“In Trinidad, we have to have roti every day! It’s like our daily vitamin,” says Fernando Clarence, half of the team behind Sydney’s TriniKitchen. So, it’s like Vitamin R, we ask? “Yes, Vitamin R! Exactly! It’s our Vitamin R!” he says with a laugh.
A chat with Fernando, originally from Trinidad’s San Fernando, will make you laugh too. How did he come to Australia, we ask? “I met a beautiful woman… and I jumped in her suitcase with a roti and a Red Solo!” he jokes. The beautiful woman is his wife Sophia, a Kiwi of Samoan heritage, and Red Solo, he explains later, is Trinidad-made soft drink; a roti and a Red are a popular pairing in the Caribbean island. The couple, who have previously run roti stalls at several Sydney markets, now make roti, and another Caribbean flatbread-based favourite, doubles, for catering and to order.
You’ll find flatbreads across the Caribbean, but Trinidad has a particularly strong tradition.
“It is the home of roti,” says Annmarie Williams, another Trinidad expat now living in Melbourne, and excellent home roti maker.
“In Trinidad, we've got about four different types. We've got one called sada roti, that's just plain flour, water, baking powder. It's most prominently featured in most diets in Trinidad; they have that like every day, that's an everyday roti.
“You have dhal puri, which is stuffed [with] seasoned yellow split peas, and there's also one that is similar to dhal puri, but it's made out of potato, we call that aloo roti. Then we've got one called pepper roti, which is, I would say, maybe like focaccia.” Pepper roti, she explains, is two layers of dough, with potato, carrots, chillies (which is where the name comes from, pepper being the local name for what we call chillies) and cheese in the middle. It used to be mostly made at home, she says, but is now a popular street food in Trinidad.
“And then we’ve got our famous roti - Trinidad is known for ‘buss up shut’, which is also known as paratha."
"It's a long process because you've got to mix the flour, you got to let it sit. Then you have to roll it out, put some butter on it, roll it back. Let it sit. But when you are finished it is delicious, flaky, a bit messy.”
The name roughly means torn up shirt, and it’s a reference to how this flaky, buttery roti is made: by beating the roti as it cooks on the tawa, a traditional round, flat cooking pan. “While you're cooking it, you basically smash it to get the flake happening,” Williams explains. “I just use wooden spoons, but you know, I'm doing it on a smaller scale. In Trinidad, it's a huge flat pan, the tawa, huge, and they got huge wooden sticks”.
Williams, and Fernando and Sophia Clarence, all agree that proper Trinidad-style roti is sorely missed by Trini expats here in Australia. “It tastes like home,” says Sophia, who fell in love with roti while living in Trinidad, and decided she had to learn how to make them.
“Every family I stayed with, and friends, they would make roti. You learn by watching and doing,” she says.
That’s what Ainsley Harriott got to do when he visited Trinidad for his latest TV show, Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen (watch the Trinidad episode Sunday, August 25, 7.30pm on SBS Food channel 33). Harriott joined a local cook, Tara, in her kitchen, and tells SBS Food it was one of the most memorable parts of the whole show.
“Tara’s home-cooked dosti and sada roti were to die for – simple home-cooked food at its best!
“Making roti with Tara was a fantastic experience. She was so bossy, but a lot of fun. What you don’t see is that she was also feeding her family at the same time as filming – old guys or children would wander in and out for snacks and drinks! Filming took a little longer than expected, but it was definitely worth it. A great experience.”
Now, if a trip to Trinidad isn’t on the cards for you, but you’d love to learn how to make Trini roti, don’t despair. Caribbean expat Ria Birju, who made her first roti at the age of nine, has all the roti-making lessons you could want, step-by-step, on her popular CookingWithRia YouTube channel and blog.
“Roti is one of our ultimate comfort foods,” she says, when SBS Food asks for her top tips for home cooks.
