Kottu Roti
Figure 1. A plate of cheese kottu

Kottu roti (Tamil: கொத்துரொட்டி, Sinhala: කොත්තුරොටි) or “Kottu” is a cultural food found in Sri Lanka and Southern India (Wikipedia, 2012). Its exact place of invention is contestable, with most sources claiming origins in either Batticaloa or Trincomalee in Eastern Sri Lanka in the 1970s (Kottu, n.d). “Kottu Roti” translates to “chopped roti” in Tamil (A. Ledshumanan, personal communication, April 23, 2012). It is made out of shredded flat bread mixed with vegetables, eggs and/or meat and an assortment of spices (Kottu, n.d). Additionally, a side of spicy gravy is usually provided (Kottu, n.d) . Many different varieties of kottu exist, such as chicken, beef and mutton as well as egg, vegetable and a recent cheese type (see Figure 1) for vegetarians (A. Ledshumanan, personal communication, April 23, 2012).

Figure 2. The ingredients in Kottu Roti

The main ingredient is a type of flat bread called “Godamba roti” which is prepared by mixing together wheat flour, sugar and salt in slightly heated water (Silva, 2011). The mixture is rolled into dough, covered in vegetable oil, smoothed out into a thin sheet, flipped over several times and finally, fried (Silva, 2011).
Figure 3. The making kottu roti in a road-side stall in Negombo, Sri Lanka

Kottu roti is then prepared on a heated iron sheet, covered with oil. Red onions, garlic, ginger, salt, tomatoes and a variety of spices which may include curry leaves, chilli powder, curry powder, capsicum, red and green chillies, green and black peppers, coriander leaves and mustard seeds are added and fried until fragrant and the onions turn brown (Silva, 2011; Figure 2). Next, beaten eggs are poured in and scrambled. Finally, vegetables (mushrooms, cabbage, leeks, spring onions, etc.) and/or meats are added (Silva, 2011). These ingredients are chopped and mixed using two metal cleavers with wooden handles attached to their ends joints, as shown in Figure 3. The banging of these blades against the iron sheet produces a characteristic drumming sound, the beat of which is used to entice customers to road-side eating joints (A. Ashraf, personal communication, April 18, 2012). Chefs in restaurants with open cooking areas also engage in creating music with the blades to amuse customers, particularly tourists (A. Ashraf, personal communication, April 18, 2012).

Kottu in the modern context
Figure 4. Pilawoos

Kottu roti is a recent cultural creation and an example multicultural food in Sri Lanka (S. Sulaiman, personal communication, May 12, 2012). The dish has rapidly become a famed night-time meal, commonly provided at parties and non-religious festivals (S. Sulaiman, personal communication, May 12, 2012). Changes in working culture and lifestyles in urban settings, such as the increase in women in the labour force and late-night shift work are factors associated with changing food habits towards convenience foods in South Asia (World Health Organization South-East Asia Regional Office [WHO/ SEARO], 2007). The WHO/ SEARO (2007) reports a rise in the consumption of takeaway dinners and accordingly, a decrease in home-cooked meals over the past decade in Sri Lanka. Despite the growing presence of Western fast food chains such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC that are accommodating local cuisine to cater to local tastes and compete with street vendors (WHO, 2002) kottu roti is not a dish that is offered on any of their menus. Furthermore, road-side stalls are more abundant in numbers, open past midnight and consequently, more easily accessible (S. Hettige, personal communication, May 3, 2012).

Figure 5. Kottu in popular culture
A meal which initially appeared as common street food for the poor and middle class has flourished, effectively surpassing social barriers in Sri Lanka (Sivanathan, N, personal communication, May 13, 2012). Kottu was formerly an inexpensive, takeaway meal for the lower classes but has now become a popular, almost essential part of the diet for the wealthy, in particular upper-class youth (Sivanathan, N, personal communication, May 13, 2012). Current social trends among young people who go to nightclubs and parties in urban areas consider it customary to complete their nights with kottu as a midnight "hangover" meal. (P. Kurrupu, personal communication, May 12, 2012). As shown in Figure 4, a famous eating joint in Colombo, “Pilawoos”, is a popular place for wealthy youth to stop by. Considered socially unacceptable to frequent such places during the day or in person, waiters bring food to parked cars.

