What Does Roti Mean To You?
The unleavened Indo-Caribbean staple is beloved in all its variations.
A few years ago, I headed to the buzzy downtown LA restaurant Little Sister for a romantic dinner. Known for its “East-Meets-West” fare in the city of fusion, the restaurant featured ga roti on its menu. Out of ignorance and curiosity, we ordered the dish, eager to see how Vietnamese flavors would be infused with an Indo-Caribbean staple.
To our surprise, after a fun cultural exchange with our waitress, we quickly learned that ga roti is Vietnam’s succulent, slightly sweet way of making rotisserie chicken—typically in a pan. The origins of the roti that I know, however, have a much more complicated story to tell.
The general public is more familiar with naan, roti’s leavened cousin, due to Indian restaurants’ preference for it. Culturally, roti is a flatbread made without yeast and is more popular at home, often served on the side of curry dishes. Roti is eaten across the Caribbean, specifically in countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica.
“Although roti is something that can be made in a tandoor, I would say even better when it's made on the tawa,” says Nakul Mahendro, co-owner of LA’s BadMaash, referring to the essential, curved Indian skillet. “Imagine if, with every meal, your mother or father had to throw wooden logs into this cylinder clay pot” to embark on a roughly three-hour endeavor.
So don’t beat yourself up too much if this is the first you’re hearing about roti. In India and even throughout its neighbors, there are several types of roti and even more subsections within each category. Mahendro says “depending on what region you’re in, or even what a home you’re in, there’s gonna be a little bit of variance.” We’ll focus on dhal puri and paratha.
Dhal puri is a light delight made with crushed lentils. Mahendro recalls growing up with moong aka mung bean-filled dhalpuri, but split peas are also commonly used. Paratha is more croissant-like—thanks to its flaky, ghee-laminated layers—but the texture is more chewy and tender. It has its roots in northern India with special standing in Punjabi and Sindhi communities, but it’s one of the most popular rotis on the subcontinent.
Southern India and Sri Lanka are partial to the parotta, which gets its layers from a rolling method rather than folding and uses white flour instead of wheat. There’s generally excess roti which often ends up in Sri Lanka’s kothu roti: a perfect leftover creation similar to chilaquiles with its eggs, curry, and strips of roti.
Roti ended up making its way to the Caribbean as a result of the waves of indentured servants Britain sent over in the mid-19th century to replace the newly freed African slaves on plantations. But it wasn’t until 1937, when Sackina Karamath opened the Hummingbird Roti Shop in Trinidad that roti started to be the main event instead of a side dish. For portability, Karamath used dhal puri roti to wrap various curry dishes and the rest was history.
The wrapped roti version took the West Indies by storm. Trinidad and Guyana are the most revered for their roti, so they were naturally the first to make a splash in New York City. Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant opened in 1978, after two years of momentum flowed from Sybil Bernard’s Far Rockaway kitchen.
“I always tell people a house without the roti is not a home,” says Ken Bernard, Sybil’s son and current owner of the restaurants (there are now two locations). The bakery on Hillside ushered Guyanese cuisine into New York City’s melting pot and remains a neighborhood institution to this day. “I remember they had Trinidadian places selling roti already in Brooklyn, but we were one of the first Guyanese roti to come out,” Bernard says, noting all the nuance involved in different roti recipes. Sybil’s uses dhal puri, but makes its roti smaller than what you would find in Trinidad (think about the biggest burrito you’ve ever had and make it wider).
In Barbados, paratha is more commonly used, and Chef Rashida Holmes has brought her own take on this to her Los Angeles restaurant Bridgetown Roti. She transforms what’s traditionally a bit of a filler ingredient, stewed cabbage, and brightens it up by adding fresh slaw.
“I love roti, but they can’t be super heavy, so I always wanted to find a way to kind of add some acidity and texture to it,” Holmes says. As a first-generation American, she felt her Bajan cuisine knowledge was secondhand so she couldn’t go super traditional, but she also wanted to preserve the informality of roti and not get “too chefy” with her twists.
Ultimately, whether you’re East Indian or West Indian, roti is very casual and familial. When a young Mahendro first saw Caribbean roti on TV, he thought it was cool, but it didn’t completely blow his mind. He now lovingly recalls family trips where they would wrap their food in roti like a burrito. Though the bread has had a lengthy history with many twists and turns, for most people, roti is rooted in family.