Are you a “Trini to dee bone”? If so, you need not hop onto a plane to savor the flavors of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean country that celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence on Friday.
The island nation is known for roti, a flatbread that arrived with laborers from India beginning in the 1830s. Like “taco,” the term refers not only to the wrapper but to the filling inside: savory curried chicken, spicy curried goat, succulent curried potatoes and sweet curried pumpkin, to name a few.
From rural shacks with rusty galvanized roofs to top dining establishments in the capital of Port-of-Spain, roti is as common in Trinidad and Tobago as fast-food hamburgers are here.
“At every corner in T&T there’s a roti shop,’’ says Elsie Chin, owner of LC Roti in the Norland neighborhood of North Miami-Dade. “Everybody buys roti in Trinidad — even the people who know how to make it!”
Thanks to Chin and other Trinidadian entrepreneurs, you can get your roti fix without venturing far from your neighborhood. Here’s a guided tour of three shops that span South Florida.
LC Roti Shop
Calypso music beckons from the propped-open door of Chin’s shop.
“Everbody else playin’ dey music. We need to play we own too! It does make everybody feel welcome,’’ Chin says in her melodious patois.
She and her husband (known simply as Chin) opened one of the first roti shops in South Florida in 1985 at 81st Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Few Trinidadians lived in the area, and it was not an easy road.
“I made only $40 that first day; it was very discouraging, but I hung in there,” says Elsie Chin, whose close-cropped do tinted a vibrant burgundy makes it hard to believe she is in her 60s.
The Chins soon relocated to Norland, and found success with its many Caribbean residents.
“My East Indian heritage is that Indian girls are taught to cook in order to prepare for marriage,” she says. “Trini roti is more than food; it’s a culture, much like Carnival and calypso.’’
LC Roti Shop is a gathering spot for generations of Trinidadians and a magnet for top South Florida chefs and national names including PBS travel and food host Burt Wolf, who featured it in his 2009 book, Real American Food.
“Roti is my favorite dish at LC’s, particularly when the filling is curried conch or curried shrimp,’’ says Allen Susser, whose current ventures include Books & Books Café by Chef Allen in Coral Gables.
“Elsie is a wonderful person — a woman of heart who makes you feel warm and comfortable. Passion for cooking and joy come right out of her pores,’’ Susser says.
“My menu has been the same from day one,” Chin says.
Among the highlights: Curried beef, goat, shrimp, chicken, aloo pie, fried dough filled with curried potatoes and vegetable roti.
Wash them down with Mauby, seamoss or sorrel, traditional Trinidadian beverages. Mauby, a bitter, pungent bark, is boiled, and the extract is sweetened with cane sugar and spiked with Trinidad’s renowned Angostura Bitters. The main ingredient in seamoss is seaweed blended with sweetened condensed milk, nutmeg and cloves. Sorrel is made from burgundy-colored sorrel flowers, sweetened with cane sugar and blended with orange peel, cloves and alcohol.
A treasure chest of old utensils is essential to Chin’s masterful technique: a balna or heavy, wooden rolling pin for working the dough; a gigantic, concave metallic strainer for sifting the flour; a dalgutin with a flower-shaped head that she rotates briskly between her palms by its wooden handle to make the dhal emulsion and incorporate the geera — cumin seed that she roasts and grinds herself.
The art of limin’ (liming) is in full swing at LC: sharing food, music and “ole talk” — witty banter — in the company of fellow Trinis.
You can savor finger-lickin’ phoulourie (split pea fritters) with spicy mango relish and kuchela (fruit chutney) while you watch Elsie balné (roll out) a dhal-filled loya (ball of dough), then lay the dhalpouri onto the tawa (iron griddle), letting it puff to a golden brown and cook up light as a crepe.
Colorful flyers about Caribbean events in Miami-Dade and Broward cover a cork board at this Palmetto Bay spot, and easy music streams from a speaker above a cooler stocked with Carib beer, Malta Carib and Solo, that oh-so-sweet carbonated beverage that perfectly complements roti.
Owner Joan Seereeram emerges from the kitchen and situates herself at the cash register.
“As a girl of East Indian descent in Trinidad, roti was a natural part of my heritage,” says Seereeram, now in her 40s, who has owned the shop since 2000 with her husband, Rickesh.
Caribbean Delite specializes in dhalpouri roti, made with split peas, and paratha roti, a fluffier, more buttery flatbread that’s fondly called buss-up-shot. The shop takes pride in the curry blend it makes with garlic, onion, salt, ginger, cumin and saffron, among other spices.
Vegetarian curries are staples, including chana (chickpeas), pumpkin and aloo (potatoes). Also on the menu: curried chicken, goat, beef and shrimp as well as lentils, split pea dhal (soup) and curried pumpkin.
Joy’s Roti Delight
Inspired by her parents’ roti shop in Trinidad and encouraged by the growing Caribbean community in Lauderhill, Sheila Sawh Gowkaran and her husband, Vishwanath Joy Sawh, opened Joy’s Roti Delight in 1992. They manage the business while their sons, Dave Sawh and Pradeep Sawh, do most of the cooking.
Sheila Sawh, 60, regards Joy’s as “truly a love offering to the Caribbean community.”
The aroma of garlic oil blended with East Indian spices perfumes the restaurant. Vivid images of Trini Carnival line the walls and Caribbean music videos stream from plasma screens, making the urge to “Wine yuh wais” (wind your waist) to East Indian-infused Chutney Soca irresistible.
Sawh’s charitable contributions to Trinidadian schoolchildren and needy Broward residents earned her the Trinidad and Tobago Chaconia Award for service this year.
The art of roti-making is among her contributions. She is inspired, she says, by her mother, who “knows roti the best and put love into everything, especially roti.”
Sawh’s menu features chicken, beef, oxtail, shrimp, duck, conch and yellowtail snapper. She recommends soft, fluffy paratha roti with meat. Saddha roti is customarily eaten with vegetables, and dhalpouri with meat or vegetable curries.
Meat must have bandané — a customized blend that includes garlic, onion, chive and celery. And geera, ground cumin seed, is the key to a good dhal.
And, of course, there is one other thing, she says: “Love is the main ingredient. Joy’s is a dose of home away from home.”