By Tony Deyal
In the elementary schools I attended in the fifties, this racist chant was common. Now, fifty 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 Toronto, New York, Miami and wherever Trinidadians and other West Indians live, lime and labour.
In 1962, the roti best known outside of the home was the “dhal puri”. There is no such commodity in India, where a puri is either a flat, flaky bread cooked in ghee (clarified butter), or a dish made by mashing or grinding peas, vegetables or meat and cooking it in hot water.
The purists say that what we call a “dhal puri” is really a dhal paratha which is a stuffed roti but in Trinidad what is called a “paratha” is not stuffed and is known as a “buss-up-shut”, taking its name because of its likeness to a tattered shirt. The version of roti that is the breakfast and dinner staple, is “saada” which means “homely”, “simple” or “rustic” in Hindi but, in South India, would be a “chappati”.
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.
It is not surprising that the Indian indentured immigrants to Trinidad, coming in contact with the British and mingling with the other races and cultures that comprised the most cosmopolitan of countries of the Caribbean, should come up with some culinary innovations.
Although barra (or bara, a fried flatbread originally made from ground peas and flour) exists in India and in other places where curried channa (chick peas) is a staple, it is Trinidad that invented the “doubles”, a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 characterized a unique form of garnering votes for elections that was not limited to race.
When Trinidad became Independent in 1962, we did not understand what was happening or appreciate what we had. 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. 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.
Paratha, which is also a misnomer in the classic Indian sense since it is not stuffed with anything, is made to separate into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Unlike the dhal puri, it cannot be used as a wrap but has to be served separately from the curry.
This requires a container. Interestingly the paratha went mainstream when containers became commonplace. In a way it demonstrated that there is a link between food and technology, the barra and dhal puri needed only pieces of brown wrapping paper and paper bags which were common.
The paratha needed a container and became popular when these were available in Styrofoam, cardboard and plastic.
What about the saada roti as the breakfast food of choice of so many Trinidadians? Its present popularity has as much to do with health and changing lifestyles as with taste. In rural homes, the husbands worked and the wives, even if they laboured in the cane-fields, were still responsible for the home and the food. Work started from before four a.m. and the bread vans came much later so that roti was the fastest, easiest and, for most Indians, the only palatable solution.
However, with the new generation where both men and women work but despite the increased income still have to hustle early in the morning to avoid the traffic, it is easier to buy breakfast than wake up and cook. The rationale for continuing to want Indian food is that the last thing people give up is their food. They are willing to change their language, their clothing and their external lifestyles but are very reluctant to part with their food which, for them, is the most important of comfort zones. In fact, under stress most people revert to their comfort foods.
The health fad also helped. The “chokhas” or pulped or mashed vegetables (“aloo” or potato, tomato, “baigan” or eggplant) that accompany the saada are healthier than bacon and eggs. Health-conscious Trinis eventually hopped onto the bandwagon. Now, saada roti has become the breakfast dish of many people in both rural and metropolitan areas.
For lunch, you can also buy dhal (split-pea soup), rice and any of the curries or chokhas in the food courts of the many malls throughout the country.
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. Because of Trinidad’s long established petroleum industry, there are Trinidadians working in every oil-producing country in the world.
Also, during the past fifty years many Trinidadians have migrated to the US and Canada. These people, many of whom were of East Indian descent, missed their “home” food and eventually, some found a living making and selling “local” food to the others.
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. While the song that took it over the national and global threshold was Sonny Mann’s “Lotala”, the indications were always clear that chutney would emerge as one of the country’s global cultural exports.
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.
This article first appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce’s CONTACT Magazine