‘High-tech’ ‘Kottu’ on the way



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By Dilanthi Jayamanne


‘Mata kottut oney,
Mata rice uth oney,
Sambola tikak udin dala Kara kara kara karas gaala,
Ganna malli den….’


I first tasted a ‘kottu roti’ as a kid traveling to Jaffna, where my father was working at the time. We stopped at a wayside eatery in Vavuniya and ordered a ‘kottu’. I thought that I had not tasted anything so delicious. ‘Koththu Roti’ popularly known as ‘kottu,’ is essentially Sri Lankan cuisine, originating from Batticaloa.


It is made from chopped ‘Godamba Roti,’ and vegetables, egg, or meat, and various spices. A very spicy gravy of either fish or chicken is served with a ‘kottu roti’. It’s essentially prepared during dinner time. ‘Kottu’ is made on a heated iron plate or table. Its preparation is an art by itsself – chopping and mixing a ‘kottu’ with two blunt metal blades is not an easy task!


The sound of a kottu being made attracts many a hungry traveler to any small roadside eatery.


However, over the years, this mouth watering and extremely spicy delicacy has given rise to serious health concerns. We have all heard of the bakers’ tales, but do we all know what goes on behind that glass partition of the ‘kottu’ makers little nook?


Only a close observer will notice the details. Starting from either the banion clad ‘kottu’ maker chopping up the meat and the vegetable, with sweat pouring down his face due to unbearable heat. The eggs purchased in bulk at cheap prices, are mostly damaged. A sly peek at them stored in a basin behind the glass partition of the ‘kottu’ stall in the eatery will invariably reveal traces of dirt.


The Island visited several ‘kottu’ makers in the city and its suburbs. The chicken thigh for the ‘Kottu roti’ was whipped out from the showcase where the available items for the day’s dinner were displayed. The ‘kottu’ makers of the shop start chopping the chicken, while tiny pieces fly around as the mettle hits bone. Various spices, such as chilli and salt are added. A tiny bag of gravy is hurriedly brought from the little kitchen at the back of the shop.


The prepared ‘kottu’ is then wrapped in a lunch sheet, with a piece of pineapple and cucumber placed inside and parceled in a sheet of newspaper. The bag of gravy is added to the shopping bag.


The eatery prepares vegetable, fish, chicken and egg ‘kottu’. "There is a big demand for chicken ‘kottu’," says V. Perumal, the cashier. There is a big demand for ‘kottu roti’ from around 8.00 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. or so.


Chicken ‘kottu’ seems to be a favourite among many, he says. The ‘godamba roti’ for the ‘kottu’ is prepared in the morning and is chopped up by about 3.00 p.m. We also have string hopper ‘kottu’.


We buy string hoppers from a house close by. The string hopper ‘kottu’ is also prepared in the same manner as the ‘roti kottu," Perumal explains.


At the next ‘Hotel’, the chopped pieces of ‘roti’ were placed in separate bags and kept under the ‘kottu’ table at the next ‘kottu’. The ‘kottu’ and hoppers were being prepared in a small extension outside the eatery. The chopped up ‘roti’ base was placed separately, while the eggs were kept somewhere under the table. The same procedure of making the ‘kottu’ was repeated.


Separate gravy is not prepared for the ‘roti’. The remaining gravy from the afternoon’s fish or chicken curry is taken and put into tiny shopping bags (the silly, silly covers). A piece of roasted chicken is whipped out again from somewhere under the ‘kottu’ table and chopped up mixed, chopped mixed…while the grimily dressed ‘kottu’ maker sweats his way through the procedure of chopping and mixing.


The next ‘kottu’ boutique is in Kochchikade. Entering the dimly lit shop, we find a banion clad hopper, ‘kottu’ and egg ‘roti’ maker hard at work. The shop owner steadfastly refuses to allow us to take pictures, saying that it would be bad for business. "The council will come down on us and ask for registration and all sorts of other issues will come up," he says.


