The Mainstreaming Of Roti


This article by Tony Deyal appeared in Jamaica’s Gleaner. 

‘Coolie, coolie, come for roti, all de roti done.’

It’s been a long time since I heard that refrain. The so-called C-word is still around and is used in Belize, places like Barbados (‘De Coolie Man’) and in some other Caribbean islands, without any sense of guilt or political incorrectness. This is how it was, this is how it is, and this is how it will be.

In the elementary schools I attended in the 1950s, this racist chant was common. Now, 50 years after Independence, making, buying, selling or eating roti is not limited to any one race. It is not the speed with which the roti ‘done’, but the question, “Where de roti gone?” As we say in Trinidad, it “gone for higher”.

Now you can buy all the different variations of roti in every Caribbean island and in Toronto, New York, Miami and wherever Trinidadians and other West Indians live, lyme and labour. Every Tom, Dick and Beharry (as well as Paul and Sundry) know what a roti is.

In 1962, the roti best known outside of the home was the ‘dhal puri’, now also known as a ‘roti skin’, and in some places as ‘roti blanks’. Blank or not, it is firing on all cylinders and has exploded into the culinary world with a vengeance.

The purists say that what is called a ‘dhal puri’ in Trinidad or a ‘doll’ puri in Guyana is really a dhal ‘paratha’, which is a stuffed roti. In Trinidad and elsewhere in the region and diaspora, what Indians call a ‘paratha’ is not stuffed and is known as a ‘buss-up-shut’, taking its name because of its likeness to the kind of cast-off or tattered shirt that cane cutters wore.

Different versions

The version of roti that is the breakfast and dinner staple is ‘saada’, which means ‘homely’, ‘simple’ or ‘rustic’ in Hindi. However, the Trinidad ‘roti’ is made using baking powder as a leavening agent and not yeast, which is used to make ‘nan’, the generic Hindi word for ‘bread’. The first time I heard the name Kofi Annan, I thought it was an Indian breakfast.

Although barra (or bara, a fried flatbread originally made from ground peas and flour) exists in India and in other places where curried channa (chick peas) is a staple, it is Trinidad that invented the ‘doubles’, a sandwich made by putting curried channa between two barras. Now you can get doubles almost anywhere in the Caribbean, North America and Britain.

The ‘pulao’, or mixed rice dish of India, became ‘pelau’ and was popular long before roti made the hit parade. Even in music technology, the country that gave the world the steel pan also reputedly invented the ‘dhantal’, a percussion instrument that was fashioned out of the iron ‘bows’ that yoked the oxen that pulled the cane carts. The dhantal and ‘chutney’ music, another Trinidadian invention, go together like a roti with a Red Solo soft drink or ‘curry duck’ and a river ‘lime’. In politics, the combination of ‘rum’ and roti characterised a unique form of garnering votes for elections that was not limited to race.

In those days, boys and girls of East Indian descent leaving their rural villages to go to the city high schools and colleges had an especially rough time. We studied by rote and by roti. There was a lot of stuff to memorise, but what has stayed in our memories longest was the shame that we were made to feel for taking our saada roti to school.

Saada roti was not well known outside the household. Civilised people bought bread from the bakery or had enough money for sandwiches from the school’s tuck shop or the ‘parlours’ or cake shops outside.

One bag a week

We carried our food in oily, curry-soaked paper (one bag per week) bags or wrapped in brown paper, and we huddled together, rotis held close to our mouths, hurriedly gulping down our food, sometimes with mouthfuls of paper, so ashamed were we.

It was doubles that served as the wedge that opened the floodgates for Indian food. Doubles vendors were always around, but increasingly there were more of them and their customers were not limited to Indians. Paratha was next to taste the limelight. It might be because of the name by which this roti is best known. ‘Buss-up-shut’ captured the Trini imagination.

In the intervening years between 1962 and today, there were two other phenomena that helped to take roti and other Trinidadian East Indian products outside the country. One was the migration of many skilled workers to other parts of the world.

The other event is the rise of ‘chutney’, a hot and spicy music mix associated with Trinidadian, Indian culture. It is a unique combination of Hindi and Trinidadian English, calypso, soca and Indian melodies. Increasingly it carved its own niche in the music world.

Today, roti has come out of the closet or the safe, the brown paper bag and the dirt fireside or ‘chulha’. You can get any variation in the supermarkets, not just in Trinidad, but throughout the diaspora.

At the same time, there are signs that the tossed salad that Trinidad is has been quietly fusing into the melting pot that it should be. The emergence of roti is one of the contributors to a growing national unity of taste and culture – not what we put on the stage, but our way of life and our values.

It is only under the pressure of politics that we tend to become tribal. Hopefully, we can learn from the humblest and most homely of rotis and evolve beyond that – saada but wiser.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying when he completed this article on roti, “That’s a wrap”.

For the original report go to

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