This blog post was written by independent producer Christopher Johnson. The following story was produced in conjunction with KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.
If they offer it at all, most Indian restaurants have banished the thick, doughy flatbread called roti to the nether pages of their menus, in favor of its lighter, more popular cousin, naan. But in Trinidad and Guyana, roti reigns. It’s more than just a starch to soak up your curry – it’s a point of national pride.
South Asians brought roti with them to the West Indies when they arrived as indentured servants in the mid 1800s. Since then, the bread has made another migration – from Port-of-Spain and Georgetown, up to West Indian kitchens and restaurants of Queens, New York. For the best roti in the city, folks say you have to hop the A train all the way to end, where the subway clangs and squeals into Lefferts – a boulevard with that classic New York kind of hectic.
Grace Ali and I step out onto the raised platform. She says, “I can hear the Hindi music and smell the curry, and even see the Guyanese flags on the store fronts. So, we’re here. Exciting!” Ali inhales like it’s a homecoming. She’s been wanting for a long time to make the trek out to this neighborhood. Officially, it’s called Ozone Park. But like a lot of folks out here, Ali prefers “Little Guyana.” She’s one of about a hundred forty thousand Guyanese immigrants living in New York City. Ali’s day job is heading the online arts magazine Of Note. So, while she’s no professional food critic, she absolutely knows her roti.
It wasn’t hard to get her out to the heart of Little Guyana, where many immigrants have settled around Ozone Park’s Liberty Avenue – a commercial stretch booming like fireworks with sound and color. Bunches of long, ropey green beans from the islands spill out of farmer’s market crates. There’s an Indian wedding convoy, with garlands of pink and white flowers stretched across hybrid cars.
Our first stop is Singh’s Roti Shop. On this Saturday afternoon, the whole place is vibrating with Hindi-seasoned soca knocking in the dj speakers. He’s got CDs for sale. Further in, several women with hair nets and sweet smiles take orders from behind a long, cafeteria-style bank of aluminum pans filled with curries. More than two dozen people wait their turns in a line that’s always moving but never seems to get any shorter.
Ashmeed Muhammad is a manager at Singh’s. “We never check how much roti we sell, because there’s a lot of making and a lot of selling!,” he says, pointing to back where the roti gets cooked. From there, hits the assembly line as fast as the orders come up. The bread supply is bottomless, and so are the customers’ appetites for it. “A lot of people in the area have parties who have barbecues they always order roti,” Muhammad explains. “Because we West Indians, we always want our own thing.” That’s why Singh’s is here in the first place. To feed New York’s growing Caribbean communities, a Trinidadian couple opened the roti shop more than a quarter century ago.
Today, the restaurant offers West Indian Chinese food, plus a popular Trinidadian dish called doubles, but Ali and I came here on one specific mission, and she’s ready to get started. “The 1st order of business,” Ali explains, “to traditionally eat roti, you’ve gotta eat it with your hands, it’s the only way to do it. It’s most flavorful that way.”
After washing up, I go back to our table, where Ashmeed brings out two platters filled with curry samples. Shrimp, chicken, stewed pumpkin, and mango chutney. The round roti bread is separate – about the size of an LP – folded a couple times over. Ali is impressed with the portions. “It’s a lot of roti. It’s really warm – which is great – and thick. And it’s browned in a few places, so that means it’s got a toasty flavor to it.” She tears off some roti and grabs a few shrimp, the way injera is used to eat Ethiopian food. Ali calls it “sopping up” the curry.
If you buy roti to go, it will probably be prepared differently – with the bread wrapped burrito style around your curry of choice. Grace says that tradition started in the Caribbean, as street vendors adjusted to clients with busy schedules. No time to to sit with bread and a plate of curried goat? Roti makes a perfect envelope. But we’ve got a nice spread, and Ali is in no rush. She’s tackling the curry like a pro. Roti is a very big deal in her family. Her grandmother taught Grace’s mom, who is passing on the recipes and technique to her daughters.
At least, she tries.
“She’s very particular about how you make roti,” Ali explains, through a mouthful of curried pumpkin. “So when she teaches my sister and I, if we deviate, she’s like, ‘no! this is how it’s done in our family. This is how you’ll learn.’ It’s very much an art form for her.” Ali says her mother has “fine-tuned the process so well that watching her is like watching a performance sometimes.”
Shaida Joseph-Arjoon knows that dance very well. The Toronto resident grew up making and eating roti in Trinidad. Today, she’s at Singh’s having lunch with her family, and schooling me on how to make a good sada roti – the most basic version of the bread. She says it starts with kneading the dough gently, and letting it sit for a while. Then it gets rolled out, and tossed on a baking stone called a tawa. “When you cook it, it has to swell,” Joseph-Arjoon explains, puffing her hands out like there’s a ball inflating between her palms. “It’s like it’s about to boil, it swells up. And back home we have a saying: ‘when you can make a good sada roti, you’re ready for marriage.’”
Roti is such a point of pride for the Guyanese and Trinidadians. Ask a mixed group which country does roti best, and things could get a little heated. But for Joseph-Arjoon, there’s really no need to argue. “Trinis can make roti,” her voice gets the dense, slow weight of a royal proclamation. All the bass lands on “make” to let me know she’s serious. “Guyanese, they have their strengths too. But when it comes to roti, Trinidad has the authority on it!” She laughs before she declares this case closed.
But for Grace Ali and I. It’s time to test this Trinidad vs Guyana theory with a trip to Sybil’s. The Guyanese bakery is right across Liberty Avenue, but the roti here is a very different bread. It takes some work to pull Ali away from Sybil’s open bakery door, where racks of a Guyanese treat called salara – swirled with red coconut – are cooling in the late summer air. We sit down and sample a dish called dal poori. It’s a kind of roti with yellow lentils stuffed inside the flat bread before the whole thing is baked. This version is thinner than Singh’s. It’s bright yellow with turmeric, and Ali spots tiny blackened cumin seeds. The papery flakes seem to carry so much masala.
“We have a Guyanese style of making roti,” explains Sybil’s owner Viburt Buford. “It came down from my grandmother. I’m proud of ours.” Buford is also extremely proud of his mother Sybil, who brought him and his eight siblings out of poverty in Guyana, and up to New York. There, she started a very small business serving roti, and baking Guyanese breads and desserts. That was in the late 70s.
Today’s store stays packed with customers waiting for their numbers to be called. In the back, a labyrinth of baking and prep rooms.
Roti is usually made by women. But Buford has hired a guy who can prepare fifteen hundred balls of roti dough a day. Maybe as good as any machine. They call him “Number One,” and all the bakers cheer him on. But Number One’s game face is cool and monastic as he flip-and-pops, flip-and-pops the dough against the floured prep table.
Back up front, though, the all-female crew baking the roti shows that some things are still old school at Sybil’s. And at the end of a long roti day, it’s tradition – her traditions – that have won Grace Ali over. “My bias, shockingly, she smiles, “is with Sybil’s version. I think because that Guyanese version of making roti is so familiar to me.”
Customers who want Sybil’s now have a few choices. Since the late 70s, the business has expanded to four shops between New York City and Florida, and Buford just might be eyeing the west coast. “California is far away, he laughs, “but we’ll get there!”
Here’s a video from from the Sybil’s in Jamaica, Queens. (NOT the Ozone Park location)