“You’re feeding me holes? How long will it take to make holes?” asked The Husband incredulously.
It was a Sunday evening. And I’d had hunger pangs earlier that day. Not the kind of pangs that could be satisfied by filling up the hole in my stomach with any food. Oh no, what I had was a craving. A craving that could not be satisfied by taking a quick stroll to the coffeeshop or hawker centre. Nope, not even Uber Eats or Deliveroo could help me out with this one.
What I was craving was Sunday afternoon snacks, Singapore-style. More savoury, less sweet. I’d had visions of curry puffs, char siew paus, samosas, vadais and ondeh-ondehs floating in front of me all afternoon. But you know what? There was no convenient way of getting any of these. And. Mummy was far, far away on The Island so she couldn’t be cajoled into making me some either.
So as Singaporeans living away from home often have to, I decided I would make something on my own to satisfy my craving. I peeled myself off the sofa, announced to The Husband that I was going to make him a Singaporean Sunday Snack for dinner (in terms of delayed Singaporean food gratification – something many Overseas Singaporeans know well – this wasn’t too bad), and went off into the kitchen. Cabinet doors were flung open with much aplomb, then groans emitted as I discovered that oh, I was out of potatoes (so, no curry puffs or samosas), I didn’t have marinated pork cubes (so, no char siew paus), and no glutinous rice flour (so, no ondeh-ondehs either).
My “now-now” craving was crying out for an instant hit.
That’s when I remembered a dish that my mum would make at home that was really simple: roti jala. Yes, that sunrise-coloured pancake with holes that is regularly referred to in the English-speaking world as “Asian lace pancakes”.
Go wild making patterns - make sure that at least a few of the lines criss-cross one another.
When I was a kid, my mum was often to be found in the kitchen, whipping together ingredients to produce one miracle meal after another. From back then when she was a stay-at-home parent until today, my mum is what is known as an “agak-agak chef”. She doesn’t refer to recipes nor uses measuring spoons when cooking so getting a recipe out of her was always a “watch and learn” exercise. I was a child who loved reading, and needless to say, watching and learning was not the most interesting thing for me. I never learned to cook from my mum before leaving The Island.
When I left Singapore, the Internet was used mostly for work-related research. Sure, Google existed, but this was pre-Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Yahoo Messenger and the odd email popping up in one’s Hotmail account was the extent of most people’s idea of social media. In fact, the term “social media” had yet to be coined. So, going on the ‘www’ to quickly check a recipe was not the go-to solution that it is today.
When I arrived in Belgium, every time I had a yearning for a taste of home, I would have to call my mum long-distance using prepaid phone cards to find out the combination of ingredients that were needed for a particular dish. And of course, her instructions over the phone always came with “one handful”, “a little bit”, “like about 2 fingers”, etc. Thankfully, roti jala was one of the easier recipes to get from her over the phone to practice on my own.
The first few times I attempted to make roti jala, I had batter issues. It was too runny. It was too clumpy. I forgot to add the salt. I added too much turmeric (yes, you can do this. It results in the dish you’re preparing having a bitter taste). 10,000km away from home, I was discovering that my mum was a magician who had made cooking holes seem like a really easy thing to do.
Then one day, I got it. I was fast enough to remove the roti jala from the pan so it didn’t burn. The colour was that right egg yolk-golden hue, just like back in Singapore. The roti jala was soft, fluffy and smelled as fragrant as I remembered it to be.
As I had yet to learn how to make curry, on that day I was happy enough to eat my roti jala with sugar.
Fold each roti jala into a shape you desire, then plate them all prettily and serve
Since then, my mum has gifted me with an original-style roti jala scoop with 5 hollow legs. If you don’t have access to this, rest easy. There’s always a substitute, for example a water bottle with holes cut into the cover (tip #1: make smaller holes first, they can always be made larger later), or a refillable tomato ketchup squeeze bottle (tip #2: making the roti jala is faster if there are more nozzles).
One last tip: barricade your kitchen from The Husband or be prepared to stand near the stove for a while as you make one piece after another and they are all gobbled up even before they reach the dining table.
I have since served roti jala at dinner parties to both Belgians and other foreigners. There are the initial queries as to why the pancake is yellow and has so many holes. Once the guests with a more delicate and less adventurous palate get past their hesitation, they have liked it, reaching out repeatedly for more. Sharing this simple dish from my childhood with both Belgians and other foreigners alike and seeing them enjoy it brings home and The Island that much closer to me.
Serving roti jala at dinner parties is always a fun and "safe" way to introduce Asian food to foreigners.
The ingredients for making roti jala are basic: flour, water, coconut cream, eggs, and turmeric powder. All ingredients that are readily, and almost always, available in most Asian kitchens. I have also discovered that the opportunities for experimentation are endless: salty egg yolk roti jala, roti jala made with chickpea flour and coriander, …
Serve your roti jala with some sugar, or curry of choice (the recipe for my preferred version will be available in my next contribution to Scribblers).
And hey, why wait for Sunday? Skip the rice/noodles/pasta/potatoes/bread and make this for dinner today instead!
Recipe for A (W)hole Lotta Holes
Preparation – 40 min (including 30 min of resting)
Cooking – 20 min
About 25 – 30 pieces, depending on size
250g plain flour, sifted
450g plain water
100ml coconut cream (use coconut milk if a lighter consistency is preferred)
3 whole eggs, fresh
¼ tsp turmeric powder (this is what provides the colour)
½ tsp cooking oil (like sunflower oil, not something with a strong taste)
Salt to taste
Flat non-stick pan (or you could grease a regular pan with oil)
Heat-resistant flat slotted turner (to flip and lift the roti jala when ready)
Large bowl (to mix all ingredients into a batter)
Electric mixer or hand whisk
Sieve (to strain lumps from the batter)
Original-style scoop or substitute
Mix all the ingredients – except the oil and salt – together. Do remember that the eggs need to be cracked so you can extract the yolk and white. Eggshells not to be used in this recipe.
Strain the batter and remove any lumps.
Add the oil and salt to the batter, and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.
Heat up pan on medium heat.
Fill the scoop with the batter and hold over the pan, quickly making patterns. Be sure that the rings of the batter touch one another. This part has to be really fast - the batter gets cooked quickly. Be careful not to drip the batter when moving the scoop between the large bowl and the pan.
(If you choose to use a scoop-substitute, then fill the entire bottle with the batter at the beginning. Make as many or as little rings as you want with the batter on the pan.)
Once you see the rings of the batter rise a little, your roti jala is done. There is no need to flip it – just lift it out of the pan using the turner onto a display plate. You can choose to fold it into little triangular or rectangular shapes, or serve it flat.
Repeat making more pieces of roti jala (steps 5 & 6) until you finish all the batter.