Asian food

Except for a few countries in Asia, bread isn’t a staple food in much of the continent. Perhaps that’s why when food vendors do come up with sandwiches, they are quite unusual – and excellent. Here are seven to try around the region. (And if you can’t get around, try making them yourself at home. Search for the recipes and techniques on YouTube – that’s where we learnt how to make all the sandwiches for this article.)

asian sandwiches

Don’t forget the soft-boiled eggs.

Kaya Toast


This is one of those great kopitiam (coffee shop) breakfasts – well toasted slices of Hainanese bread, spread with margarine or butter and generously slathered with kaya (coconut egg jam). The sandwich is cut into thirds or quarters and often eaten with one or two soft-boiled eggs (which we call “half-boiled”, for some reason) seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper. It goes nicely with a cup of milk coffee.

Kaya toast can be traced to the Hainanese, many of whom worked on British ships as cooks in the 19th century. When they settled in Malaya, they came up with the sandwich by replacing western jams with local kaya.

asian sandwiches

But who was John?

Roti John


This is a go-to sandwich at Ramadan food bazaars, and a popular offering at Ramly burger stalls in Malaysia.

Roti John is said to have been invented in Singapore sometime in the late 1960s by a stall vendor plying his trade at the Botanic Gardens in central Singapore. He used the name John, the nickname for Caucasian men, as it was a popular sandwich with western customers.

According to one story the sandwich made its way to Malaysia via Tanjung Kling, Melaka, in the 1970s.

Roti John is also found in Brunei and Indonesia.

The sandwich is made with a French baguette and spread with an omelette of minced meat, onion and chillies. Sardine and cheese are also options.

The garnish is usually mayonnaise, tomato sauce and sweet chilli sauce.

asian sandwiches

Many people say this is the best sandwich in the world. Do you agree? Photo: The Star/Ivy Soon

Bánh Mì


This is one of those foods whose popularity has grown beyond their original country – it’s now a firm favourite across the world.

The bánh mì (translated as wheat bread) started out, sometime in the 1880s when the French made their way into Indochina, as a baguette with a bit of butter, ham or pate. When the French rule ended in 1954, the Vietnamese kept the bread but made the sandwich more substantial – and certainly raised its delicious factor – with flavourful meat, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs.

asian sandwiches

An inside-out omelette sandwich.

Bread Omelette


The egg is flavoured with onion, chillies, garam masala, curry powder. It is poured into a skillet and spread out a little. Slices of bread are then placed on top of the egg and allowed to soak in it for a while before the whole thing is flipped to cook the other side. Customers can ask for a slice of cheese to be included.

When it’s done, the sandwich is folded in an unusual way: The slices of bread are on the inside of the omelette! The sandwich is cut into pieces before serving.

asian sandwiches

Could this have been the predecessor to the Western burger?

Rou Jia Mo


In 2016, rou jia mo, which translates as “meat in a bun”, was named Shaanxi Province’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Often referred to as the Chinese hamburger, this sandwich of northern China is in a yeast-raised wheat bun that is shaped into a spiral before rolling it into a disc and then cooked. Instead of steaming the buns like a mantou, they are usually “baked” in a pan on the stove.

Rou jia mo is said to have been around for at least 2,000 years.

The filling is most commonly pork, specifically the belly. In Muslim areas in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, beef is used.

asian sandwiches

So much cabbage and carrot.

Gaeran To Su Tu

South Korea

Korean street toast is a sandwich stuffed with an omelette made with shredded cabbage and carrot. Along with it is usually a slice of ham and cheese drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise. The large slices of white bread are toasted on the same skillet.

Some street vendors fold the sandwich on the diagonal and serve it in a paper cup.

asian sandwiches

Noodles AND bread together, woohoo!

Yakisoba Pan


Talk about carb on carb! This popular lunch and snack in Japan is a combination of noodles and bread.

The stir-fried egg noodles are seasoned with soy and Worcestershire sauce, and unadorned with meat or vegetables. This is so that there is not too much moisture which will make the bread soggy since the sandwich is usually not eaten immediately. A hotdog bun is commonly used.

The sandwich is finished with strips of pickled ginger, dried seaweed and sweetened mayo.

STAR2.COM EXCLUSIVE: This is the first in our online series documenting the food chefs prepare at home.

Malcolm Goh has just come off a surgical procedure, but when I meet him, he is all smiles and says, “No lah, I’m fine!” to my anxious queries about the state of his health.

It is this affable quality that has endeared Goh to Malaysians, who first saw him on television on Asian Food Channel (AFC) shows like Great Dinners of the World and Back to the Streets.

It is interesting that Goh’s foray into the F&B industry didn’t happen organically. After he flunked his O-Levels, his mother took him to a local college and enrolled him in a culinary arts course. He promptly failed his first two semesters, before deciding to just buck up and get on with it.

“My whole journey has been me forcing myself to learn and get skills because I’m not a natural prodigy – I didn’t know anything about cooking until I went to college when I was 16. Now I feel that cooking has helped me learn that it’s very fulfilling when people enjoy your food,” he says.

These days, you’ll find Goh helming the kitchen of Define: Food, a popular restaurant in Mid Valley City that serves up all sorts of delicious Western-influenced comfort food.

Like the eatery’s sinfully hedonistic epicurean burger, which features a generous slab of foie gras atop a wagyu patty, truffle jus, caramelised onions and sautéed mushrooms. The burger is pure perfection – the petal-soft tenderness of the foie gras offers sexy, earthy flavours that provide the perfect opening act to the main star – perfectly cooked wagyu patty that is so malleable, it practically glides down your throat unaided by mastication.

malcolm goh

The sumptuous epicurean burger at Define: Food represents the sort of food Goh has become adept at making. The burger features a wonderful alchemy of flavours and textures and is simply delicious.

