Lifestyle & Belief

There's roti, and then there's Trinidadian roti. And it's awesome

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Credit: Bradley Campbell

A cook at Ali's Roti in Mattapan, Massachusetts, prepares a 'Buss Up Shot' roti, busting the dough apart just before it's done cooking.

I fell in love with Trinidadian roti more than a decade ago. I was on a study aboard trip. And roti greeted me everywhere on the tiny Caribbean island.

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As Hanif Abrahim tells it, everybody eats roti in Trinidad.

"In the morning when you get up, they make roti. And then in the afternoon they make roti again. So it's roti morning and evening."

Abrahim and his boss, Nazir Ali, chatted with me in the back office at Ali's Roti in Mattapan, Massachusetts. It's humid as all get out and a tiny fan whirs in the background. Both men sweat and smile, obviously bemused by my interest into something that for them, is pretty mundane.

"Roti is just a Hindi word describing bread," Ali says.

That's right, Hindi. Back in the 1800s indentured workers brought roti over from India. Roti is a flatbread. And over the next 100-plus years it became a part of all sorts of culinary styles on the island: East Indian. West African, Spanish and French, and probably Dutch, Chinese and English. That's how it evolved from just a flat bread, into a wrap or really, a meal all it's own.

"Roti didn't start in Trinidad but we develop our own style of roti over there," Ali says.

There are two main Trini styles of roti: buss up shot, and dhalpuri. The first is made by busting up a roti dough on a stovetop just before it's done cooking. 

You're left with a pile of shredded roti, which you can then dip into something else, like curried chicken.

The second style is dhalpuri. It's, essentially, roti with a ground split pea filling inside. And then you take it and wrap that around anything you want: pumpkin, beef, potatoes, chutney, chicken. You name it. No matter what it is, it's delicious.

It's that original flavor of Trinidadian roti that has people flying to Trinidad, or across the US to spots like Ali's Roti just to eat the dish. It's a meal worth taking to your grave. It's that good. I even asked the guys what they'd eat for their last meal on earth, if they could order any meal of their choice.

"If I could eat anything for my last meal on earth I will eat a roti," he says. "I'll have a boneless curry chicken roti with a little bit of chickpeas and plenty of hot sauce. It will be heat going up to heaven."

I'd choose the same.

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