Where Does Roti Come From?

About half way through a semester in this class, Global Noodles, I realize I have no idea what it’s about. The semester prior I’d happened upon it while choosing classes for my final semester at NYU. I had one more requirement to fulfill for graduation, and I’d put it off until the very end: a premodern history class. The first sentence of the description for Global Noodles was: “Is this class just an excuse to eat noodles? Yes!” I stopped reading there. A history class involving eating? Sounds like the only way I could stomach my least favorite topic. I have never been able to really let go of my immature, elementary feelings towards the subject: who cares? But alas, I definitely wanted to graduate and I knew this was what I needed to do to get there.

So, as I was having midterms in my other classes, I was still trying to decipher when the “big thing” would happen in Noodles, and what it would be: will the professor pop a 15-page research paper on us? Will we end up getting tested on the abundant readings? One day in recitation, we were shown a short film about the origins of roti. While I’m prone to zone out when hearing about something I’m not particularly familiar with or interested in, I was drawn to this story. The filmmaker, Richard Fung, posed a question I’d asked myself before: where exactly does Roti come from? I’ve seen roti on multiple menus across cuisines yet I had never ordered it nor tried it. I’d heard the term “roti shop,” which I’d entered into my mind as “indian burrito” and was on my list of places to visit. To my surprise, however, Fung traces his idea of roti to Trinidad, a place I knew next to nothing on. 

When the film ended there was a short discussion about various aspects of the film, but then we moved on to other things. Neither the film nor roti were directly mentioned again. Yet I found myself continuing to think about this interesting dish beyond the classroom. When friends and family would ask me about this mysterious class, I found myself wanting to talk to them about my new found knowledge about Trinidad.

When Christopher  Columbus first came upon the island of Trinidad around 1500, it was populated with indigenous Carib-Indians. Over the next 300 years, europeans from Spain, France, and Britain settled on the island and brought their slaves with them to work on sugarcane and other plantations. By 1800, the island was in the hands of the British government. Slavery was abolished by Britain in 1834, meaning all of the settlers’ slaves were free. This, however, causes a shortage of labor. To deal with this, indentured workers were brought over from China, India, and Portugal to work on the plantations. In 1962, Trinidad gained independance from England and, together with neighboring island Tobago, became the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 1976.

Clearly, the island had become a diverse melting pot. With their various cultural backgrounds, people brought recipes and foods from their native countries. Further, the recipes had to be adapted to both meet the needs of the people and substitute ingredients with what was available on the island. For example, the indentured workers from India brought with them their recipes for and inclinations towards curry and roti. Curry is prominent in Indian cuisine and is always served with some sort of “roti,” or bread. In Trinidad, this staple dish was adapted so that instead of dipping roti in curry, the curry was folded into the roti as a portable wrap. Further, a notable difference between curry found in India and Trinidad is the level of spice; this is because the hot peppers of India are not found on the island. Therefore, recipes had to be adjusted. Roti in the Trinidadian fashion became an extremely popular food, and “roti shops” can be found all throughout the island.

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So, while I have no real personal ties to the dish, I chose roti as “my artifact” for the class because it peaked my curiousity. All of a sudden I found myself interested in a less-talked-about history and wanted to know more.First Encounter with Roti

Prior to this class, I considered myself a real “foodie.” It’s a term I’ve welcomed into my self-concept over the past eight years. As I child, I was a “picky eater;” my range of foods was chicken fingers and pizza, with nothing in between or beyond. My world shifted while on the way to a party in early high school. I was in the car with a new friend, and her parents were driving. They’d brought food for us to eat before they dropped us off: sushi from their restaurant. Immediately tense, I decided I had to eat it. I didn’t want to disappoint my new friend or come off as rude to her parents. After one bite of a spicy tuna roll, I was hooked. From that point on, I relished in every opportunity to try new foods and visit new restaurants.

While I of course still love food and restaurants, Noodles has made me much more aware of all things I haven’t tried, and has made me realize there are some things I am more resistant to try. The class has also opened my eyes to the way I choose restaurants. I grew up in the interior design world and have a great appreciation, and perhaps also expectation in a way, for decor. I also, though am embarrassed to say, tend to be drawn to “trendy” places. I am a millennial girl who loves Instagram and is drawn to places that food bloggers feature, notably places that offer a “clean and comfortable” way to experience various cuisines. This class, however, has challenged some of the ways that I think about restaurants and the commodification of foreign cuisines.

