Written by S. Shiva (Sri Lanka Contributor)
Kothu Rotti, or ‘Koththu Rotti‘ as it is also written, is a very popular street food in Sri Lanka that is adding on its followers around the world. ‘Kothu‘ literally means to chop, while ‘rotti‘ is a charred Indian bread. The meal is made by chopping godhamba roti – pastry like Indian bread – and adding vegetables, eggs, meat, etc. while frying over a griddle. The meal originated on the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka among the Tamil and Muslim communities.
As the story goes, in the 1970s the racial tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese had just started making itself known in the open. At that time that majorly Tamil town of Batticaloa on the East Coast served as the birthplace for this delicious food that would make history.
As the Sri Lankan civil war began in the 80’s, Kothu Rotti was taken up as a favorite by the military who made rounds in the east. As a result it spread to the capital as the ‘street food to have’. The sharp sound of chopping blades on griddles filled the night air along Galle Face Green and the popular streets of Pettah. It was a sound of glitz and glamour for the jazzy local nightlife of the era. Meanwhile, the sound had a different meaning in the war-torn north and east of the island. The sound of the Kothu blades as the chefs went about work was supposed to have been a secret way to pass the message of when it was safe to be out on the streets, according to journalists who covered the war.
As the war ended, the flavor and sound began to spread to even more of Sri Lanka – inundating even the remotest corners. The food came to be enjoyed regardless of race, religion or age and turned into a signature Sri Lankan street food that is considered a part of the country’s cultural identity. Today, few know of the true origins of the Kothu Rotti, only the delicious taste of the spices and the ringing sounds of metal on metal remain a constant reminder of a time few wish to remember.
The Good Things you Need to Know about Kothu Rotti
- Kothu Rotti is very flavorful, warm and filling for your stomach. It’s perfect if you’re starving after plenty of exercise or want a late night meal after going to see the nightlife.
- It’s a great meal to enjoy with family and friends. The portions are generally gigantic and you would even have leftovers.
- There are so many different varieties of Kothu Rotti such as Seafood Kothu Rotti, Vegetable Kothu Rotti, Chicken Kothu Rotti, Chicken and Cheese Kothu Rotti and more. They can be made to fit your tastes if requested.
- The spices make your taste buds dance as the sweet ringing of chopping blades serenade your ears as you eat onsite.
Does such an amazing street food have a downside? The answer is yes, just like for any other cuisine.
To put things into perspective, let me relate a little personal incident. In the mid 90s, I was a child who was growing up constantly hearing of the praises of Kothu Rotti. But I never had the chance to taste it as street food was a taboo in my home, due to its unhygienic preparation according to my mother. So when I had the opportunity to try any meal I wanted during a family trip while on school vacation, I insisted on trying Kothu Rotti for a special dinner out. We tried it at a small roadside shop that remained open late. Unfortunately, I lived to regret my decision for over a decade.
When the meal came, it smelled delicious – but looked very messy. The fragrance was quite deceiving as it tasted horrible. Overly spicy and wet, it lay like lead in my stomach. The meat was more cartilage and bones than chicken. The garlic and onions were unpeeled and roughly chopped. The portion was way too much such that I felt sick by the time I ate a third of it. It took me years to work up the courage to have another meal of Kothu Rotti after that experience. Now I have learned from my bad experiences and good ones, and occasionally enjoy a nice plate of Kothu Rotti
- Always go for well reputed and hygienic places when eating Kothu Rotti, even if it is more expensive. Though it is considered a street food, it might be best not to have it off a street stall unless you have a stomach of iron. You might end with unsavory memories of the loo in case of a bad experience.
- Make sure that it is freshly made in front of your eyes as much as possible, not in a closed kitchen. There may be old ingredients/leftovers being added otherwise.
- Make sure you tell them how much spice you need, and if you need to limit your portion. The standard portion can usually fully serve two men. So if you are eating it alone, it might end up being way too much unless you have a huge appetite.
- Tell the chef / waiter to go light on the gravy or even avoid it entirely. The gravy makes the meal heavier. You can add gravy according to your tastes by requesting it separately.
- You might want to check if your kottu rotti is machine cut or hand chopped. The former looks better on the plate and is easier to chew, but lacks a bit of smoky taste as it is cut beforehand. The latter tastes more fried, but looks messy on the plate and is quite difficult to chew and eat. While it is a personal preference, keep in mind that the latter can end up with a dense sodden texture if gravy is added.
- Also if you go for cheese kothu rotti, keep in mind that it is usually more of a ‘cheese’ sauce than actual cheese – though it tastes quite good regardless.
- A plate of Kothu Rotti is a very heavy meal. So if you are a light eater or are dieting, it might be a better idea to have it for lunch instead of dinner as it is often eaten.
That’s all you need to know when you get your own delicious plate of Kothu Rotti. Enjoy!