s foodwalk through the more popular ones.
It’s a simple food; just an insipid-looking lump of dough made with flour, water, salt and sugar. Originating in the Chennai region of Southern India centuries ago, its popularity has reached Malaysia, Singapore and beyond. What makes the prata special is the dramatic stretching and snapping of the dough. With almost instinctive movement, a skilled prataman pulls, flips and manipulates the oil-brushed dough into a thin veil before folding and frying it on a hot kavi (griddle) until golden. The resulting disc of tissuey layers is then “clapped” to shatter the crispy outer surface and soften the chewy inside. A plain (kosong) prata is served with a side of mutton- or fish-based gravy for dipping, the quality of which often determines the length of the customer queue. But beyond that there’s not much more to it – until you consider the nearly endless list of prata variations, including egg, cheese, mushroom, masala, fruit, chocolate and even ice cream.
A murtabak is like a stuffed roti prata on steroids. A Muslim-Indian food, it’s made from the same dough, stretched, pulled and reinforced with a cooked prata kosong in the middle, like a plate within a wrapper. Then it’s filled, folded into an overlapped square and tossed on the kavi to brown. The secret of a good murtabak is the contrasting textures of bread and fillings. The edges are crispy and flaky, but your teeth should sink through into soft, slightly chewy layers of cooked bread and well-seasoned fillings. Usually, a thin dhal or a mutton-based curry accompanies it. Fillings typically include sardines, finely minced mutton, or chicken in a spicy curry sauce, but you can also find them filled with cheese, mushroom or fruit.
Murtabaks are found in the same joints as roti prata but, oddly, the reputations of those establishments centre only around one dish or the other. Which indicates that perhaps it’s the flavour of the fillings which separate the prata pro from the murtabak master. Or maybe it’s because the prata – so much lighter and more delicate – is more fashionably a breakfast food served with a kopi or teh tarik, whereas the murtabak is a hungry-man meal in itself, usually reserved for later in the day.
In the flatbread family, if the classically simple roti prata is the strong, silent older brother, and the eclectic murtabak is the boisterous little brother, then thosai is the attention-seeking sister . Large, thin and delicate, the thosai is both refined and flamboyant at the same time. She’s the one that everyone notices; the plate that causes all others to be pushed aside to make room for.
But the thosai is not just a pretty face. Beneath her thin veneer of tanned, crispy skin is a crêpe-like batter of ground lentils and rice flour, fermented just enough to impart a slight sourness and tingle to the mouth. The batter is protein-rich, gluten-free and has no salt, sugar or saturated fat. A staple dish in much of South India and Sri Lanka, thosai come in many variations of batter, fillings and texture and are served with three dipping sauces: chilli, coconut chutney and sambar. If made well, the pastry is crispy and soft at the same time and not at all greasy.
But the real beauty of thosai is in its forms: crisp or soft, stuffed or hollow, fan-shaped, half-moon or rolled like a delicate map half a metre long. They’re structural wonders. First, the batter is ladled out like a pancake. Flipping it requires one fluid motion and true mastery is required to bend, fold or roll the massive, paper-thin crêpe into its final shape. The smoothness of the folds reveals the relaxed expertise that makes it look so simple – just an easy turn of the wrist – tempting foolhardy wannabes into thinking they can do it, too. But some things just need to be left to the pros.
So just why are the prata and its siblings so popular? Perhaps it’s the beauty of simplicity that compels. Or the finished product which almost magically exceeds the sum of its parts. But probably it’s just the comfort food factor, because warm golden bread dipped in savoury gravy with a morning kopi is a reassuring way to start the day.
FoodWalker’s favourites for Indian flat bread
For roti prata
Sin Ming Roti Prata (Block 24, #01-51 Sin Ming Road, 6am to 7pm daily). One of the great prata houses, offering exceptionally crisp exteriors and pillowy layers of homemade flavour.
• Casuarina Curry Restaurant (136 Casuarina Road, 7am to midnight daily). Producing over 40 varieties, the prataman’s display is not to be missed.
• The Roti Prata House (246M Upper Thomson Road, 24 hours). Untraditional deep-frying of the prata delivers an extra crispy exterior.
• Mr Prata (26 Evans Road, 24 hours). Across the street from NUS, this 24/7 institution is popular among the prata-lovers of Orchard and Bukit Timah Roads.
Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant (697-99 North Bridge Road, 8am to 11pm). The island’s undisputed murtabak institution, it’s been operating for over a hundred years.
• New Victory Restaurant (701 North Bridge Road, 7am to 11pm). Whole chicken pieces stuffed within these murtabaks make them more than usually meaty and substantial.
• Prata Saga Sambal Berlada (Block 665 Buffalo Road, # 01-258 Tekka Centre, 6am to 6pm). Mr Zul is so talented that he was asked to teach his moves at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.
• Ananda Bhavan Restaurant (58 Serangoon Road and four other outlets, 7am to 10pm). This oldest of Indian vegetarian eateries is a magnet to locals.
• Heaven’s Indian Curry (Block 20 Ghim Moh Road, #01-15 Ghim Moh Market, 6am to 2pm). The ever-present queue is worth the wait for perfectly light thosai and excellent chutney and sambar.
• Raj Vegetarian Restaurant (76 Syed Alwi Road, 11am to 11pm). Gourmet Indian with air-con at local joint prices; it’s hard to beat these expertly made thosai.
• Sri Kamala Vilas Restaurant (Block 662 Buffalo Road, #01-16 Tekka Market, 7am to 9.30pm). Classic old-school dining at this iconic eatery which is famous for, well, everything.