The popularity of the dish as a part of youth culture and its well-known rhythmic chopping beat goes beyond food; it has become symbol for multiculturalism. Examples include song compositions about this celebrated dish as well as t-shirts with slogans such as “Make kottu not war” and "Got Kottu?" as shown in Figure 5, worn by youth. (Meyler, 2007; P. Kurrupu, personal communication, May 12, 2012).

Health Implications of kottu
Figure 6. Unhealthy cooking methods
Research conducted by Sri Lankan health authorities indicate a lack of adherence to food hygiene standards by street vendors, with one survey even reporting over 95% of fast food outlets using poor cooking techniques, resulting in foodborne and other terminal illnesses (The Nation, 2012a). Only 290 out of the 750 restaurants in Colombo, ranging from five-star hotels to roadside stalls, received trade licenses in the past year (Mendis, 2012). Risk factors such as a lack of clean water, poor sanitation and hygiene (for example, a lack of soap for hand washing) have been emphasised in reports by the WHO (2010) to be major contributors to food poisoning in Sri Lanka. Further reasons for contamination include not heating the metal sheet to a temperature high enough to kill most microorganisms, unlike traditional food that is cooked on a fire or boiled (C. Perera, personal communication, May 14, 2012). Moreover, some kottu dishes are served half-cooked and/or the ingredients used are unrefrigerated leftovers from the previous night, as vendors seek to cut down storage costs such as electricity (D. Attanayake, personal communication, May 12, 2012). As a result of the rise in cases of food poisoning highlighted in the media as well as concerns over an increasing number of foreigners visiting road-side stalls, the Ministry of Health has taken steps to improve food safety and quality by setting out health standards for street food focusing on food storage, preparation and handling (The Nation, 2012b; Bhowmik , 2005). The training of street cooks on food hygiene, distribution of gloves and aprons to food handlers and provision of free vaccinations have been initiated by the Colombo Municipal Council (Sunday Observer, 2012).

The nutrient values of kottu roti can vary significantly depending on whether it is prepared at home, or more commonly, bought as a takeout meal. Most notably is found to be high in saturated fat, sugars and sodium (The Nation, 2012a). A concerning issue is the heavy use of coconut milk and oil in the making of street kottu, which contains high levels of saturated fat, increasing total blood cholesterol in the body, irrespective of age (The Nation, 2012a). While the WHO (2005) recommends consuming coconut oil in moderation, research on this issue is controversial; some studies conducted in countries with high coconut oil consumption claim it is not a major risk factor for heart disease (Atukorale, 2009). Regardless, coconut oil is used in preference to soya, corn and other types of unsaturated oils as its anti-oxidising properties make it re-usable and therefore less expensive for street vendors (Atukorale, 2009; D. Cooray, personal communication, May 11, 2012).

This is a significant health issue as transitions in food preferences towards convenience foods parallel the rise in diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease (WHO/ SEARO, 2007). Cardiovascular disease accounts for 30% of total mortality and diabetes a further 4% in Sri Lanka (WHO, 2011). Risk factors include raised blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and being overweight or obese (WHO, 2011). These determinants are all linked to the eating of unhealthy street foods such as kottu (WHO/ SEARO, 2007).

“Healthy” Kottu
Figure 7. Local ingredients on display at the "Healthy Kottu Festival" in Mount Lavinia

Attempts to maintain the dish’s popularity as well as address its health concerns include initiatives such as the “Healthy Kottu Festival” and “Kottu Fest” in Colombo (Peiris, 2008). These events promote healthier, innovative recipes, such as the use of local maize rather than wheat flour in godamba roti and baking the roti, rather than frying it (Silva, 2011). Moreover, as shown in Figure 7, they include local organic vegetables and fruits (jackfruit, bananas, bread fruit , lotus yam, corn, etc) in an effort to fuse traditional ingredients with the modern dish, to provide a healthier meal (Silva, 2011).

Kottu roti is not just a food, it’s a cultural icon. Although it only has a short history, the practices surrounding its cooking and consumption have become well-established, particularly among Sri Lankan youth. In order to address the increasing burden of diet-related chronic diseases in Sri Lanka, street foods such as kottu need to be looked at within the modern cultural context they were created and now exist in.


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