Once I had chosen roti for my final project, I knew it was time to actually try it for myself for the first time. After getting outside of my comfort zone for an earlier assignment, where I travelled to Brooklyn’s Chinatown for some “authentic” noodles, I knew I needed to resist my urge to go somewhere that felt familiar. I did a search for Trinidadian restaurants near me and found that there was a large collection of them in the Crown Heights/Flatbush area. I decided on the one that was easiest to get to (just a stroll in Prospect Park away) and headed there after class one Wednesday.

The particular shop I chose was small with just a few two-seater tables, clearly made for fast dining and takeout. I was in line behind an average looking, middle-aged white man and an older asian woman with tattoos up her arm. There were a couple of people sitting at the tables. A black man was behind the counter making the wraps. Whether valid or not, I felt relief that no one looked like me or like each other. Above the counter was a simple menu giving the options for the types of wraps, as well as some other, non-wrap items. As I got closer to the counter, I saw that there were other, unlabeled ingredients that could be added to a wrap. When it was my turn to order, I asked what they were however was only able to distinguish one as “hot sauce” through the man’s thick caribbean accent. I went for a boneless chicken roti with what looked like spinach and hot sauce. The man pulled out a roti skin from a cooler and filled it with chicken, potatoes, chickpeas, (possibly) spinach and a drizzle of hot sauce. He wrapped it up in an uncomplicated way, just sort of folding the ends over and then wrapped in wax paper.

Based on its massive size, I decided to bring it home to eat as to not completely embarrass myself. I ended up using a knife and fork because it was just becoming too much of a mess. Perhaps it was just because of my inexperience with eating the dish, but I couldn’t imagine eating this “on the go” at work, as roti is often eaten in Trinidad. To be honest I found the taste a bit bland: between the bread and the potatoes, the “carb” taste was pretty overbearing. I wasn’t really able to taste the spices or the curry. By the end, there was a lot of bread leftover that I’d pulled off while eating, but I was distinctly stuffed.

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All in all, I don’t think a full roti wrap is something I could eat daily. It is definitely a heavy and filling dish. On my next roti tasting excursion, I think I will leave it up to the shopkeeper to choose the ingredients. Perhaps if I’d chosen different/more additions, the taste would have been more powerful.

Making Roti

I am a bit of a perfectionist. Not necessarily in terms of performance– I don’t beat myself up over mistakes and shortcomings– but more in regards to effort, in a way. I always want to make the best possible choices. In psychology this is called being a “maximizer.” So when it came time to make roti for myself, to be served to my group at a dinner party, I wanted to be sure I was using the “best” recipes. I also knew that I didn’t have enough time to make multiple batches. My schedule pretty much granted me the night before and the morning of the dinner party in which to prepare my dish. Therefore, this was a one-shot deal.

As I started to look up recipes, I was brought back to my prior roti confusion. The term itself corresponds to different things in different places. For example, in Trinidad, it typically refers to the whole wrap including the curry filling. In India, it refers to just the flatbread (in Trinidad this would just be called “roti skin”). Further, there are different varieties of roti/roti skins: dhal puri, sada, paratha, etc. Each has a distinct style of preparation and ingredients.

Most of the recipes I found were on blogs, and therefore were enmeshed in stories or other writing. Through reading these posts I began to get a grasp on what the various types of roti entailed, however there were still discrepancies between the recipes. These were recipes passed down through generations and along the way it seemed that people had adapted them to fit personal and environmental needs, much like Indian recipes had been adapted in Trinidad.

From what I could gather, dhal puri is commonly used as the “roti skin” for wraps in Trinidad. Based on the complexity of its preparation, coupled with my cooking inexperience, I decided to just make the bread and leave the curry filling for another time. Because of the differences between the recipes, I referenced six dhal puri recipes when putting together my grocery list. I negotiated which recipes seemed more “authentic,” how much I thought I’d be making, and what ingredients I wanted to use.

I was excited to go the grocery store with a mission, and to look for things I’d never bought before. I hit my first obstacle in produce: the recipes all called for “hot peppers,” though didn’t say what kind. One of the recipes had specified “scotch bonnet pepper” which I did not see. Humorously, I realized this must have been how the Indians in Trinidad felt when they couldn’t find their spiciest peppers on the island and had to improvise. Thankfully, Whole Foods had little descriptions under each pepper explaining their spiciness factor and what they are commonly used in. I ended up going with habanero, as it was the second spiciest and “is commonly used in Caribbean cuisine. The rest of the ingredients were pretty straightforward: flour, split chickpeas, baking soda, vegetable oil, garlic, turmeric, and cumin.

