When thinking about roti what normally springs to mind is the Indian wholemeal flatbread used to scoop up curries. A fried form of the bread is popular in Myanmar, and other variations are consumed in countries across south Asia such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. One of Sri Lanka’s national dishes is kottu roti – roti bread finely cut and mixed with egg, vegetables or meat.
Because of these associations, I’ve always thought of roti as a savoury dish. So it was with surprise that I stumbled upon Cambodian Bun Thach’s roti stall – specialising in a fried, sweet version – outside Cambodia International University on Street 136 earlier this week.
The 35-year-old roti seller wheels his cart around the universities of Phnom Penh, having memorised the break times of each institution, when students are likely to feel peckish. He’s been doing this for three years – before that, he was a car mechanic.
“I changed jobs because it was hard work and I was too weak and couldn’t lift heavy things. I had to find another job that was easier,” he said as he poured cooking oil onto his cart’s sizzling hot plate.
Although roti is a traditionally Indian fare, Thach said that the recipe has been in his family for generations.
Long ago, he said – he couldn’t remember exactly when – one of his relatives worked in an Indian restaurant in Phnom Penh and became friendly with the chef, who showed him the tricks of the trade.
He makes the roti by pouring cooking oil, flour and a small amount of water onto a circular hot plate, flipping it from side to side as he fries it and shaping it into a square. Despite its name, the way it’s made is more similar to the friend Indian paratha bread than its roti cousin.
Customers can ask for a plain roti (1000 riel), with egg, or a sweet roti (2000 riel) on which he spreads globules of condensed milk and sprinkles cocoa powder. He carefully wraps both in a cylindrical shape and serves in old newspaper, made so greasy that it is almost transparent.
The sweet roti is perfect for an afternoon’s guilty pleasure. By the time Thach has served you, the cocoa powder has melted into the oily dough, to produce a Nutella-like flavour.
The roti dough is tougher than a crepe: more of a challenge to chew, but far more satisfying. The snack was a pleasant surprise, and one that’ll make me keep an eye out for a roti stall when I’m craving something sweet.
Locations vary but the stall is outside Cambodia International University on #5 to 15, Street 136 at around 2pm.