Our final dinner course was the classic Trini meal of roti and curry. “Roti” in Trinidad refers to both the Indian flatbread and the bread wrapped around a curried filling to make a handheld meal, the equivalent of a burrito. At our dinner, we served the roti on the side with the classic Trini-style chicken curry and its partner in crime, a yellow split pea dal. For the story on what roti means to a Trini, please read, my story here, originally published in Smithsonian Magazine.
Ravenous for Roti
Ask any Trinidadians what they’re hungry for, and the answer will be “roti.” This refers not only to the Indian flatbread itself, but the curried fillings which make Trinidadian roti the best hand-held meal you’ll find. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpouri roti, which is filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. You wrap the roti around some of your curry filling and eat it like a burrito. It’s sold as a common “fast” food in Trinidad (the cooking of the curry is not fast but the serving of it into freshly prepared rotis is) but also prized enough to be served at family gatherings and celebrations. For members of the Trinidadian diaspora, like my husband, the hunger for roti is profound. If you live in New York, it is not too far of a trip to find yourself a decent roti—Richmond Hill in Queens is home to a large Trinidadian and Guyanese community. Trinidad itself is only about a five-hour flight away. But if you are on the West Coast, you’re out of luck. Visiting Trinidad requires almost a full day of air travel. Last time we checked, there was only one Trinidadian roti shop in our area, over in Oakland. It was a musty, dim (as in unlit until customers rang the buzzer) shop, and the owner was equally dour. Even as I paid for our lunch, I felt the need to apologize for intruding. The rotis were pallid, dry and lifeless.
They were nothing like the roti I had devoured in Trinidad. On my first trip to my husband’s home, my future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo. What’s tattoo? Better known around here as armadillo. Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of culinary delights I had never imagined. On this trip, which happened over Christmas, I was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. I was presented with plate after plate of curried dishes, condiments (including kuchila, tamarind sauce and fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce), pastelles (similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins) and the rice dish pelau. Since then, I’ve learned to cook a pretty mean curry myself. But I have not yet mastered the art of roti making, and this is a cause for sorrow. We make do with eating curry and rice when we are without roti, but whenever we can find time and an excuse to go to New York, we have one mission: procure roti.
There is no such thing as “going too far” to sate the hunger of the expatriate. When it is for something as tasty as Trinidadian roti, a cross-country flight is not considered unreasonable. So we go to New York for a Christmastime visit to my New York-by-way-of-Trinidad in-laws. There is no Christmas goose or ham on the dining table at this Trinidadian Christmas celebration. When we announce our plans to visit, our family knows to make the obligatory run to Singh’s for curry goat and chicken, aloo pie and doubles, to bring it over to my mother-in-law’s for a welcome feast. But they have also learned over the years that they should check in with us for our “to go” order of unfilled roti. We’ll order half a dozen each of dhalpouri roti and paratha, carefully triple wrap them individually, and freeze them overnight to bring back with us to San Francisco. By the time we get back, they are starting to defrost, but they’re the first thing we unpack (and refreeze), because this is some precious loot. The handful of homesick Trinidadians we’ve collected over the years here is always thrilled when we organize a curry night, and there is never enough roti.
Trinidad-style Chicken Curry
Curry lovers will find the Trinidadian-style curry to be quite different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries in that no coconut milk or cream is added to the sauce. The result is a more intense curry flavor and a thinner sauce.
-2-3 # of meat on the bone, cut in 2”-3” chunks: can be chicken (only dark meat), goat, or even tattoo if you’ve got some
-Curry powder, Trinidad blend if at all possible
-Rum, such as Trinidad’s Vat 19
-Green seasoning (a homemade blend of various herbs including cilantro, culantro, chives and others)
-Pepper sauce (Scotch bonnet or habanero)
-Garlic, 2-3 cloves, minced
-1 Onion, coarsely chopped
-3 Potatoes, cubed
1. Marinate cut up meat in rum, green seasoning, salt pepper, pepper sauce, garlic, and onions, all to taste, for at least an hour and up to a day in advance.
2. Saute marinated meat in a hot pan with copious oil. Brown on both sides. Once meat is browned, add potatoes and continue to stir.
3. Stir curry powder- a few tablespoons up to ¼ cup- with enough water to make a pourable thick slurry. Add to the browned meat and stir.
4. Lower heat and add water to cover. Simmer until well cooked, like a stew.
Serve with an Indian flatbread, or roti, of your choice. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpourie roti, which is distinctively filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. Both are difficult to obtain outside of Trinidad. You can substitute naan or paratha from your local Indian or Pakistani place. The way you eat this is to wrap the roti around some of your curry filling, and eat it like a burrito. The curry can also be eaten with rice. Wash it down with sorrel or Carib beer. Play some calypso, soca or steel band in the background, and enjoy your fete.
Dal, which can be made with pretty much any legume, can be enjoyed as a soup or a side dish, depending on how thick or thin you make it. In Trinidad it is made with yellow split peas and made on the watery side, served as a sauce alongside roti and curry.
1 cup yellow split peas
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp saffron, tumeric or curry powder
sa;t and bloack pepper to taste
½ sliced onion
5 cups water
½ teaspoon cumin
1. Bring water and a pinch of salt to a boil.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients except the cumin seed, bring back to a boil then simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes until the split peas are soft.
3. Use a swizzle stick or an immersion blender to thicken slightly.
4. In a small frying pan, heat a tablespoon or two of oil, then add cumin seed. Pour the spiced oil on top of the dal before serving.
Hope you enjoyed this! Come back next week for the final course in our Trini Carnival supperclub– dessert!