What’s there to write about ‘kottu roti’, he demands. However, after explaining to him that we are not out to do him any harm, he agrees to talk.


The boutique has vegetable, chicken, mutton and egg ‘kottu’. The ‘roti’ is made much bigger than the normal ‘godamba roti’ for ‘kottu’, he explains. We start making ‘roti’ around 5.00 p.m. and go on till around 10 in the night, says the shop owner.


The ‘kottu’ and hopper table placed at the entrance signified the next ‘kottu’ joint – which was a bakery. Being after office hours, the place had a large number of customers who were either there to have a snack before finding their way home or were buying their dinner. Some had cups of tea while there were those who were feasting on hoppers and egg ‘roti’. Two young men were busy behind the glass partition, preparing hoppers and egg ‘roti’. The Vegetables and the basin of eggs placed on one of the tables indicated that the place was set for the ‘kottu’ business as well. We were asked what we wanted. Once again, we were met with opposition, though we told the reason for our visit. "Bad for business," said the owner of the bakery situated close to the Kochchikade church. He was only willing to tell us that they served chicken, mutton and vegetable ‘kottu’.


However, there are those who have mastered the trade who do have some consideration for the matters of the tummy. R. G. Somadasa, who works at ‘Linma’ Bakery/Hotel, Kadawatha, was more than willing to impart with facts of his trade. "We don’t use ‘roti’ pieces stored in a freezer, he said. "We make the ‘roti’ daily. Before putting the ‘kottu’ stuff together, we fry ginger, garlic, curry leaves till they are golden brown, on the hot ‘kottu’ table to give taste to our ‘kottu’." The eatery prepares ‘roti’ and noodles ‘kottu’. The noodles ‘kottu’ starts once we finish the ‘roti’ we have prepared," he explains.


How do you know those eggs that are a part of the ingredients are not spoilt? "We purchase eggs from a poultry products dealer. So far, we have not had any complaints," he says.


The Public Health Department of the Colombo Municipal Council initiated a programme to train ‘kottu roti’ makers within the city to strengthen food safety. Many folks prefer to eat out or purchase their meals on their way home, rather than go home after a tired day of work and prepare their meals. The town folk also opt to eat out on weekends. The day is not complete if you don’t purchase your dinner after a quiet stroll down the Galle Face promenade.


The Chief of the Public Health Department, Dr. Pradeep Kriyawasam says that the programme is being carried out in collaboration with a reputed food production company, where ‘kottu’ makers are given training on maintaining food hygiene. Starting with personal cleanliness, they will be instructed on ensuring the cleanliness of the cooking utensils. Most ‘kottu’ makers are of the opinion that they should dress in their grubbiest clothes, owing to the grime and the heat behind the ‘kottu’ cubical. That attitude will have to change, he says with a smile.


A demonstration is given by a chef from a five star hotel in the city. For instance, the egg that’s in the ‘kottu’ is broken on to the frying ingredients. It’s one of the practices that needs to be changed as the bacteria in the egg could lead to diarrhea and cause indigestion to those who purchase the ‘kottu’ from them. The egg should be broken into a separate bowl and whisked, before being included into the ‘roti’, Dr. Kariyawasam stated. He said that the vegetables and the rest of the ingredients too should be completely cooked, whereas in most cases, some of it remains uncooked due to the unevenness of the ‘kottu’ table. He said that a reputed gas company had been invited to come up with a sample ‘kottu’ table where the heat is equally distributed and the food is properly cooked.


The trainees are tested for their knowledge before being given a certificate for having followed the training programme. They are also provided with a uniform of a t-shirt and cap, he said.


He said that approximately 250 ‘kottu’ makers have been trained, so far. But there are many more in the city who also need the training.


The training will take some time. However, you should be happy as the ‘kottu’ may taste the same, but you would have the assurance that it has been hygienically prepared.


(Pix by Saman Abesiriwardane and Dimuthu Premaratne)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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