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We are not alone, of course. Every nation has its favorite starchy solace.
In Indian cooking the quick fix is typically a flat, fried bread. It's ubiquitous throughout the subcontinent and in the Caribbean, where East Indians were brought as indentured servants in the Nineteenth Century to countries such as Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, and Jamaica. It's tough to find these breads here in the states. Fortunately it's not impossible. Christine's Roti Shop serves up the authentic fare in a little cafe in North Miami Beach near NE 167th Street, which has become an impressive ethnic-food hub. The chef and owner, Christine Gouvia, a cheery, moon-faced Guyanese woman of East Indian heritage, turns out dozens of these hot, hand-rolled roti each day.
Roti simply means bread. In the Caribbean it means an unleavened bread about the size of a frisbee, made from wheat flour, water, and oil, and patted and fried until the center is slightly puffy, like a chapati. It's lighter than a tortilla or pita but heavier than a crepe, and it's used as an edible plate.
The airy roti originated in the Punjab region of India. In Flavors of India Madhur Jaffrey, one of India's most popular actresses and cookbook authors, writes: "There is nothing more important in a Punjabi man's diet than bread. Indeed in the towns and villages of this northwestern state, if a wife has a pot of rice on the stove many a husband walking into the home has been known to take a deep sniff and complain, 'Eh purabiya kithhon aa gaya? (Did some easterner show up?)'"
Christine always has both roti and rice available. It's cheaper to get just a filled roti, but for a few quarters more, you can really fill up on starches and get rice, too. Dinner portions come with half a roti, a large scoop of rice and peas, and some other vegetables on the side -- more than enough for one person. The fillings are a hybrid of Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Indian specialties and include curried potatoes, dal, fried or stewed fish, shrimp, conch, shrimp and conch, oxtail, beef, liver, jerk chicken, curried goat, curried or jerk vegetables, sardines, and potatoes and duck. All can be ordered in a roti or with other side dishes. None costs more than seven dollars.
The choices are displayed on a one-page photocopied menu and on a dusty bulletin board hanging over the cash register where Christine's boyfriend, Bill, is usually on hand to tally checks and describe dishes.
While waiting for my order I sometimes sit at the narrow counter along the wall where newspapers and flyers for upcoming reggae concerts and local events are stacked. The sound of a TV in the kitchen is usually the only ambient noise. Seating options are limited to a few chairs around a low round table or at the counter, which has four plastic-strapped barstools that look like they ought to be in an outdoor tiki bar rather than in this dreary storefront with metal grates on the windows. I often stand at the tiny Formica counter watching Christine deftly roll large balls of dough in her hand, then flatten them with a rolling pin and pan fry them until they are puffy and golden. Although her kitchen is no bigger than a large walk-in closet, she somehow manages to turn out dozens of different and delicious dishes.
My favorite is the curry vegetable roti, a colorful mixture of cabbage, carrots, chick peas, onions, and potato permeated with a gentle curry sauce that gives the dish a glowing yellow tinge. The vegetables are cooked only slightly so that they stay crunchy and are served on a plastic dish on top of a large, warm roti. If you like heat, ask for Christine's own scotch-bonnet pepper sauce. Made from a tiny, orange, habanerolike pepper, it adds a potent kick.
Speaking of serious spice, the jerk chicken here is one of the hottest I've tasted -- and I've been traveling back and forth to Jamaica for the past two decades. The tender, juicy meat is marinated and cooked with an incendiary blend of scallions, hot peppers, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and thyme. Christine will make sure you know what you are getting into: "It's real hot," she warns. And it is. For relief the chicken dinner is served with mild, long-grain white rice mixed with miniature green lentils to make a common Caribbean dish known as rice and peas. Jamaicans use kidney beans, Puerto Ricans use pigeon peas, and Cubans use black beans for a similarly starchy side dish. The rice and the buttery roti help to soothe the severe scorch. An ice-cold Red Stripe would work better, but unfortunately Christine's doesn't serve alcohol.