When I got home, I knew the only thing I could do that night was let the chickpeas soak overnight. I wanted the roti to be fresh for the dinner party so I wanted to make it the day of. The next morning, I drained the chickpeas and boiled them in water and spices for twenty minutes. While they cooled, I started on the dough. Having never made dough before, I was surprised by how quickly flour and water became dough. I was also surprised by how tough it is to knead; I definitely felt like I was getting an arm workout. Once I got a good consistency, I wrapped the dough in plastic wrap to sit and went back to the filling. I put the soft, cool chickpeas into my Magic Bullet with spices, garlic, and the habanero pepper and pulsed it until it was a grainy texture.

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The next step was the most interesting part for me. After rolling out the dough and breaking it apart into golf-ball sized pieces, I then rolled out each sphere into flat circles. From there, I put the flattened dough in the palm of my hand and filled it with the chickpea filling. I then closed the bread around the filling like a dumpling and flattened the stuffed dough once again. I had not expected the process to be like this; I had figured the filling would somehow have been mixed in when making the dough (is my cooking inexperience showing?). Once all the dough had been flattened, stuffed, and flattened again, I wrapped each round in plastic wrap and proudly set them in a container in the fridge.

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I brought my big bag of roti and various cooking materials to work with me and spent the day secretly researching how I was going to cook these little dough flats. Once my shift was over, I started on my trek downtown. I realized halfway there that, since I’d abandoned the curry, I didn’t have anything to accompany the roti. I remembered in my research that plain roti is often served with chutney, so stopped into Whole Foods. Unsure what exactly “chutney” was, I headed over to the aisle with “ethnic” foods. I was surprised to find it quite easily amongst the other condiments, and that the flavors were either spicy, sweet, or a mix of both; I pretty arbitrarily decided on a mango chutney.

Once I got to our host Katie’s apartment, I started on the cooking process. I had brought a bit of leftover filling that I had, so I repeated the process of rolling out the dough, filling it, and rolling it out again. This time, I rolled it out so that it was super thin and quite large in diameter. From there, the process was pretty straight-forward: oil a frying pan and cook the roti for about 4 minutes on each side. Once they were all cooked, I folded them up the way I’d seen on the recipes and served them with a dollop of chutney.

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All in all, I think the dhal puri turned out pretty well; both my group members and myself seemed to enjoy it as one of the appetizers to the rest of the meal. It was thin, yet filling. I had been weary about how the spiced dhal puri would taste with such a sweet chutney, but they complemented each other’s rich flavors. While making this dish was definitely time consuming, I was surprised by how straightforward the process was. Even with my very limited cooking experience, I was able to make roti all by myself on my first try.

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Making Roti (Again)

I’m all about “setting scenes:” playing jazz music on a rainy day, lighting candles after a bad day, eating an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. I get a sense of satisfaction by surrendering to what the day has dealt and letting my emotions dictate my sensory environment.

I got home after my excruciating long Monday and stared at my nearly empty fridge; Sundays are my only day off, and grocery shopping was the last thing I’d wanted to do the day before. I spotted a couple of cling-wrapped roti sitting on the bottom shelf next to a carton of eggs and decided to make a breakfast-for-dinner type of thing. I brought out my rolling pin, which I had just used for the first time when first making the roti at the dinner party after having had it for three years, and started on the discs of roti dough.

I felt a sense of peace roll over me as I rolled out the dough, something I rarely feel on a Monday night; I’m usually too exhausted to do much more than put something in the microwave. As I became aware of this tranquil feeling, I thought about how natural this type of domestic labor is in other cultures. I recalled in my research that in Trinidad roti is eaten all times of day. That means that whether it’s first thing in the morning or after a long day of work, or even in the middle of the workday, Trinidadians are rolling out their dough to provide food for themselves and their families. Naturally, I’m sure the process feels more like muscle memory over time with practice. Still, it was humbling to experience making roti on an “ordinary” type of day, in contrast to my prior super-planned cooking of the dish.

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All that is to say, this Monday night dinner wasn’t my typical “set” scene. Yet the physical aspects of rolling out the dough and flipping it on the pan felt familiar and soothing, even after only have made it once before. Instead of succumbing to the exhausting day and ordering Seamless, I was able to find comfort in this foreign dish that was starting to find a way into my heart.

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Roti in NYC

While walking up to Smorgasburg at Prospect Park last weekend, I got a familiar sense of anxiety; every time I go to that type of market I am overwhelmed by all the interesting types of food, and by my feeling of wanting to try them all but only having $20 in cash. However, towards the end of my first lap of getting a sense of what was available, I happened upon “Parantha Alley.” My eyes were immediately drawn to this sign:

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It looked to familiar- I knew this process! It was the same process I’d used to make my dhal puri. I remembered seeing paratha (or parantha) roti in my recipe research: it is called “buss up shut” in Trinidad, because it resembles a “burst up shirt.” It differs from regular roti in that it is beaten while on the tawa (or frying pan), giving it a flakey texture. It’s typically pulled apart and dipped into curry or chutney.

