This scrumptious, spicy and uniquely Sri Lankan meal, the Koththu Roti is famous for its uncommon blend of flavours, a delicious and mouth-watering incorporation of several components and the key ingredient, shredded roti. It is available all over the country, displayed in wayside kiosks with its alluring pungent odour attracting passers-by, titillating their gastronomic juices to crave for the very food on display.
However, recently this very famous meal had some bad publicity from health officials who labelled it as some of the most unhygienic, therefore unhealthy. Thus, Ceylon Today spoke to the Chief Medical Officer of Colombo Municipal Council, Dr. Ruwan Wijeyamuni who conducted research on koththu and other food items sold at kiosks and other food outlets in Colombo.
"Koththu has some specific features" said Dr. Wijeyamuni. Ceylon Today also discovered the many features of koththu in one of the many wayside food kiosks in Colombo, which were visited for this very purpose; a variety of vegetables, an array of meats, eggs and spices. Dr. Wijeyamuni also added 'Escherichia Coli', better known as 'E Coli' to the mix.
"Koththu is semi-cooked most of the time. Unlike Rice which goes up to boiling point. As a result all the germs are killed" he said.
According to a resident in Colombo who enjoys koththu, albeit not regularly, koththu was a meal that evolved to prevent leftover food from going to waste. The roti and meats which were left over from the day are thrown in together in to a hot plate and worked in to a scrambled mix.
When Ceylon Today visited several koththu kiosks the cooks stated that the dough is kneaded during the day and then flattened out in to a roti before being baked. Dr. Wijayamuni has a contradicting explanation.
"Koththu is generally made in wayside kiosks along the pavements. It is usually in the front of the shop. The Koththu Baas kneads several roti dough wads and leaves it out in the open. In Sri Lanka, it is common knowledge that the waysides are not very clean. There could be several particles of human and animal faecal matter. There will also be people spitting and urinating in the streets, saliva, urine and phlegm sometimes line the streets. Then there will be germs borne out of animals that also do the same. There will be vehicles and its fumes which also disturbs the dust. During the dry season these particles turn to a dry powder and settle on the food prepared in these kiosks/pavement restaurants. When the Koththu Baas makes roti, and places them one on top of the other, the germs get trapped in between," he said.
In all the koththu outlets Ceylon Today visited in Colombo, the meal was prepared at the entrance of the kiosk, with the roti baas doing his job shielded with only about a two or three feet tall glass attached to the food preparation counter. The distance from the roof to the top of the glass is left open. 'It is for ventilation,' said a kothuthu baas at one of the outlets we visited. "The cook works in severe heat. It gets really hot. We need some fresh air." Unfortunately, for their customers the food is also contaminated with germs that settle on it by way of this 'fresh air.'
In most of the koththu outlets, the food items that were left unattended on the counter had a swarm of flies settling on it, making its way through the opening.
What's the solution? ... Hygienic atmosphere
So what is the solution? We asked..."Well, this food needs to be prepared in a hygienic surrounding in a kitchen. Where the food will not be exposed to an unhealthy situation," explained Dr. Wijeyamuni.
Dr. Wijaymuni begs to differ. He said,
"Koththu is generally made with gothamba roti. When gothamba roti is properly baked and crispy as a result it is considered well done. However, in most koththu outlets the roti is not properly done. Health and safety in food hygiene is not followed. Three to four people are involved in the koththu procedure. Usually one person makes the dough and kneads it into several batches. He then wraps it in polythene bags and then refrigerates it, in order to be used later. This is his routine task. However, the problem occurs when the second person involved in the procedure retrieves the batches from the refrigerator in order to make the roti. When the batches of kneaded dough are sent to the refrigerator, it is not dated. This is very important. According to food safety, when refrigerating stock the first in, first out method must be used. The second person in the roti process will not know which went in to the refrigerator first. He will take any batch randomly. Thus the first batches, if not picked in order will be left in the fridge for an unknown period of time, as a result the germs that settled on it whilst it was left in the open will start to multiply. Sometimes these items are not even refrigerated properly, which is even more dangerous. The germs multiply rapidly in a very short time span."
He also added the koththu samples tested by the health officials in the CMC contained E Coli.
"This is enough to deem the food contaminated. Especially the koththu had a higher amount of E Coli compared to other food. E Coli is a germ that is found in the animal gut."
He also added that the eggs that are used in the koththu preparation are most often not sterilized,
"The egg has to be properly washed before taken to the food counter. The outer shell usually has specks of faeces from the chicken which may fall in to the koththu. The koththu baas generally cracks the egg on the side of the hot plate before putting the eggs in. there is a chance of chicken faecal matters falling in to the food." The gravy for the koththu is generally the left over from lunch, said another Koththu baas. "We add tomato sauce and chilli sauce to spice it up."
The vegetables that are shredded and sliced before it is added to the koththu mix are also prepared beforehand. It is then left exposed to the 'fresh air.'
This was evident in almost all the koththu outlets visited, except in one relatively large kiosk, where a cook was laboriously chopping the vegetables.
"We start our preparation 3 hours before the koththu is made. That way the freshness is maintained right through out," the cook said.
However, this feat cannot be achieved by those in smaller kiosks.
"We do have workers. However, it gets really congested sometimes. So we have to work in shifts. We start the preparation for the koththu at about 1:00 p.m. We prep up the vegetables, chicken and the meats also in the afternoon. Most of the chicken that is lined up in the shelves in the front of the shop is generally for the koththu. We throw in the items together when we get an order. Generally koththu is made in the evening. It takes less than 3 minutes to put together on a hot plate."
However, according to Dr. Wijayamuni, these 3 minutes is not enough to kill the germs that were festering in the ingredients,
"In most cases the egg is semi cooked. The roti is also semi-cooked"
However, in certain koththu outlets in particularly urbanized and residential areas the sales are fast, as a result the stocks are not kept longer either.
"In such cases though, it still has to be done in a proper kitchen in an enclosed environment, then the chances of contamination are slimmer."
Stray cat's sniffed approval
In one particular shop, koththu is prepared in a saucepan and tossed several times over before being served. However, the cook in this particular shop had stored the shredded roti in a large polythene bag, and a fistful was taken from it then thrown in to the sauce pan. We were given access to this koththu area of this particular joint. The food items which left unattended before the koththu was made, was pawed and sniffed by a stray cat in the area. He made his koththu without realizing that a stray feline had also joined the many layers of koththu procedure during his absence.
"The best way to ensure a hygienic and safe way to eat koththu is to reduce the number of human contacts involved in preparation. It must be reduced to one. Then the risk will be minimized."
"We get many complaints of hospitalized patients with Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Dysentery. When we track the illness, it generally leads to the usual culprit, the koththu. At the same time there are many unreported cases as well. Sometimes, parents give koththu to their children and they suffer chronic stomach aches as a result."
He ended by saying that,
"Koththu is not bad, however, it must be prepared properly in hygienic conditions, vegetables must be properly washed and the food must be properly cooked in order for it to be safe to consume."