Clash, clang and serve
The first time I ordered a meal in Sri Lanka, I nearly fell out of my chair.
Thinking to be adventurous, we pointed at the topmost item (and the cheapest!) on the menu. But when the thunderous sound of chopping blades filled the empty restaurant we were dining in, I jumped so high I swear I levitated.
For those who have been to Sri Lanka, they’d have recognised the signs as the cook began throwing oil and ingredients onto a flat top before bashing away with large, machete-style knives.
Kothu Roti is being served.
Also known as kothu, kottu or koththu roti, this pile of, what is essentially chopped up bread on a plate, is one of Sri Lanka’s main culinary attractions.
Don’t let it’s less than appetizing look fool you. Kothu is a feast of textures and tastes that is sure to steal your heart – and your toilet seat.
How to prepare Kothu Roti
Cooks prepare it using fresh ingredients and roti – using two metal spatulas to slash the bread into small pieces, mixing it all together creating that distinctive, rhythmic sound. The process is half cooking, half show as each chef has their own melodic beat they chop away to.
The oiled, slashed and fried up bread has a chewy texture, interspersed with refreshing bites of carrots, cabbage, leeks, curry and enough flavour to pack a punch in this unassuming dish. Diners are encouraged to add chicken gravy and more chilli flakes on top.
A kothu is heavy on the carbs, but light on your wallet, making it Sri Lanka’s favourite comfort food.
History of Kothu Roti
The name, and its variations, is derived from both Tamil and Sinhalese languages meaning ‘chopped bread.’ Though the concept may be simplistic, Kothu Roti has a history as rich as its taste.
It began in the 1970s as a delicious blend of Tamil and Muslim cultures. Like most famous dishes worldwide, it had very humble beginnings, where a cook’s creativity relies on spices rather than ingredients.
A traditional Kothu is made from recycling day-old Godhamba rotis that are chopped up into small strips and mixed with an assortment of spices, fried vegetables, possibly egg or your choice of meat, and topped with a heavy helping of chilies and onions.
The old bread chunks were castoffs the bakers couldn’t sell, and an enterprising lower class took advantage of the inexpensive food source. The rhythmic shredding was an audible giveaway of a feast being prepared, and it wasn’t long before Sri Lanka’s other major ethnic group, the Sinhalese, soon adopted it.
It’s because no matter the ethnic, religious or political group, kothu has enough variations to feed everyone.
Dietary restrictions due to religion vary widely across the island nation. Hindus abstain from beef, Muslims do not eat pork and some Buddhists adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle. Yet kothus can be customized to suit any need. Some are sweet, some are spicy, some are vegetarian and others have a creamy dose of cheese injected into the mix.
This dish has a versatility and egalitarian outlook that most Sri Lankans could have learned from.
When civil war rocked the country in the 1980s, and the Tamils and the Sinhalese fought each other for control, independence and recognition, the sound of metal blades chopping up semi-stale roti was one facet that crisscrossed cultures and held no regard for internal borders, acting as a glue that held a reluctant country together.
Today, no matter where you go in Sri Lanka, from the Southern beaches of Mirissa and Tangalle, to the rediscovered north of Jaffna, the streets of Sri Lanka come alive with the distinctive clashing of metal spatulas as they chop up freshly prepared kothu rotis.
So next time you’re wandering down the streets looking for a feed, trust your ears, not your nose.
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Originally published in South East Asia Backpacker