Best roti in town
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 sweet condensed milk, is popular all over Thailand. 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.
Back in 1943, long before nearby Khao San Road had become a traveller hotspot, Roti Mataba was founded by a Muslim man from Southern India, Abdul Kareem. As India and much of the world were thrown into World War II turmoil, Thailand remained a relatively peaceful place where Kareem could freely practise both his religion and culinary art, prompting him to re-settle in the then impoverished Banglamphu area of Bangkok.
The ever food-conscious Thai people embraced Kareem’s roti bread, particularly when he stuffed it with Indian and southern Thai curries to make mataba.
Although the neighbourhood has changed drastically in 60 years, 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 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 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, with fillings like fish and herb or beef massaman stuffed into flaky yet filling roti and pan fried. Though 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.
We went with the chicken green curry with roti and the classic banana roti with sweete condensed milk. 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 heavy, snack.
But 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 slight crispness on the outside and a side of sweet condensed milk for more dipping. Yes, this stuff is filled with calories, but it's delicious to a point where the tongue effectively muffles any objections the conscience might be making.
Although Roti Mataba could 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. Simultaneously staying true to the cuisine of his homeland, Abdul Kareem earned much of his early success by adapting to the tastes of his adopted home. In so doing, he created some unforgettable food.
Roti Mataba is situated on the northeast end of Phra Athit Road, right across the street from Santichaiprakan Park and Phra Sumen Fort. From the Phra Arthit 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.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
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