What Is Murtabak?

A. Leverkuhn

Murtabak is a specific regional version of a traditional type of food that is popular in many parts of the world. It is a sort of fried bread. Different variants of this dish are well known in parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other neighboring locales, as well as in Southeast Asian areas from Indonesia to Singapore and Malaysia. In Arabic, the word is transliterated as mutabbak or mutabbaq, but in Malaysia specifically, the local recipe is written as murtabak.

Murtabak is commonly flavored with cilantro.
Murtabak is commonly flavored with cilantro.

A meat filling is often used in traditional Malaysian murtabak. The completed recipe resembles a sandwich. The bread is stuffed with various items, often with mutton or a similar meat, as well as egg, garlic and onions. Other common ingredients include jalapeno or Serrano peppers. Many recipes also call for clarified butter, locally called “ghee” as a part of the frying process or as a garnish for the dish.

Ghee, which is used in making murtabak.
Ghee, which is used in making murtabak.

In some parts of Malaysia, murtabak is commonly sold on the street. Sales people in small kiosks may cook this food to order and serve it to passers. This process for cooking fried bread products varies sharply with the usual methods of some other regions of the world, where fried bread discs are often served in restaurants on a plate, drizzled with additional items like syrup or molasses.

In murtabak and other popular street dishes of the region, the ground meat is flavored with a combination of herbs that gives the food its unique flavors. These include cilantro and mint, two well regarded spices in the region. Some versions of murtabak are also sold with a curry sauce.

In the etymology of the dish, the previously cited Arabic mutabbakis sometimes translated as “folded,” which helps to explain the form of the dish as it is sold around the world. Varieties of murtabak are folded in different ways for a diversity of presentations. Some may be formed with circular molds or otherwise made neatly circular, where others will be rolled into long rolls and cut into sliced portions.

One challenge in making murtabak is in getting the dough extremely thin, as some versions of the dish are made with very thin sheets of bread. In some cases, the traditional sellers of this food spin the dough to thin it out, where the specific skill is learned over time. Those who want to imitate these culinary merchants may need to put in significant time and effort to make their own versions as appealing and well formed as those that they have found in traditional street markets.

Jalapenos are often used in murtabak.
Jalapenos are often used in murtabak.

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