A Roti to Die For

The life and times of a Trinidadian invention. Niala Maharaj goes in search of the World's Greatest Roti-Shop

Illustrations by Christopher CozierIllustrations by Christopher CozierIllustrations by Christopher CozierIllustrations by Christopher CozierIllustrations by Christopher CozierIllustrations by Christopher CozierIllustrations by Christopher Cozier

The roti, to the Trinidadian, is what the bagel is to the New Yorker. Invented in Trinidad, it is based on culinary ideas brought by immigrants from India in the last century. Roti, in Hindi, implies a savoury pancake. It may be plain (sada), stuffed with spicy ground lentils (dalphourie), or folded over and over into a pastry, like dream (paratha). The Trinidadian roti, however, is a mutant species: curried meat and vegetables are slapped into the centre of the roti, pancake and folded into a thick, chunky snack that tastes like nothing else on earth.

When I die and go to heaven–as some people doubt I will – the first thing I’m going to do is look for Thin-Dolly’s Roti Shop. Thin-Dolly herself may not deserve to go to heaven, but heaven would not be heaven without Thin-Dolly’s roti. It stands to reason that any God worth HIS name would press Thin-Dolly into service as Roti-maker to the Righteous for all eternity, as a punishment for her sins.

Thin-Dolly was the first roti-maker in my life. She was the evening cook at my uncle’s snackette in east Trinidad. The correct pronunciation of her name was Tin-door-lie. In no way was she to be confused with Fat-Dolly, the morning, cook. First of all, Fat-Dolly was fat, as her name suggests. Her body quivered and jiggled as she wielded her rolling pin every morning. Then, Fat-Dolly had that habit fat people are reputed to have. She laughed. Fat-Dolly would giggle at anything – a customer with his hat on back-to-front, a cockroach running across the floor, a leaf blowing through the door. Not a good sign in a roti-maker. None of the creative tension that great art and roti-making requires.

Thin-Dolly by contrast, regarded roti-making as a labour of hate. Beginning work at dusk, when my uncle’s “snackette” transmuted miraculously into a “rum-shop” where the dregs of society gathered to spit and circulate and challenge each other to fight, Thin-Dolly’s presence in the kitchen was like that of Grim Reaper. Standing over the kerosene stove, her thin legs rigid, her scrawny arms stretched to turn a large pot of curry, she somehow managed to convey the message that all flesh was grass, that  we were all food for worms, and that she was certainly not amused by the silly antics of lowly worm-food.

Not that I ever heard her say anything to that effect. I never heard Thin-Dolly talk. Thin-Dolly was the world’s greatest mutterer. “These potatoes only good to feed hog,” was the main gist of her utterances.

And yet, out of those hog, food potatoes, those chickens “that look like they dead from mirasme”, that flour that was “more weevil than flour”, Thin-Dolly concocted a roti that would make any other roti simply lie down and die. Her curries had a rich, thick muskiness, the pancakes had the delicacy of the Queen of England’s skin. I think Thin-Dolly must have been a Kali-worshipper or something. She had a direct connection with powerful forces in the spiritual world that directed the flow of curry-energy.

For a year, I ate a Thin-Dolly roti every evening. I was studying for my O Levels, and needed brain-food. Halfway through my evening slog, at around ten o’clock, my brain professed itself hungry. It needed fuel for the rigours to come. I would creep downstairs, stand by the door of the kitchen, and Thin-Dolly would ignore me. I would hover, looking like I needed to go to the toilet. Thin-Dolly might grunt. But God protects fools and little children. Eventually, Thin-Dolly would begin muttering imprecations to the roti she was making. Abruptly she would slam a roti-pancake onto a square of greasy brown paper, bang a heap of curried chicken into the centre as if she wished it was rat-poison instead, whisk the whole thing together, twisting the ends to close it, and shove it along the counter in my direction.

“Heh!”  she might belch.

That translates as “Here: that’s for you,” to those who had closely studied the nuances of Thin-Dolly dialect.

The result was that I passed my O Levels.

After that, life went downhill. There were A Levels to study for. And I moved away from living at my uncle’s “snackette”, so Thin-Dolly’s roti ceased to make its contribution to my academic career. And then, Thin-Dolly died. Ceased to exist. Vanished without a trace, leaving not a recipe behind.

Life seemed not worth living. Or maybe it was just adulthood that was not worth living. You had to buy your own roti once you got out of high school. Or even, God forbid, make it.

There are those who say that the demise of Thin-Dolly marked the beginnings of The Roti’s heyday. That’s rubbish, of course.

Thin-Dolly’s death took place in the early seventies. The occasion was unmarked, unregarded, because the population of Trinidad was swept up in Black Power. Suddenly, black was beautiful. Roti was designated as black. And intellectual.