“Sada roti, our most basic roti, was traditionally enjoyed twice a day for breakfast and dinner primarily with many traditional vegetarian dishes. Nowadays, as many women and mothers are working as well, it is not made at home as often but still a main part of our food culture and cuisine. Roti shops are now even more popular because of its convenience.
“Paratha - buss up shot - is served at weddings and prayers or religious ceremonies, and dhal puri is reserved for special occasions as well. Other favourites are dosti roti and pepper roti. Dosti roti is a two-layered roti and pepper roti is essentially a paratha stuffed with cheese and potatoes that are mashed and seasoned with culantro (bandhania) [a close cousin of coriander/cilantro, which we could use instead, Ria tells us], hot pepper and ground geera (cumin). All equally delicious!
“Sada roti is a good starting point and the easiest to make, that is if one is not too focussed on making it swell,” says Ria, originally from a small village in central Trinidad and now based in New York.
“With only two basic ingredients (salt is optional) it takes less than five minutes to knead. A must try with butter, cheese, both or with our unique and tasty vegetarian dishes including channa and aloo, pumpkin, curry aloo, fried okra, sautéed bodi (long green beans), baigan (eggplant) or tomato choka, sautéed pak choy or fried aloo (potato).”
The swelling she refers to is the puffing up of the dough circle overheat, a little like pita bread. On her website, she offers the reassuring advice to think of the swelling as "just a bonus, a goal to work towards”.
“Dhalpuri, a roti expertly filled with ground and seasoned split peas, is the most popular on my YouTube channel. The main reason is that it’s not only delicious but it is also one of the most complex to make, requiring skill and patience. I provide detailed step by step instructions and suggestions to make the process a little less daunting.
“The key to making roti is staying positive, using fresh ingredients, the correct measurements, including water, and the right kneading techniques to obtain a soft texture, which is all explained in my videos. If followed precisely there should be no challenges. After watching my videos, many have attempted and succeeded after years of frustration and failure.” She’s not exaggerating – a read of the comments on her videos shows many followers thanking her for helping them make roti after numerous failed attempts. There's even a vegan option for the famous buss up shut.
Another good spot to start is Ainsley Harriott’s recipes. His latest cookbook, Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen, has all the recipes from the show, and many others inspired by his island travels, including this simple flatbread, superb when served with his baked cauliflower.
You can also try the wonderfully named clap-hand roti, which he makes in the show while cooking on the beach on Trinidad’s twin island of Tobago (it’s also very popular in another Caribbean island, Grenada). The name refers to the technique used: after cooking, the breads are clapped between the hands, which busts little pockets of air in the breads and makes them lighter and fluffier.
With so many options, how do you decide what to make?
"It depends on what we're having," explains Annmarie. "If we're having a curry with a lot of sauce, I would make the buss up shut, because it goes with that. Same with the dhal puri, normally that would go with a curry. But sada roti would go with vegetables. And pepper roti, you just eat that on your own."
No matter what you fancy, it seems, Trinidad has a roti to suit.
Get a taste for island life in Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen, as Ainsley Harriott visits Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, Dominica and Antigua. Sundays 7.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33; episodes will be available on SBS On Demand after they air. Start with episode 1 right here:
Clap-hand roti is great to mop up tasty curries and sauces. Clapping helps release the air pockets and makes these Caribbean flatbreads lovely and light and flaky.
‘Jerking’ is all about maximising flavour. Traditionally, the mix will include allspice and Scotch bonnet chillies, but the spices can be adapted to taste. Here’s my ultimate jerk marinade with spatchcocked chicken. If you prefer, you can use chicken breasts.
“The roti in Barbados are usually stuffed with chicken or lamb and potato, but I wanted a filling that was crunchy and fresh, yet still had a Caribbean influence. The secret of this curry filling is to not over-cook the pumpkin. It should be tender but not too soft - you want the roti to have some crunch when you bite into it. The curry is also great served with grilled lamb, goat or chicken.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food