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The image of the process, however, looked more like the dhal puri that I had made. I had to try it, so I ordered the keema (chicken) and the and a (eggs). For $8, you get two paranthas with sides of cucumber raita (yogurt), cilantro chutney, marinated onions, and mango chutney; honestly, quite a steal at Smorgasburg. I couldn’t really see the cooking process in action, but it looked very similar to my dhal puri. I suppose the main difference was the filling.

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Seeing parantha amongst the huge variety of other “foreign” foods got me thinking: how did Trinidadian roti get to the United States? After a bit of research, I learned that the immigration of Trinidadians to the US was “spasmodic,” meaning it occurred in brief, irregular waves. The main draw was labor, as there was a high unemployment rate in Trinidad following World War 1. There was also a wave that started in the 1960s when American immigration laws changed, in part due to the civil rights movement. Other Caribbean immigrants had already started in communities in New York City, particularly the Flatbush and Crown Heights neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Since they were part of a racial minority and had accents and norms different than Americans, many Trinidadians joined these communities as a means of “fitting in.”

While Parantha Alley was first and foremost an Indian food stand, I was surprised to see a process that so resembled my chosen artifact. Throughout my research, cooking and eating of roti, I’ve gained this interesting relationship with the dish. I loved that it was such an organic process of coming across roti, and through non-traditional ways of research, learning so much about it and where it came from. I don’t think I know anywhere as near as much about the history, cooking process, or particulars of any other type of food. Going forward, I think I will definitely be more interested in learning about the origins and customs associated with , and really just food in general. As someone who is not psyched about history, food was a fun channel through which I was able to enjoyably navigate the subject.



 

References

Bland, Sarina. “Trinidadian Roti – An Overview.” TriniGourmet.com. May 13, 2010. http://www.trinigourmet.com/index.php/trinidadian-roti-an-overview/

Campbell, Bradley. “There’s Roti, and Then There’s Trinidadian Roti. And It’s Awesome.” Public Radio International. July 17, 2014. http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-07-17/theres-roti-and-then-theres-trinidadian-roti-and-its-awesome.

De La Rosa, Christopher. “The Ultimate Dhalpuri Recipe.” CaribbeanPot.com. September 23, 2011. http://caribbeanpot.com/the-ultimate-dhalpuri-recipe/.

Facey, Tonya. “Homemade Dhal Puri Roti.” Whats On My Plate. January 13, 2014. http://whatsonmyplate.net/2014/01/13/homemade-dhal-puri-roti/.

Dal Puri Diaspora. Directed by Richard Fung. By Richard Fung. Ontario: V Tape, 2012. DVD.

“Trinidadian and Tobagonian Immigration.” Immigration to North America. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://immigrationtous.net/297-trinidadian-and-tobagonian-immigration.html.

Murrell, N. Samuel. “Trinidadian and Tobagonian Americans.” Countries and Their Cultures. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Sr-Z/Trinidadian-and-Tobagonian-Americans.html.

Nelson, Cynthia. “Notes on Dhal Puri.” Stabroek News. March 19, 2011. http://www.stabroeknews.com/2011/the-scene/tastes-like-home/03/19/notes-on-dhal-puri/.

Nelson, Cynthia. “Caribbean Dhal Puri Recipe.” About.com Food. February 23, 2016. http://latinfood.about.com/od/rice-recipes/r/Dhal-Puri-recipe.htm.

Padilla, Felix. “Dhal Puri Roti.” Simply Trini Cooking. October 28, 2008. http://www.simplytrinicooking.com/dhal-puri-roti/.

Phillips, Sawyer. “A Brief History Of Curry And Roti In Trinidad.” Big Belly Roti Shop. July 13, 2015. https://bigbellyroti.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/a-brief-history-of-curry-and-roti-in-trinidad/.

Shiue, Linda. “Inviting Writing: Trinidadian Roti.” Smithsonian.com. December 27, 2011. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/inviting-writing-trinidadian-roti-12513815/.

Singh, Usha. “Dhal Puri.” Healthy Vegetarian Foods. July 4, 2014. http://www.healthyvegetarianfoods.co.za/dhal-puri-3.

“Trinidad and Tobago : History.” The Commonwealth. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/trinidad-and-tobago/history.

“Trinidad & Tobago History.” Trinidad and Tobago. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.gotrinidadandtobago.com/trinidad-tobago-history/.