The first time I tasted Sri Lankan food was in New York, at a cramped restaurant squashed between two obnoxiously iridescent, LED-lacquered Indian restaurants on either side. The menu item that instantly caught my attention was kothu roti, tantalisingly described as a Sri Lankan roadside speciality prepared from doughy pancakes shredded and stir-fried with vegetables, onions and eggs. The choices were chicken, beef or vegetarian.
The dish placed before me didn’t aspire to look a degree more attractive than a haystack. The plate swelled into a jumbled heap of shredded bread, omelette slivers, crunchy vegetables and strips of chicken, seasoned with the sort of Sri Lankan spice mix that promises to seduce your senses and slay your insides. The potpourri of textures and fiery flavours that I paired with a side of thick caramelised onion sambol was so memorable that I had to hunt the dish down when I moved back to Dubai.
Kothu roti is the sort of dish that leaves me rapping my own knuckles to avoid reaching out for a 20th helping. Heavy on comfort carbs, it incorporates crispy-chewy bread similar to a South Indian parotta or Malaysian roti that hooks you into a hypnotic cycle of incessant nibbling. Were I to eat bread, egg and vegetables separately, I reckon I would consume far less. But the key to kothu roti is that all the individual ingredients, including the bread, are frantically chopped (“kothu”), mixed and re-chopped using dough scraper-like blades over a flat-top grill, until all the flavours rise above the hacking anarchy and submit to one synergistically flavourful whole.
The preparation of kothu roti is roadside musical entertainment in Sri Lanka, where the chefs have transformed the metal-to-metal chopping action into a rhythmic explosion of catchy tabla-style beats. If you’re lucky, you might catch the chef in his musical kothu roti trance facing the window at Chef Lanka in Karama.
Both Chef Lanka in Karama (04 335 3050) and Red Box Restaurant (04 258 3318) are Sri Lankan restaurants that serve kothu roti, but my favourite version is at a South Indian restaurant, Simran’s Aapa Kadai (04 334 8030).
• Arva Ahmed blogs about hidden food gems in Old Dubai at www.ILiveinaFryingPan.com