Back in the day, when I was still in grad school, I never thought much about foods from the Caribbean, although I did notice that the health food stores in Brooklyn, where I lived, seemed to be staffed by many West Indians who were vegetarians.
I also noted that the Jamaican patty place on Flatbush always smelled amazing when I walked by after my work shift at the Grand Army Plaza farmers' market.
For a girl who grew up in Chinatown, West Indian flavors just weren't on the radar.
Then, I met my husband, Marc.
I went home to look at a map after he told me that he was from Guyana. He said it was located in South America but considered part of the West Indies. On the map, Guyana was a small vertical oblong-ish shape east of Venezuela and north of a massive Brazil.
Over time, I got to learn a lot about an open-hearted culture composed of many different other ones. There were East Indians who came to Guyana as indentured servants, slaves brought from Africa.
There were the Arawak and Carib Amerindians who were already there around the time of Columbus. Then of course there were the Dutch and British colonialists.
Oh, wait. You can't forget the wave of Chinese who went there as contract workers in the mid-1800's either.
And we think America is a melting pot!
I find it so interesting for example, when you meet a Guyanese (or any other West Indian, for that matter) like Marc, who might have, say, a British last name because his family adopted it after converting to Christianity from Hinduism.
It’s a culture that also makes for some interesting food, a lot of it influenced by the South Asians who brought their food traditions with them.
One of the most ubiquitous of these is roti. Found from India and Malaysia to Thailand and the West Indies, roti is a type of soft flatbread that is usually unleavened and made from whole grains.
It is cooked on the stove top and in the West Indies, "clapped" immediately after it is removed from the griddle. Brave types use their hands, but those less adventurous (myself included) can use a pair of spatulas or wooden spoons.
Roti is delicious warm and plain, dabbed with some salted butter and most of all when torn into pieces and used to sop up the delicious gravy from a plate of curry, as many Guyanese do.
Marc lives 2,500 miles away from his family (now in Toronto) and even farther than the place he left when he was four years old for the chilly north. It's been so long since he's been there that I think sometimes Guyana seems more like an idea, really, than an actual place to him.
Depending on each person, certain food has the magical ability to shrink time and distance. It can evoke powerful memories and trigger the cravings and longing that make us entirely human.
It seems essential then for us to roll up our sleeves and on occasion, prepare foods that defy the time-space continuum -- foods that make a nearly forgotten place real to us again. As real and solid as Mount Ayanganna and its sandstone tepui. Or the Demarara River, flowing northward from the central rain forests to the Atlantic.
That is why I make roti.
This version includes buttermilk, which is not typical in a Guyanese roti. I'm not a purist. Just someone who enjoys the slight tang of buttermilk and its tenderizing effects on dough.
West Indian roti also includes leavening (unlike traditional Indian roti), usually in the form of baking powder.
Along with the lengthy rest time, the buttermilk makes for a supple dough that you will find more than willing to work with you.
The cook time itself is very, very short (even shorter if you like your bread less well-done than I do). Other than having to wait for the dough to rest, this all comes together in no time at all.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups spelt flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon honey
1 ½ Tablespoons melted/clarified butter, plus more for cooking
1 cup water (more as needed)
½ cup buttermilk
Lightly oil a large bowl.
Mix flours, salt, honey and butter together in large bowl. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and add buttermilk then water. Bring mixture together with your fingertips or a wooden spoon. Knead in until soft and elastic – about 7 minutes. If needed, add additional water if the dough seems dry and is having trouble coming together. Place dough in oiled bowl. Cover and allow to rest in refrigerator overnight (8-12 hours).
Remove dough from refrigerator. Allow to rest at room temperature for at least 20 minutes.
Ease the dough out of the bowl. Knead for two minutes until smooth. Cut into eight equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece out to at least five inches in diameter.
From center point of circle, cut dough to one side, reaching to the edge of the circle of dough. Roll the dough from the center cut to form a cone. Using your index finger, push the tip of the cone in. Your dough will now look like the shape of a cinnamon roll. Repeat with remaining pieces. Cover and allow dough to rest another 15-20 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, flatten each piece of dough, rolling it out to a circle just slightly smaller than your cooking surface. If you feel like it, you can also pick it up and stretch it a bit with your hands (as you would with pizza dough) instead of rolling it out the entire way.
Heat your griddle or pan* and brush with thin layer of melted butter. Place dough on the pan and cook for 45 seconds, brushing the edges of the roti with a bit more butter. Turn and cook on other side for an additional minute.
Remove the cooked roti. Use two wooden spoons to beat it (or “clap” it, as my husband describes it) for about 30 seconds. You want the surface to be ruptured and flaky. Slather on a bit more of butter if you wish. I always do. Serve warm.
*Note: The traditional type of pan used for roti-making is called a tawa. I don’t currently have one in my stash of kitchen cookware. If you don’t either, a flat cast-iron griddle works well, as does a large cast-iron skillet.