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The Spinoff reviews New Zealand #37: The best roti canai in the country

We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today, Don Rowe worships at the temple of roti, K’ Rd Malaysian joint Warisan Uncle Man’s.

In the late 80s, more than eight thousand kilometres from Auckland city, a tradition of roti excellence began.

The venerable Uncle Man, a humble restaurateur of Malaysian origins, opened a restaurant with his wife, taking his son Najib Othman as employee. Young Najib learned the way of the roti, apprenticing under his father, that one day he might take over the restaurant. However when Mrs Uncle Man passed away, the restaurant was closed, and before long the family emigrated to New Zealand.

The tradition, however, lived on.

“Cooking has always been in our family,” says Azlan Najib, Najib Othman’s son and employee. “Everyone cooks – Mum, Dad, me – so when we came to New Zealand we started doing weekend markets, pop-up restaurants and stuff like that.”

Azlan and Najib on roti duty.

It was good food, popular among the Auckland Malaysian community. But after ten years in the market game, Warisan Uncle Man’s put down roots at 277 Karangahape Road, just up from The Hemp Store and immediately opposite Family Bar. Their domination of the roti game was quick, and total.

Uncle Man’s is a simple affair: blue chairs with matching napkins, plastic chopsticks, a clock made of spoons. There are maps on the wall, some cheap art, plastic menus. But this is no bougie fusion eatery catering to the upper class. This is the people’s food, and the roti their champion.

Enhance, enhance, enhance.

Flaky, crispy, soft but with substance, it’s a formidable roti, king amongst doughy goods. Though it’s technically the medium on which the heady flavours of curry or rendang are transported, it’s no sideshow attraction. With shades of beige, cinnamon and burned sugar, this roti is hand thrown the way God intended, leaving it layered like fine puff pastry.

This is roti perfection, the roti on which Uncle Man staked his reputation, a roti that upholds the family name, bite by bite.

But how? How is it so damn good? What is the secret? Turns out there isn’t one – no jealous guardians here.

“It starts with the dough,” Azlan says. “The dough needs to be the right consistency with the right ingredients. Then you need to let it rest for at least five minutes. And after that, the pan needs to be really hot in order to get the nice crispy outer, but you retain the soft inside. At the end, the fluff up – you need to clap the roti to fluff it up, and force that air inside.”

And he has an offer:

“Anyone who wants to learn, come on through, man.”

– Don Rowe

Verdict: Ah Uncle Man, were I but a son of your line, that I might master the art of the roti so.

Good or Bad: Absurdly good.


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