For those who grew up with it or discovered it along the way, South Asian food is a delicious, filling, go-to comfort food. But it’s also known for being overly spiced and greasy.
Roti Rollers is a home-grown sandwich shop that aims to overturn that stereotype. Its first location opened at Dar Wasl, Box Park last October, and the second at La Mer earlier this year. It offers hand-kneaded rotis made with the minimal amount of oil, in an open kitchen. There are funky options for kebabs and tikkas, like jalapenos, daikons, avocados and Japanese seven-spices. Want a beetroot roti? How about quinoa peas biryani?
Knowing that people believe Indian food to be “cheap, low quality and unhealthy,” Roti Rollers founder and owner Ahsan Kahlon set out to change the perception. He hired Sameer Sharma, a chef with more than 20 years in the business and formerly of Tresind Dubai, to execute his vision of recipes that fuse traditional Indian flavors while keeping a homey feel.
The result is a mix of unconventional flavors, a menu of evolved Indian street food with nine quirky signature rolls – think Hen Stefani, Robert Paneer-o, and The Emiroti – and twists on snacks, including Indie Scotch Eggs and Pav Bhaji Fondue.
Roti Rollers has shared two of its recipes with livehealthy.ae, so watch for those in the coming days. We also asked Chef Sameer to elaborate on what goes into his menu.
You are shaking things up when it comes to South Asian food. What is the motivation behind this?
My mother, my wife and I have always been big-time foodies. We love to eat out and dissect the food mentally on our way home, and later experimenting with different ingredients to recreate our own versions of the same food.
Food is generally a very fluid medium of self expression; the flavors at Roti Rollers are a direct representation of my earlier memories, and I am emotionally attached to these recipes.
How do you incorporate some of your more unconventional ingredients, such as wasabi, daikon, activated charcoal and jalapeno, into your food?
Apart from early memories, and an overactive imagination, I start out with tasting each ingredient in various forms: freshly grounded, fried, roasted, soaked, sun dried, broiled, etc. Once I have a recipe, I let it sit in my workbook and on my mind for some time, and discuss with my team if it will work, and why, and improve upon it. Teamwork is always best – many heads think better than one.
How are you making your food healthier, or even more plant-based, than its traditional counterparts?
Traditional recipes are the best; they are almost perfect. But the timing of different food to eat is not right for us today. Traditional recipes talk about consuming seasonal vegetables, spices, pulses, pure ghee, raw unfiltered oil of roots/seeds in different seasons. Today, we use almost every ingredient every day. We have not tasted pure ghee for years; refined oil use is everywhere. We have forgotten how to cook, and we have certainly forgotten how to eat as well.
I am reviving some of the methods used by earlier generations, combined with modern techniques. The menu is simple. I tend to avoid excess butter, oil, fat. I increase fiber, while limiting starch and sugar in my recipes.
What are the challenges in making South Asian dishes healthier?
Our challenge stems from the negative light that South Asian food is portrayed in. South Asian food is misunderstood to be filling, heavy on the spices and fatty, with little attention to complete nutrition. But just look at the humble thali: it can have roasted or grilled kebab as protein, dal made from pulses, rice and roti as carb, vitamin from the salad and healthy fat from yoghurt, as well as sodium and other required nutrition.
What reactions are you getting from your South Asian customers, as well as those from other parts of the world?
Everyone who walks into Roti Rollers is pleasantly surprised by our take on healthy and oil-free rolls, balanced spice usage, freshness of ingredients and fragrance of drinks.
We also evolve our recipes to make them much healthier, for example using edamame in dosa, avoiding butter in pav bhaji. This has been very well received.
The food has been a big hit with South Asians as well as with locals and Western expats. Some dine at Roti Rollers for that gentle nostalgia of home. Some because they are fans of the food and culture, and because they can relate to the ingredients we use that is not usually found in Indian cuisine but are plentiful in global favorites.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.