“We did it because we wanted something a bit more luxurious. We know anything you put foie gras on, most people will enjoy,” says Goh.

Then there is his eight-hour braised lamb, featuring meat that is tender and so pliant, it’s almost like swallowing silk.

“It’s a very straightforward dish, we take lamb shoulder and braise it whole for eight to 10 hours. Then we portion it out so all the juices are still intact inside the meat,” says Goh.

The eatery has also introduced a whole range of avocado toasts with various accoutrements, from smoked salmon to beef bacon. The toasts are delicious – the bread is soft and pillowy and the avocado spread is decadent and oh-so yummy!

Goh’s culinary oeuvre at Define: Food is food that is by his definition “rustic”. He leans heavily towards comfort food with bold flavours, all underscored by his signature attention to detail. Every dish is perfectly assembled and looks appetising but isn’t overwhelmed by window dressing. It is food you can eat (and eat again!) because it is cooked well but also because it doesn’t feel fancy or like it requires a special occasion to be sampled.

“Our style of cooking is very rustic, not too fussy, not too fiddly. Every cook or chef reaches a stage where they want to do something avant-garde and artsy, but after awhile, most cooks feel it’s too much effort to put food into an arrangement where it’s very unnatural.

“So I’ve passed that stage of wanting to do Michelin-star stuff so now I do just honest food that everyone is comfortable eating. But my team and I try to make sure that no matter how easy it is, we do it consistently well,” he says.

malcolm goh

Define: Food’s eight-hour braised lamb is sublime, with pull-apart tender meat that is oh-so-easy to eat.

Goh’s dedication to comfort food makes you wonder just what he cooks up at home, away from the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. It always fascinates me how chefs can have polar opposite approaches at home and in the kitchen. Like celebrity chef Jason Atherton, who runs Michelin-starred restaurants like Pollen Street Social and has said that his favourite meal at home is a simple bacon sandwich!

Goh is inclined to feel the same way and says the moment he is at home, he switches off as he doesn’t want to think about all the technical aspects of cooking.

“In a restaurant, you have to be precise and consistent because you are catering to guests who are comparing your food with other restaurants. Cooking at home is different, the pressure isn’t there, you have more time to prepare and buy groceries. So to be honest, what I cook at home is to throw something in a wok with a bit of garlic and soya sauce and stir-fry everything. Most of the time, I cook Asian food at home,” he says.

It is an interesting contrast, as Goh’s offerings at Define: Food are largely Western-tinged, so it is ironic that his culinary output at home is largely Asian. But perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that he grew up eating his mother’s Hakka and nonya fare. Some days this translates to an inclination to cook the food of his childhood, like his mother’s alluring soon pan (Hakka steamed dumplings).

I believe cooks and chefs, whether they’re in a Michelin restaurant or not, still go back to simple, honest, straightforward food at home.

“My mother would make soon pan less often than I would have liked to have it. But when she made it, she would leave it under a bowl and when I came back from school, I would eat it cold. It is something which has a very warm feeling for me,” he says.

His mother’s loh shee fun is another dish that he cooks up when he misses her food. “It’s just something simple that every household would have, so it’s nothing fancy. And even now, I’m a grown man and she cooks it once in a while and I’ll happily eat it. These are my fondest memories with my mother,” he says.

Goh says ultimately he feels that most chefs like to kick back and relax when they’re at home and this is reflected in the food they churn out on their days off as well.

“Cooking is tiring, so I don’t think many chefs spend a lot of time at home cooking – it’s just fresh salads, or boiled, sautéed stuff, that’s it. I believe cooks and chefs, whether they’re in a Michelin restaurant or not, still go back to simple, honest, straightforward food at home,” he says.


Serves 2

For the loh shee fun
100g chopped garlic
250g minced chicken
4 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp white pepper
4 tbsp sliced spring onions
400g loh shee fun

For the garnish
a handful of sliced spring onions
a sprig of fresh coriander leaves
1 tsp fried garlic

To cook

Sauté the chopped garlic in oil and lightly brown. Add  the minced chicken and break up into pieces with the back of a spoon. Season with soy sauces, oyster sauce, sugar and white pepper. Add some water and stew for 6 to 8 minutes. Add sliced spring onions and mix well.

Blanch loh shee fun and mix well with the minced chicken sauce. Garnish with sliced spring onions, coriander leaves and fried garlic.

Soon pan - malcolm goh


Makes 6 to 8

For the filling
40g soaked dry shrimp
oil, for sautéing
300g julienned Chinese turnip
100g sliced shiitake mushrooms
100g deep-fried sliced hard tofu
light soy sauce to taste
sugar to taste
salt to taste
white pepper to taste
sesame oil to taste

For the dough
2 cups tapioca starch
4 tbsp glutinous rice flour
2 tbsp plain flour
3 tbsp corn oil
2 cups hot water
garlic oil, for brushing

To make the filling

Drain soaked shrimp and chop roughly. Sauté in oil until fragrant. Add turnip and shiitake mushrooms. Cook for 5 minutes.

Add in deep-fried tofu, season with light soya sauce, sugar, salt and white pepper to taste. Cover with water and braise until turnips are tender. Add in sesame oil. Once done, leave mixture to cool.

To make the dough

Combine all the ingredients (except garlic oil). Knead well into pliable dough (add more water, if necessary) and allow to cool.

To make soon pans

Once the soon pan dough has cooled, portion it into golf ball sizes, dust with some plain flour and roll out into circles. Place filling in centre and fold over and press the edges together.

Lightly brush soon pan skin with garlic oil and steam in bamboo steamer for 6 minutes. Serve hot.