The Loaf with a Mistaken Identity

25 August 2016

We take a look into the history of one of Georgetown’s pioneer bakeries that have made the business of making roti benggali their bread and butter. In the process, we uncover the roti’s real name.

Rice, noodles, bread. The 3 staples of an Asian diet. If the countries within this region ever ran out of flour, the withdrawal symptoms would be nothing short of apocalyptic. Although rice and noodles reign more supreme than bread, Malaysians do have a lot of affection for rotis. Whereas dense breads are favoured in colder climates, the preferred loaf here in one that is airy, light and white.

The year is 1928. The Late Shaik Mohd Ismail J.P., an Indian Muslim from India arrives in the land of great promise - Malaya. He is amongst the groups of foreigners that arrive a little after the peak of Indian immigration to Malaya which tapered off even further at the arrival of the Great Depression, and later on, the Japanese Occupation.

Choosing to settle down in Georgetown, Penang, he and a few of his friends set up a business selling bread and calls it roti penggali, penggali being Tamil for ‘shareholders’. The first ever roti penggali bakery, Ismalia Bakery is set up by the Late Shaik Mohd Ismail J.P. The locals take it upon themselves to mishear and thus rechristen the bread as roti benggali even though those that spoke Tamil came from the south whereas the Bengal region was in the East of India. This insouciance lasts and persists through the years. Today, that loaf is only known by its popularly mistaken name and identity.

The Late Shaik Mohd Ismail J.P. left his bakery to this two sons and nephew upon his death. However, due to a family dispute, one of his sons, The Late Dato Shaik Allaudin Ismail left Ismalia Bakery to open Patchee Bakery (naming it in tribute to his forefathers) in 2001. The original Ismalia Bakery eventually shut down its business after a few years.

Today, Patchee Bakery is run by Haji Saahil Syed Saif (Dato Shaik Allaudin’s son-in-law) who happens to be from India as well. The store along Jalan Dato Keramat is dressed in Patchee’s signature orange hue. They sell many other halal certified goods, roti benggali is but just one of them.

Looking at the loaves perched on plastic display shelves, one can hardly imagine how a recipe from India thought up in 1885 could traverse continents and centuries to end up sitting on a shelf in a bakery in Malaysia in 2016. The owners of Patchee themselves claim to have guarded the family’s recipe for four generations now, making sure that not only the taste but even the shape stays true to its iconic status even though baking methods have been modernised.

The humble loaf has indeed come a long way. Patchee today has incredibly helpful owner fielding questions and sending out press-kit-like emails as a PR officer would. From its beginnings in a fire wood furnace, roti benggali bakeries today like Patchee have survived not despite of the changing times, but because they have changed along with the times.

All the business acumen, strategic planning and bells and whistles hide beneath the plain exterior of a loaf of roti benggali. It seems like with a mere mispronunciation, we have wiped the penggali away from our collective consciousness and replaced it with a wide (and misinformed) stroke of benggali instead. Maybe today is the day we eat bread and think of the real breadmakers themselves. The ones that had hardiness inside of them when they came all the way from India. The ones that banded together to make a living out of rotis. The ones that went right on despite changes of political power. Eat bread and be reminded. 

By Adeline Chua

This article is related to FOOD

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