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“Roti Canai and My Mum”: A Malaysian Trans Man’s Recipe for Love and Connection

By Faris Saad

My mum and late grandmother both perfected the art of making roti canai. Not the simple, folded square ones, but the circular, flaky roti. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with just a hint of sweetness dancing on your tongue to remind you that you are eating a piece of heaven you almost don’t deserve. Croissants got nothing on this roti. 

Every time I eat my square roti at the mamak, I think of them. There is this thread that runs through these women, binding them together. I think of the many ways they are so different, but you’d still know they are mother and daughter by watching how similar their movements — the way their hands knead and coax the dough. I worry this thread would never pass through me. I was my mother’s daughter, in her eyes, until I became her son. 

When my mum was a child, she and her older sister were sent to live with her grandmother in the kampung, while her parents moved around Malaysia with the younger siblings. My grandfather was a policeman, so they moved quite often. My mum didn’t really get to know her mother until she was much older. My grandmother passed away 13 years ago. I wonder if she thinks of her mother when she makes roti. 

I used to watch my grandmother make roti on a metal dulang (tray) in her kampung kitchen, and I’d watch my mum do the same in another country, on a melamine countertop in a foreign kitchen. My favourite part of the whole process was the “glasses” part, where the paper-thin dough would be rolled into a long, thin cylinder. Then both ends would be folded towards the middle to meet and form a pair of glasses. With one swift hand movement, one eyeglass would be slapped on top of the other, then patted down gently. The glasses move was the secret that would result in layers of flaky goodness. It also looked very cool. 

These past few years have been hard for my mum, ever since I came out to her. I’m sure she tries to understand and accept me for who I always was, but it must be difficult for her to look back and realise she raised a son, not a daughter. Does she feel like I’m a stranger now?

Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost her and that I have to reconnect with her somehow. I wasn’t an easy child to raise. Yet every time I fucked up in the past, it was easy to patch things up. It isn’t that easy now. 

I called my mum the other day to ask her how she makes roti because I didn’t want to put up with square rotis anymore. Since my voice broke, whenever I talk to my mum, I sense her caution and uncertainty. I know she’s trying to find a way to put a face to this male voice on the phone. 

After the “Dah makan belum” and all the pleasantries done, I told her I wanted to try to make roti like how she and my grandmother did. I felt the tension break, and she began to tell me how to make the best roti ever. 

“It took me years to get it just right. First time, second time, third time, it came out hard as a rock! None of you kids would eat it. Roti canai has just a few ingredients, but it takes a lot of practice. You have to be patient and keep doing it until you get it right,” she said. 

I think that sums up my process of reconnecting with my mum. There are just a few ingredients to a bond between mother and child, but it takes a lot of patience to get it right. 

Faris Saad is a freelance business journalist and member of queer band Shh…Diam! He is in his mid-30s and is still not a rich rock star.

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