Here’s some good news for Canadians from coast to coast: you don’t have to travel 11,000 kilometres across the ocean to get your roti fix. “Everywhere we go [in Canada], there is a roti shop to be found,” say Marida and Narida Mohammed, co-owners of Twice De Spice. Born in Trinidad, sisters Marida and Narida Mohammed grew up eating this delicacy on a daily basis, calling it the “equivalent of what sliced bread is to Canadians.” But with a gazillion and one ways to make and eat this warm, chewy flatbread, what exactly is “roti?”
“In the [Indian] subcontinent, ‘roti’ is a generic word for bread and is often a synonym for chapatti,” says Richard Fung. “In Trinidad, [the word] is used generically also: Indo-Trinidadians eat sada roti, alu puri and paratha, also known as ‘busupshut.’ Dal puri [generally refers to] what Canadians call ‘West Indian or Caribbean roti.’”
Fung should know: he grew up eating roti in Trinidad and produced Dal Puri Diaspora, a documentary exploring the roots of roti in Trinidad, India and Toronto. Eating his way across the “roti trail,” Fung’s film showcases just how diverse the dish can be.
Many food historians believe that this ancient flatbread originates from the Indian subcontinent, where even today, no meal is complete without a side of roti. “In India, puris are deep fried — so what we call dal puris in the diaspora might perhaps more correctly be a dal paratha,” says Richard. “The cooking method and the ingredients (white flour, split peas) are the results of conditions on the plantations.”
The dish began to reach all corners of the earth in the 19th-century, when indentured workers from India introduced the recipe to southern Caribbean colonies of Britain and the Netherlands. Over the decades, the dish gradually garnered its own Caribbean flare.
“Caribbean roti is a large flatbread made with white all-purpose flour and stuffed with ground, seasoned split peas and cooked on a griddle,” says Richard. “In its commercial form, it’s wrapped in a style similar to a burrito around curried meat or vegetables.”
Much like the origins of roti, the roots of roti in Canada are a bit fuzzy. With waves of immigration in the 1960s, the wrapped roti from Trinidad arrived in North America, where it was popularized in big cities like Toronto and New York and became known as “Caribbean” or “West Indian” roti. “A lot of people migrated [to Canada] from [Caribbean] islands and Guyana,” says Marida and Narida. “Coming to Canada and the US, they brought their culture here to North America. As it travels, it changes and the spice levels.”
According to Richard, Ram’s Roti Shop was the first roti eatery in Toronto, opening in the 1960s (now closed) and serving Indian-style roti. Today, roti restaurants are scattered across the Greater Toronto Area and there are plenty of choices for hungry hordes eager to sink their teeth into this satisfying dish. “Toronto has a huge West Indian population,” say Marida and Narida. “In the Caribbean-populated areas like Scarborough, West Etobicoke, Brampton and Mississauga, you’re going to find a roti shop tucked in somewhere.”
While Marida and Narida name Ali’s Roti and Drupati’s as being among their favourites in Toronto, you can also mosey over to Mona’s Roti — a Scarborough eatery visited by Great Canadian Cookbook host Noah Cappe and that’s famed for serving mouth-watering roti. Here, the bread is stuffed with a slew of delicious fillings, such as tasty curries (chickpeas and potato, chicken, goat and shrimp), stews (beef and king fish) or veggies. The chicken curry is a bestseller!
Of course, Toronto isn’t the only place to enjoy this delicious dish. As Marida and Narida say, no matter where you go in Canada, you’re bound to find “a roti shop tucked away somewhere.” Snag a spot at Calabash Bistro in Vancouver, where you can indulge in six types of Caribbean-style roti. A must try is the goat curry wrapped in a fresh busup roti served with organic mixed greens.
Plus, it’s impossible to tire of eating this favourite dish. There is no shortage of chefs across Canada who are making endless and ever-evolving variations on roti. As Richard points out, some Toronto chefs are adding new flavours and ingredients not found overseas. “Immigrants directly from the subcontinent began marketing rotis with fillings typical of North Indian cuisine, such as saag panir or butter chicken,” says Fung. “Places like Mother India Roti and Gandhi sell hybrid rotis that one wouldn’t find in India or the Caribbean, but are very much a result of an encounter in Toronto.”
Marida and Narida are kickstarting “dessert roti,” which they predict will be “the next big thing.” “You can never go wrong with Nutella and bananas with whipped cream on any kind of warm bread,” they say. “Sweet rotis — that’s a trend that we’d like to put out there!”
Photos courtesy of Great Canadian Cookbook/Moni’s Roti