Roti John could be considered the bánh mì, aka the ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwich, of Singapore (or Malaysia, or Brunei). Its components are similar – bread, protein – and is a blend of East and West and just as delicious.
Basically, roti John is a savory French toast – baguette slices soaked with a meat, onion, egg, and sambal (chili paste) mixture to form what some people term “omelet bread.” As with bánh mì, there are endless variations. Sardines, anchovies (ikan bilis), lamb, all show up sometime, somewhere.
So what does roti John actually mean? Roti means “bread” in Malay with “John” being the catchall name given to all Western men during post-colonial times. Think of it as a term like “gringo” or “haole,” except it could actually be someone’s name.
Rumor has it that in 1960s Singapore, an Englishman asked a street vendor for a hamburger. Of course, street vendors at that time did not sell hamburgers, let alone know what they were, but this ingenious man came up with his own version, frying minced mutton and onions with eggs onto a bread loaf. The street vendor gave the sandwich to the Englishman and said “Silahkan makan roti, John,” which translates to “Please eat this bread, John.” The name roti John stuck.
Depending on who you ask and where you are, roti John has many different ingredients and just as many ways of cooking it. Some cooks fry the egg mixture in the pan first like an omelet before placing a halved baguette on top. Once cooked, the “omelet bread” is sliced and served. Others like my mom slice the baguette before scooping the egg mixture on top. She deftly flips it over so the baguette slice goes egg first onto the frying pan. Either way, roti John makes a fantastic breakfast or snack!
Coincidentally, roti John happens to be one of my American born- and-bred husband’s favorite foods. Whenever my mom is within cooking distance, she knows to make some for him. This is her version using ham and green onions, which may or may not be authentic but it sure is tasty.
1 small white or yellow onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
2 stalks green onions, green and white parts chopped
4 large eggs
4 ounces ham, chopped
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 (16 ounce) loaf baguette or ciabatta cut into 1/2-inch slices
1. Mix together the onions, green onions, eggs and ham in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Heat a 10-inch cast iron or heavy metal skillet over medium heat and melt 1/2 teaspoon butter. Scoop 2 tablespoon filling onto a bread slice and quickly turn face down on the pan. Repeat until pan is full.
3. Press down with a spatula and cook for 3 to 3 -1/2 minutes until the egg is cooked and turns golden brown. Flip and cook the other side for 1 to 1-1/2 minutes until toasted to your liking.
4. Keep warm in a low oven and repeat until all the filling and bread is done. Eat immediately, or refrigerate and heat in a 325 degree F oven for 5 to 6 minutes.Notes: Roti John can be frozen and heated in a 325 degree F oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
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