“Copious supplies of roti will be available”, I read on a leaflet for a fund-raising event being held at the university. It was an exercise in defiance. Roti had always been an icon in Trinidad, an icon of degradation. “Coolie, coolie come for roti,” black children would chant derisively at Indian children in the nation’s playgrounds, until a black nationalist political party began bribing people to attend its rallies by distributing food and “Rum-and-Roti Politics” was launched. Roti was a symbol of lowlife, of political, spiritual and cultural degradation, of unfamiliarity with the white-bread sandwich. But now, Ethnicity was In. Office workers in ties began eating roti. Roti even started to keep company with white paper-napkins. O tempes, O mores.

Of course, this was not roti that Thin-Dolly would even spit at. It was a kind of plastic edition, roti for the masses, not for those who had once braved Thin-Dolly’s eloquent shoulder, blades. But human indecency knows no bounds. They didn’t just leave it at this, the popularisers. Roti suddenly started growing fat. More meat started creeping in. Huge chunks of protein began spilling out, leaking curry all over your hands. Gone, entirely gone, were the days when you had to search for Thin-Dolly’s tiny morsels of bony chicken, crunching them up to get all the flavour out. And, to add insult to the ghost of Thin-Dolly, roti began to get luxurious. Instead of the truncated dalphourie-pancake, where the lentils were just a sniff away from existence that had been the hallmark of maestros like Thin-Dolly, Mangal’s in Port-of-Spain started using “home-made-style” dalphourie. Now, when you bit into a roti, you risked having a shower of lentils descend on your business suit. It was pure decadence. That kind of roti was only meant to be eaten off a plate. with the curry on the side, on a special occasion. What was the use of Thin-Dolly having lived, if we by-passed her innovations and wen back to source?

But Trinidadians were determined to spit in history’s face, to pollute the pure. Now, Hott Shoppe began adding other filling to the rotis they sold, plundering the culinary stock of my ancestors. You could get roti with bodi, roti with pumpkin, ever the Sacred of Sacred, the food previously only served at weddings – Roti with Chick Peas.

There were no lengths to which Trinidadians wouldn’t go, it  seemed, to drag the humble roti into the limelight of mass consumption. They began adding other genres of roti-pancake to their repertoire. Paratha, for instance – though they tried to soften the blow to the Indian home by disguising it with an alias, Buss-up-shot (or burst-up shirt, for those not steeped in Trinidad pronunciation), since it ends up looking like a ragged white shirt. They stooped so low as to drag sada roti (sada meaning “dry, greaseless” in Hindi) out of its hiding place as the most boring, mundane element of the Indian diet, and elevate it into health food.

By now, roti could no longer be contained in “snackettes” like my uncle’s, governed over by legends like Thin-Dolly. Roti shops turned into emporia. With all that never-ending variety of fillings, Patraj’s in EI Socorro had to resort to gleaming stainless-steel. The whole thing began to look like a weirder version of the salad bar, that peculiarly American invention. It was only a matter of time before the business became franchisable with Outlets. Soon, city-folk could claim Patraj-patronage without the adventure of disturbing class lines and entering The Croisee, one of Trinidad’s most “colourful” districts.

And, of course, the inevitable happened. Roti entered The Shopping Mall.

It was all glass cases and roti-chefs in tall hats. Hosein’s introduced the Mini-Roti, forgetting that Thin-Dolly and Co. had made it mini in the first place. But the Thin-Dollies of this world were nowhere in evidence. Roti-makers were now on display, rolling and baking pancakes before the very eyes of the customers. And they certainly weren’t old, garlic-scented Indian women with dingy towels tied around their heads. Svelte black girls with upwardly mobile skin-tone wielded those japnas instead, looking like they had GCE passes and a modelling contract or two.

Where would the roti go next? It had exhausted the resources of modern enterprise. There was only one direction now-back. Back to roots, to the era of Thin-Dolly.

Now here’s where I’m going to give you the tip that will make this whole trip through time and space and the Caribbean worthwhile. Here’s where I’m going to reveal the secret the world has been waiting for: the location of the Greatest Roti Shop on Earth. I hope I’ve established my credentials: palate tuned early by the late, great Thin-Dolly, curry-genes created by centuries of pure Indian blood (though the Indians would like to forget this fact), decades spent roaming the globe, sampling roti wherever it has spread – in the snowy wastes of Toronto, among the descendants of the pilgrim fathers in Boston, to the beat of reggae in Brixton, in the clog-footed Low Countries of Europe, at dizzy heights in New York, and on the great Indian subcontinent itself where the art of curry-innovation has been abandoned to the science of computer programming.

