The name, and its variations, is derived from both Tamil and Sinhalese languages meaning ‘chopped bread.’ Though the concept may be simplistic, Koththu Roti has a history as rich as its taste. Koththu is considered the Sri Lankan equivalent of the hamburger, in terms of its popularity.
It began in the 1970s as a part of Tamil culture. Like most famous dishes worldwide, it has very humble beginnings, where a cook’s creativity relies on spices rather than ingredients. The popular dish is believed to have been first created in the Batticaloa or Trincomalee.
A traditional Koththu is made from recycling day-old Godhamba rotis that are chopped up into small strips and mixed with an assortment of spices, fried vegetables, possibly egg or your choice of meat, and topped with a heavy helping of chillies and onions. The roti (bread) is described as very similar to the type found in the south Indian kothu parotta and Roti canai.
The old bread chunks were castoffs the bakers couldn’t sell, and an enterprising lower class took advantage of the inexpensive food source. The rhythmic shredding was an audible giveaway of a feast being prepared, and it wasn’t long before Sri Lanka’s major ethnic group, the Sinhalese, soon adopted it.
Cooks prepare it using fresh ingredients and roti – using two sharp metal spatulas to slash the bread into small pieces, mixing it all together creating a distinctive, rhythmic sound. The process is half cooking, half spectacle, as each chef has their own melodic beat they chop away to.
The oiled slashed and fried up bread has a chewy texture, interspersed with refreshing bites of carrots, cabbage, leeks, curry and enough flavour to pack a punch in this unassuming dish. Diners are encouraged to add chicken gravy and more chilli flakes on top.
A koththu is heavy on the carbs, but light on your wallet, making it Sri Lanka’s favourite comfort food.
It’s because no matter the ethnic, religious or political group, koththu has enough variations to feed everyone. Dietary restrictions due to religion vary widely across the island nation. Hindus abstain from beef, Muslims do not eat pork and some Buddhists adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle. Yet koththus can be customized to suit any need. Some are sweet, some are spicy, some are vegetarian and others have a creamy dose of cheese injected into the mix.
Today, no matter where you go in Sri Lanka, from the Southern beaches of Mirissa and Tangalle to the rediscovered north of Jaffna, the streets of Sri Lanka come alive with the distinctive clashing of metal spatulas as they chop up freshly prepared koththu rotis.