King of the roti palace

Donna Yawching takes refuge from Canada’s cold in the heat of the Roti Palace

Iqbal Hosein, owner of the Caribbean Roti Palace. Photograph by Donna Yawching

It’s a frigid January morning in Toronto; but in the kitchen of the Caribbean Roti Palace, the temperature is almost tropical.

Over a low black stove, Iqbal Hosein is sautéing onions for chicken stock—the first step in his tasty curries. The chicken bones are boiling in a big pot, the Cuisinart is mincing carrots and celery, and in the background, one of his staff is rolling out roti skins.

It’s culinary choreography, each step planned and precise. “Everybody has a specialised function,” Hosein explains. “I have a lady who will come on evenings to fill the rotis with dhalpuri, so all we need to do right now is roll and cook.”

His job is making the curries—sometimes as many as six or seven times a day—and it is done to well-defined, carefully followed rules.

“By law, in Canada, if you’re running a food establishment, you have to make sure you handle your food in a manner that’s acceptable,” Hosein says, as he stirs in the chopped vegetables and tomato purée.

Thermometers are everywhere. Temperature control can be a challenge, particularly on a hot summer day, when the refrigerators have trouble maintaining their cool.

But Hosein never seems to lose his. He’s been doing this for 20 years, and he’s on top of his game. On a busy summer day, he may sell 300–400 rotis—not to mention innumerable doubles, aloo pies, and banana Solos.

On those days, he says, “I might come here at eight in the morning, and leave at 10 at night; it’s so busy I don’t even get lunch. When you’re working, you don’t eat.

“I have a schedule. The big board (on the wall) tells me how much food I have on hand; it’s my planning board. So let’s say I have to cook goat; I know I have to thaw out the goat on a specific day.”

In the winter, when things are quieter—fewer people willing to venture out of their homes—he’ll come in a bit later, and: “If there’s nothing for me to do, I’m gone! I go to the coffee shop in Kensington; if they’re running out of something, they’ll call me and I’ll come back.”

Hosein, 52, grew up in Valsayn, Trinidad. He bought the Roti Palace in 1988, seven years after moving to Canada. It’s a long, split-level room, with enlarged photos of Trinidad and Tobago staggered along the walls. No Trini entering the place can resist the challenge of identifying the different scenes: Maracas, Macqueripe, Pirate’s Bay, Stollmeyer’s Castle and—everyone’s favourite—an old-time picture of the Croisee, a hopeless tangle of traffic and people and overhead wires. “You know how many people want to buy that one?” chortles Hosein.

When he bought the restaurant, he knew nothing about roti-making, so he kept on the previous owner’s staff, and learned on the job. “You try different stuff,” he shrugs. “I see different people cooking. I have a friend who’s a chef; I see how they do fine food and figure out how to apply that to my cooking. I grind my own spices, I do my own roasting; I use them to season the meat. I play with the spices to get different tastes: just a slight variation, nothing big, just to make it unique. I learned that from those fine-dining chefs.”

The stock is ready; now the big coalpots make their appearance.

“This is traditional, this is how we cook in Trinidad,” says Hosein, adding curry powder to the oil and stirring furiously. “I remember my mom always said, ‘Don’t burn the curry.’ You keep your eyes on it all the time.”

Old advice, new techniques. The end result is a very good roti, as I am happy to testify. I’m also happy to know that Hosein has no intention of changing occupations any time soon—or ever.

“I can’t see myself in any other kind of business,” he muses. “I’ve been in this for 20 years, and I know what I have to do.”

 

Glossary

Roti: unleavened bread like a more flexible tortilla, often wrapped around a filling of curried meat and/or vegetables

Dhalpuri: dried split peas

Aloo: potato

Doubles: fried dough wrapped around curried channa (chickpeas)

Solo: brand name of a sweet drink (soda) made in Trinidad