Jun 07 2012
Street carts selling fried roti (an unleavened bread that originated in India and is popular across South and Southeast Asia) are not hard to find in Thailand. The sweet version, often stuffed with bananas and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, has become one of the more popular Khao San Road street snacks, and I’ve yet to try a bad roti anywhere. Yet, after nearly 60 years of blending Indian, Thai and Malaysian tastes, the folks at tiny Roti Mataba restaurant on Phra Athit Road are Bangkok’s roti experts.
Way back in 1943, long before nearby Khao San Road — or Thailand for that matter — had become a traveller hotspot, Roti Mataba was founded by a Muslim Indian man, Abdul Kareem. As India and much of the world were thrown into turmoil, Thailand remained a relatively peaceful place where Abdul Kareem could freely practise both his religion and culinary art, prompting him to re-settle in the then impoverished Banglamphu area of Bangkok.
Always on the lookout for something tasty, the ever food-conscious Thai people embraced Abdul Kareem’s roti, particularly when he stuffed it with Indian and southern Thai curries, thereby creating the Thai-style stuffed mataba roti.
Although the neighbourhood has changed drastically in 60 years, Abdul Kareem’s family keep the hole-in-the-wall restaurant running today much as it has for decades. A simple upstairs air-con dining room fills up quickly with loyal locals during morning and lunch hours. If arriving during these times a wait should be expected, even for the few footpath tables and those squished off to the side of the first floor open-air kitchen area. Service is basic and usually comes with a rightly earned flair of confidence. In other words, shut up and order.
Staff put on the pressure to order quick at busy times, which can be tough given an extensive menu that includes selections like chicken tandoori, fried fish cakes, spicy ox tail soup, mutton Indian curry, chicken green curry, and ox tongue’s stew. All of the above (and much more) can be enjoyed with the restaurant’s signature biryani rice or roti, or both.
Or — to make your decision even more difficult — you could always opt for the mataba, which features fillings like fish and herb or beef massaman stuffed into flaky yet filling roti and fried. Although it makes a decadent snack any time of day, the mataba particularly shines as a breakfast. Still can’t decide? Many of the curries and other goodies are laid out on display downstairs in a glass encased set-up reminiscent of an Indonesian warung or Thai khao-gaeng (rice and curry) shop. Just say “roti” or “rice”, and start pointing.
On a recent late afternoon stop off, we went with the chicken green curry with roti and the classic banana roti with sweetened condensed milk (you know, to compare it to the Khao San versions). The curry, which came with a healthy portion of boneless white meat chicken, was savoury and well balanced with just the right amount of sweetness, not too much coconut milk, and enough kick to make the nose run. With the small but filling round roti for dipping, it made for a heavenly, if not heavy, late afternoon snack.
Yet, the banana roti was what really proved how 60 years of practice makes all the difference. It came with bite-size hunks of banana squeezed between soft and doughy slabs of roti with a hint of caramalised crispness on the outside along with a side of sweetened condensed milk for more dipping. Yes, I know it’s filled with calories, but this stuff is sublime to a point where the tongue effectively muffles any objections the conscience might be making.
Although Roti Mataba should be included on a list of Bangkok’s best Indian restaurants, its blending of Indian culinary roots with Thai and Malay flavours make it unique. Following his tastebuds rather than strictly his traditions, Abdul Kareem earned much of his early success by allowing his roti to be complimented by the ingredients and tastes of his adopted home. In so doing, he created some unforgettable food that can’t be found elsewhere.
Roti Mataba is situated on the northeast end of Phra Athit Road, right across the street from Phra Athit Park and Phra Sumen Fort. From the Phra Athit express boat pier, head straight out of the pier, cross Phra Athit Road, take a left, and the restaurant is a short way down on the right. From Khao San, walk all the way northwest on Soi Rambutri until you hit Phra Athit Road, then take a right, and the restaurant will be a short walk away on the right. Roti Mataba opens its traditional shutter doors from 10:00 to 21:00 Tuesday through Thursday and 9:30 to 21:30 on weekends. They close Mondays.
136 Phra Athit Rd
Chana-Songkram, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
T: (022) 822 119
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Tags: roti martaba