No one really knows the origins of Roti John. The name or the recipe.
The generally accepted story is that a Caucasian (Ang Mo) customer wanted a sandwich in colonial times. It might even have been a colonial master asking his local servant to make him an egg and mutton sandwich.
What’s a “sandwich”, asked the local.
“You put a fried egg and mutton and put it between two pieces of bread. With some cucumbers”, explained the colonial (probably British).
So the local took the available bread (which was a local attempt at baguette or batard), sliced it, and dipped the bread in eggs mixed with onions, and mutton, and fried it. Then he added some cucumbers on the side.
My speculation is that Roti John might have been the creation of an inspired street chef who had never had French Toast, but was asked to make one for a customer (or colonial) based solely on verbal description:
“Can you make me French Toast?”
“What’s ‘French Toast’?”
“It’s bread which you dip in egg and fry.”
“French Toast…” thinks the street chef, “so I should use French bread, then” a.k.a. Baguettes, if you are atas. Chiam Tow Roti (Literally ‘Pointy End Bread’) is our version of baguettes. Actually, maybe we might have been trying for batard, which is a fatter and shorter version of baguette. If you are a true aficionado of baguette or batard, you will probably HATE Singapore’s Chiam Tow. It is somewhat like Vietnamese baguette. The bread overall is too soft. The crust? Chewy instead of crackling. The inside? Soft. Well, that is close to a baguette/batard, but it is the crusty outside contrasting with the soft inside that makes the batard and the baguette rustic – like a country farmer. Hard, crusty inside, but with a soft heart.
Anyway, I have digressed.
So the street chef might have assumed that “French Toast” is made with “French Bread” and so sliced half a Chiam Tow Roti (or Loti – the stereotype about Chinese ad Japanese mixing up “L ” and “R” is accurate, as the two sounds are not distinguished in either language.) into two, lengthwise. He might have looked at the egg, and thought it quite plain, so he chopped up some onions (as Roti John is usually made and sold by Indian hawkers, adding onions would have been a cultural default. In fact he probably didn’t have to chop up some onions. He probably had a bucket full of chopped onions, all ready to be mixed in their many recipes/dishes!) and since he had some minced mutton (half-cooked) he added that into the egg and onions as well. Mixing it all up, he spread the egg-onion-mutton mix on the soft inside of the Chiam Tow and pressed it against the grill. Then he does it for the other half (or quarter) of the bread.
Then the street chef takes the creation to his customer (who is Ang Mo), and say, “Here’s your Roti, John.” and thus was the dish named.
It might have look something like this:
That’s my rendition of Roti John.
The original or eventual evolution of Roti John would be served with a side of sliced cucumbers drizzled with “radioactive-pink” tomato sauce. Radioactive-Pink is my description of the colour. It is the cheapest bulk ketchup that the hawker can buy and it is mostly sugar and colouring. Very diluted colouring at that.
Over time, Roti John has suffered from a lack of identity or interest. You don’t usually find aficionados of Roti John. In many if not all food guides in Singapore, you will not find a listing for good Roti John.
After the Hawker Centre at the Botanic Gardens Entrance was re-located, the last famous (or popular) Roti John was gone. It was not a great loss. I visited Taman Serasi Hawker Centre (I believe that was the name) before it closed, ordered a Roti John (not sure if it was the right stall), and it was almost vegetarian. The amount of mutton they put on the bread had steadily reduced until by then, I believe they just wave the mutton over the bread when they fry it.
Recently I found a stall that sold Roti John and tried it. It was… disappointing. The chef/cook had found it necessary to mush the bread into the grill so it was all flattened. Then he had zig-zagged mayonnaise across the bread. And there was the sliced cucumbers. With more standard ketchup. I miss the radioactive pink ketchup. (Not really.)
If you wanna make Roti John, you need Chiam Tow Loti. Singapore’s soft-soft batard. If you can get Vietnamese baguette, I guess it should work too. If you want to use authentic batard, it may be a little too crusty, but it is workable. But I guess, Ciabatta, or even Focaccia could work, though I think it would be a waste (or a sin!) if the Focaccia or Ciabatta is good. I guess a sandwich loaf, or a hamburger bun, or even hotdog bun could work too. Actually, hamburger or hotdog buns might work a little better than an authentic batard.
Roti John is street food. It doesn’t have any ambition to be classier. Hamburger/Hotdog buns are perfect for it.
For the fillings, egg, onions, and meat of your choice – ground beef, chicken, mutton, pork are all good choices. But a REALLY good choice? Canned meat. Like spam. Or corned beef. Or corned mutton. I used corned pork for the Roti John in the picture above. I didn’t use onions though. I should have.
Mix the egg, meat and onions well. Add pepper, cayenne/chilli powder if desired. If your meat is not canned, you may need to add some salt. Heat up a frying pan (medium), slather on the egg mix on your bread, and fry.
When done, you have a choice – serve it plain and simple, or get even more creative.
Roti John Buschetta – add diced tomatoes, herbs and olive oil as a topping.
Sambal Roti John – slather on your favourite sambal. Or chilli sauce. Sriracha?
Roti John Otah. Okay this one is a little bit of a Mental Kitchen Experiment. I’m still trying to figure out, do you baked the otah ON the Chiam Tow Loti, or do you add it after baking the otah. One “fusion” dish called for “Otah Bruschetta”, which was basically putting slabs of Otah on sliced baguettes. I wasn’t too impressed.
Roti John with baked beans. Carbo overload?