Now, if you, yourself, are content to remain at a conventional level of root consumption, I would recommend you repair to the admirable roti-establishments mentioned in the earlier sections of this treatise. If you are one of those driven by haste, by the deprivations of a bland European diet, then a roti from Hott Shoppe, Hosein’s or Patraj will send you swooning into the stratosphere (be sure to have a drink with you).

If you want to re-establish contacts with roti-roots while in North America, check out Drupattie’s in Toronto. It has the old ambience: it’s a hole in the wall of a grimy grocery shop. You have to eat your roti in your car, which is not an uncourageous thing to do. But the roti-pancake is rich – soft, spicy and sondhar (as we connoisseurs are wont to say) – and the curry is quite okay.

If you have an attack of roti deprivation in Europe, head immediately for Riaz in Amsterdam. You’ll have to adjust to – horror of horrors – an unfolded roti. The poor cooks there are from Suriname, not Trinidad, where the art of roti-presentation was perfected. The roti-pancake is less rich, the curry less flavourful. But overall, the quality will keep you from going into delirium tremens in the Old World.

If you come to the mecca of roti (Trinidad), however, and wish to experience the real thing, you might try a roti from off the street in St James. The ladies hovering over portable stoves there on evenings are a vague imitation of the late, lamented T, D, thin, tight-lipped and terse (avoid any garrulous anomalies). The roti-pancake is spartan, as befits their attempt to maintain The Great Tradition. The curries are sparse in quantity and reasonable in quality – nothing to shout about, but nothing to jeer at either. But the ambience is one of the best in Trinidad. Rum-shops abound. You get the distinct sniff of medium/lowlife. You might bump into a drunken cabinet minister being ejected from Smokey and Bunty or a few distinguished colleagues of mine, full of beer and journalistic self-worth. You’ll be accosted by a couple fake Rastas.

But this still doesn’t add up to the Greatest Roti Shop on Earth. So without further ado, I will reveal the name. But you have to be prepared to travel. You have to be ready to move out of the capital, Port of Spain. You may even – to increase the intensity of the experience – choose to take a Maxi-Taxi down the Priority Bus Route that straddles the East-West Corridor. For The Greatest Roti Shop in the World is in the east of Trinidad. In a little village called Tacarigua, off the Eastern Main Road. It’s on the last street before Dinsley Junction, across from Trincity Housing Estate. Got that? Well, don’t worry. Just get to Tacarigua, stop people on the street and ask where Aptie’s is.

Now I warn you. Aptie’s roti is not Thin-Dolly’s roti. For that, you have to die and go to heaven. But I will lay down my Indian soul that it’s the best living species of root that the human race has at its disposal today. The roti-pancakes are as delicate and cumin-y as Ma ever them; the curries are bursting with pride and ambition. There’s none of that vast variety business that only dislocates your taste-buds.  Pumpkin does not jumble up with carilee and shrimps and curried mango – and end up looking like a bad day in Bosnia. Aptie’s is for purists, those who don’t want to pretend they’re at home or at an Indian wedding.

The drinks  are serious drinks-cum-desserts. Meant for real men – the kind who wield a hammer or blow-torch. (They all have a reputation for putting some fizz in your buzz.)  Soursop, peanut punch, and, glory of glories, Aptie’s seamoss, made with seaweed and milk, and if wished, wheat germ. The last is a concoction that has to be tasted to be believed, a world sensation waiting to be discovered, which ought to be immediately patented.

Aptie and Mrs Aptie, a young, handsome, well-dressed couple, have hit on the notion that separates food from food processing: do a few things, do them to perfection, and then close up shop. They close shop at 3 p.m. No hanging around for people who don’t respect their art enough to get in early. When the Apties go on holiday, the shop is closed for the duration. You have to admire that kind of restraint. No second, best cooking is going to pollute the purity of their life-work – no matter how much money it brings in.

Thus Aptie’s has the ambience. It’s a roti-shop. Nothing more, nothing less. Formica abounds, but clean formica, befitting a roti-shop of pedigree. There’s no stainless steel, no showcase roti-cooks. You place your order at the counter, and it is transmitted through a hatch at the back, through which your roti then appears. The sacred privacy of the great roti-cook is respected.

The place has a hushed atmosphere. Patrons concentrate on the sacred business at hand, eating roti. There’s none of that loose hustle and bustle and saying hello to friends and catching up on gossip that goes on in sinful Port of Spain. Aptie and Mrs Aptie are solemn about their business. You have the feeling that there’s someone in control here. You’re in good hands. You’re being looked after by someone who doesn’t take your needs lightly. There’s no joking and laughing and currying-favour with customers.

The spirit of Thin-Dolly is alive and well. Amen.