Rotiboy/Mexican Coffee Buns – Food Origins
If you have ever traveled between the customs of Johor Bahru and Singapore, then you’ve probably smelled the fragrance of fresh bread and seen the long queue chasing after this particular aroma. Like how bees are attracted to pollen and nectar, it seems that people are naturally attracted to freshly baked bread.
Rotiboy encompasses everything that is good about freshly baked bread – the smell wafting from the small bakery, the crispy crust, the pillowy white interior bread, and then a smooth layer of nutty butter in between to complete the whole package.
But what IS Rotiboy really? Is it a Malaysian invention? Or just a name of the company? Apparently it is also called Mexican Coffee Buns. But other than recipes, there doesn’t seem to be many people writing about it! Google search on the JB Sentral Rotiboy only has 9 reviews despite the popularity of the bun, having sold over 400 million buns
The pictures I have isn’t the original flavor – since I wasn’t thinking about writing on Rotiboy until I came back and was only left with a Mocha flavored bun. Rotiboy are pretty decent souvenirs (for 1 day…), since you can reheat it in the oven, but it is still a lot better freshly made.
What is Rotiboy?
To understand what it is, we need to know how it is made. In general, Rotiboys are sweet buns consisting of a fluffy white bread dough and then topped with a coffee infused buttery cookie crust, that is almost cream or frosting texture. Using two separate dough is the key to making Rotiboys, even though they may not look like that when eating it! You add in whatever fillings you want, which for the “normal” version is just a good amount of butter.
Knowing how it is made also solves the question of why it is called a Mexican Coffee Bun. The method is also similar to several other sweet buns which also uses two separate dough (one bread, one cookie), with slightly different ratios and slight variations.
Japanese Melon Pan is dusted with sugar instead of coffee, with small cuts made on the cookie dough to shape the crust into a “melon” like shape. This is similar to Hong Kong Pineapple Buns or Polo buns, with the exception that Pineapple buns seem to be more golden brown due to an egg wash coating on the cookie dough. Both are named as such because of their appearance, but are essentially almost the same thing. However, Polo buns are typically served with butter in Cha Chan Tengs. Grouping these two together makes sense, since they seem to have the same origins, are both named after their appearance looking like a fruit, and are brought over utilizing foreign techniques. According to the Japanese wikipedia page for Melonpan, it seems like one of the popular theories is that both of these sweet breads had their origins in Conchas, a Mexican (bingo!) sweet bread, and Streusel, a German crumbly topping very similar to the cookie dough Melon Pan and Pineapple Buns use. For Melonpan, there are also other popular theories, such as being an invention by an Armenian baker Ivan Sagoyan in 1910, who was brought over to Imperial Hotel. Another is that it is an invention by the shopkeeper of 駒込木村屋 (Komagome Kimuraya, not sure if it is the same shop as the one you can search in Google),
三代川菊次 (Miyokawa Kikuji) as the Utility Model registration with a similar recipe exists.
Another small trivia: Japanese Melon Pan has different names and shapes. The picture above is actually “Sunrise” and the version that I see most commonly online.
At this point of my research I was pretty flustered. I needed to understand a little Japanese, a little Chinese, and then now Mexican too to dig into the history of Rotiboy?? Luckily for me Eater has a fantastic article about Conchas history. Wew!
And yes, Conchas do seem like they use two separate doughs like the other sweet breads mentioned. Instead of sprinkling sugar like Melonpan, or infusing coffee like Rotiboy, Conchas‘ cookie dough is classically flavored with vanilla or chocolate, and carved to look like seashells, or Concha in Spanish. It is said that Conchas are brought over by French pastry chefs when they migrated to Mexico by the 17th century, with brioche-based doughs being the base for conchas, and probably other pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread). But it seems like why bakers started using the second cookie dough still remains a mystery. Many questions answered for me, but even more questions pop up in my investigation.
As for Rotiboy, the bakery itself is founded in April 1998 in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, as a small neighborhood bakery. “Rotiboy” literally means “Breadboy”, with “Roti” being “Bread” in Malay language. The name was inspired by the founder’s brother teasing his nephew, calling him “naughty-boy”.
The story of Rotiboy is one of sound business decisions leading to success. After 4 years of doing just all right, but not great, business moved to USJ15 in Kuala Kumpur. But it was only after the move to Wisma Central in 2002 that business exploded, and thus spreaded across Malaysia and now even to overseas. At the very least in Malaysia, the popularity of the buns made its signature bun known as “Rotiboy” rather than the conchas it was inspired from. But in Singapore… it just didn’t seem to work out and died quickly, with outlets disappearing as if it never existed in the first place.
For the bun, it was an excellent product without the correct exposure to the consumers, created by founder, Hiro Tan’s sister, who had ran bakeries before. And as far as history goes, it seems like not much else can be said except the added Coffee is just a personal spin on conchas.
An Unexciting Conclusion
While the Food Origins of Rotiboy itself was less exciting than I expected, it has piqued my interest in these types of two dough breads sharing a common ancestry in conchas. The Eater article is a great resource for the history of Conchas, and this blog post is pretty comprehensive for the history of pan dulce, but there obviously still remains gaps in why and how bakers started using two doughs. Until I find out more, that is all for Rotiboy.