Being a food paradise can be a double-edged sword. There are so many delectable dishes in Singapore it’s not surprising there are plenty more that are still under the radar – even for locals. I suppose when we think of fast food, we picture burgers we can eat on the go. In Singapore, Asia’s fast food is just as likely to be served on a plate or in a bowl and eaten with a spoon and a fork.
Roti john or “John’s bread”, a tasty Singaporean invention of an omelette baguette sandwich that is almost in burger territory, is one such fast food that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. Faced with personal preferences and an assortment of dishes vying for attention, I admit I don’t order it in hawker centres as often as I should.
As to why it is called roti john, the story goes that a Malay hawker had said “Silakan makan roti, John,” meaning “Please eat this bread, John,” when he served an omelette baguette sandwich to an Englishman who had asked for a burger. Funnily enough, what he said could also be interpreted as “Please eat this dish, John’s bread,’ and the name stuck ever since.
If one is looking to try a Singaporean sandwich, kaya toast – butter and fragrant coconut egg jam on toasted sandwich bread – comes to mind first. Unfortunately for roti john, it is also usually sold by the same Indian-Muslim hawkers who sell roti prata. Most people would go for roti prata when faced with the dilemma of deciding which one to order.
Growing up, my mother, a first-generation immigrant, has never made us burgers or pasta but she would occasionally make us roti john, the closest thing to Western fast food in our Chinese Singaporean household when she is pressed for time or wants to switch up her routine of rice and noodle staples. Her version is usually meat-free, not because she embraces vegetarianism, but rather it is quick and equally delicious without.
Some attributed the creation of the roti john we see today to a Cik Zawiah Anuar at Geylang Serai Food Centre who improved a recipe of scrambled eggs topped with lettuce and tomato on baguette, typically sold by Indian hawkers to British soldiers, while others believed it was a Malay hawker named Shukor who first started selling roti john at the now-demolished Taman Serasi Hawker Centre to Caucasian customers in the 1970s. Today, roti john is also popular in Malaysia where there is a version made with sardines instead of meat.
See below for my adapted recipe for roti john. The ingredients, save the sambal, should be easy to find outside of Singapore and the cooking steps, similarly uncomplicated. It is a savory (Singapore-style) meal that packs a punch at any time of the day, perfect for breakfast and also past midnight for supper. Feel free to add sliced green chilli or more sambal to the mixture if you prefer to dial up the heat. If you don’t have more baguettes like me, just fry up the excess mixture as a patty.
ROTI JOHN (SERVES 4)
1 baguette, cut crosswise into four quarters and butterflied
200g ground beef
1 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp sambal
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
- Season ground beef with salt, pepper and sambal. Add onion and eggs and beat well. Spread mixture thickly onto one butterflied baguette.
- Heat oil in a large frying pan on medium high heat. Place baguette mixture side face-down onto frying pan.
- Fry until egg and beef are cooked through and browned.
- Flip baguette over, press a couple of times with a spatula and fry for 1 minute to brown the crust. Remove from frying pan.
- Dress with ketchup, chilli sauce and mayonnaise before topping with thin layer of cucumber.
- Repeat steps 3 to 9 for remaining butterflied baguettes.