It's difficult for me to justify a stop at McDonald's or Taco Bell, no matter how hungry or rushed I get. As a food and travel writer I take every meal as an opportunity for research, every getaway, a working vacation. But I'm not exempt from normal human hankerings. I confess to the occasional urge for fast-food starches, especially when I'm feeling stressed. When nothing else is around, I've even been known to pull into a KFC where I indulge in a 99-cent bowl of pasty macaroni and cheese. I'm not saying it's good. But like biscuits and gravy or mashed potatoes, it's good American comfort food.
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.
She does offer a well-stocked dry bar, with a selection of imported sodas and juices: Ginger beer (nonalcoholic), pineapple soda, cream soda, Irish moss (an iron-rich, seaweed-derived drink), and sorrel juice are all refreshing, but hardly substitutes for a good beer.
Christine also serves spicy Jamaican beef patties, which she buys from a local manufacturer. Like the mass-produced ones in Jamaica they are nothing special. I don't like the crust or baby-food-like consistency of the meat filling. Still, much like American hot dogs, patties are hot and easy to eat on the run.
For the stewed fish, on the other hand, you've got to sit down. Bite-size cubes of filleted trout (or whatever is available) are fried in gauze-thin batter, then smothered in a brown creole sauce with tomato, onion, and parsley.
Baby shrimp in a like sauce are served either alone or with conch. When I tried the combo, I devoured the shrimp and avoided the rubbery chunks of conch. Though small (about the size of a dime), the shrimp tasted fresh, with a briny bite and perfectly white center. As for the conch, I should have stuck to my habit of eating it only in the Caribbean, where it can be cleaned and cooked minutes after leaving the sea. In the United States a federal ban prohibits harvesting the mollusks, so conch, which is usually imported from the Bahamas, tends to be tasteless and chewy by the time it makes it to the plate.
Just the opposite was true of the curried goat. In the Caribbean goat can sometimes be leathery, but here at Christine's it is succulent and tender. The cubes of meat were seasoned with chilies, cardamom, cloves, and curry, then sauteed and stewed in its juices until it becomes darker than bittersweet chocolate and nearly as rich. The flavorful meat fell away from the bone like a good, moist pot roast.
There are no desserts on the menu, but Christine usually has a few slices of rum cake on hand, which she gets from an old Jamaican baker. She confesses, "I used to make it myself until I tasted his." The dense, almost black, raisin-filled cake is more like fruit cake than the more commonly seen yellow, rum-soaked version.
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It's a fitting finish to a rich, delicious meal that can, despite the strip-mall surroundings and the din of daytime talk shows, almost conjure the sultry scent and sounds of the island trade winds.
I only wish there were a Christine's off every I-95 exit.
Christine's Roti Shop
16721 NE 6th Ave, North Miami Beach; 305-770-0434. Open Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. till 9:30 p.m.
Jamaican beef patty $1
Roti and vegetables $3.95
Curried goat dinner $5.75
Shrimp and conch roti $6.95
Rum cake $1.75