No Matter Where You Go, People Appreciate a Good Testicle Pun
Man Bread in Malaysia
The cheap plastic seat flexes under me as I transfer the weight of my forearms from the thin, aluminum-veneered wood of the restaurant table. I lean back and listen as a heavy-set Indian Malaysian man recalls my order from the previous day. “Roti jantan, mutton curry and kopi O ais, boss?” I concur, he wobbles his head, drops into Tamil and bellows my order to both ends of the small open air restaurant, arms punching the air with dramatic punctuation. I marvel at the variety of languages in our brief conversation; French, stolen by the English and passed on during colonial times, the native Bahasa Malaysia, and finally Tamil, originating from southern India where the restaurateurs’ family was likely plucked by colonial England to work in the rubber plantations of what was then known as British Malaya. The significance of the history that has led to exchanges like this goes unacknowledged by the mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese patrons, who all share a common Malaysian identity and a sense of amusement at the mention of roti jantan, aka “man bread.”
The restaurant occupies a small corner lot in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s industrial district. Chairs and tables sprawl out to the roadside over a patchwork of chipped and faded apricot tiles that transition into the dark mats of grease and soot that hide under counters and anywhere else that foot traffic is rare. Purple walls support a once-white celling that has faded over the years to a dirty yellow that matches the color of the dusty fans that wobble silently overhead. At one end of the restaurant, a man expertly whips balls of dough into increasingly complicated curves until it is stretched to transparency before laying it out on the blackened circular hotplate in front of him. At the opposite end of the restaurant, another man pauses mid-Bollywood song just long enough to stab at half a dozen cans of Malaysia’s favorite drink additive, sweetened condensed milk, with what looks like a large screwdriver. He uses it to pry the tops off in one smooth motion before continuing to sing.
As I wash my hands at a sink that is plumbed into the wall via a cacophony of mismatched fittings and hoses and secured via a length of twisted electrical wiring a small group of Bangladeshi workers appear. Ducking under the fabric awning that keeps the hazy morning sunlight at bay, they filter between the tables and chairs in silence, their faces a mix of resignation and exhaustion. When two police officers enter from the back alley shortly afterwards, the mood of the foreign workers makes sense; stories abound of police officers laying in wait for foreign workers, who are often illegally in the country, in order to fleece them of a day of wages before letting them go on their way. The two groups entering this place at nearly the same time is no coincidence.
My order, deposited in front of me with a ceremonial head wobble, distracts me from the discomfort of having both the police and their victims under the same roof. The iced coffee is thick and bitter enough that no reasonable amount of sugar will make it palatable, but the caffeine it contains makes it a necessary evil. The mutton curry, on the other hand, a deep earthy-orange gravy, filled with cubes of melt-in-your-mouth goat, onion, and potato could stand on its own merits. Apart from the large curls of cinnamon and semi-submerged kaffir lime leaves, the mix of spices blend so perfectly its next to impossible to differentiate one from the other. The roti jantan, crispy on the outside while elastic on the inside, is ideal for soaking up the thick curry. Two eggs folded into the unleavened bread provide it with both its spongy, full-bodied texture and its ability to bring smiles to the faces of all but the most prudish of Malaysians, for whom eggs are synonymous with testicles, hence the name man bread.
As I tear pieces of the flatbread off with my fingers and let it soak up the flavors of the curry, I wonder how many other small, unassuming roadside food stalls throughout the world have similar scenes playing out within them. Perhaps all we really need to do to get an insight into a nation is sit, eat, and open our eyes.