One thing that running has taught me, among other things, is that getting from points A to B–crossing the finish line–is not in and of itself the ultimate goal. Rather, it’s how you get there, what’s in between, the journey. Art school taught me a similar lesson, but it never quite stuck, especially when you’re left with a crappy painting unfit for even the closet walls. No, running is my process and the goal is to find shit out (work shit out, too) along the way. It can be therapeutic, or physically and mentally challenging, or aimless and exploratory. It’s those “aimless” runs that I often enjoy the most: hitting an unfamiliar trail or neighborhood is by far my favorite way toward discovery–of all kinds. I’ve been places I’d not ordinarily have visited any other way. Some people are welcoming, others suspicious and others downright hostile. That’s when I smile, nod and pick up the pace a bit. But I’m always glad to have seen something, learned something or met someone new.
Without beating the metaphor too much, cooking is like running. Ideally, I’d like the end result to be edible and not a colossal waste of ingredients, but it’s the learning along the way that really keeps me in the kitchen. The more foreign the food, the more of a challenge it is, and therefore the more obsessive I become. Which leads me to the subject of this post: Trinidadian Roti, a flaky, chewy/tender flat bread that’s cooked on a griddle and served with a rich and spicy curry. My neighbor, Dionne, who’s Trinidadian, introduced me to roti many years ago, taking me to just about the best place in the city for West Indian food, Gloria’s on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. (It should be spelled phonetically, Glorious, it’s that good) and I’ve been hooked ever since. According to the New York City’s Department of City Planning, “More persons of West Indian ancestry live in New York City than any city outside of the West Indies.” And I think they’d all agree about Gloria’s.
On a recent run though another very Caribbean part of Brooklyn, I spotted someone rolling roti on a big table, getting ready for the day’s lunch rush and was inspired to give it a try myself later that afternoon. Internet research shed some light on the topic which was a decent enough start, but, remember, I am in it for the discovery, so I gathered my ingredients and equipment and began.
Simple enough ingredients, flour, salt, baking powder and water come together to make a soft, pliable dough which gets shaped into balls and allowed to rest for 30 minutes. Then each ball gets floured and rolled to a thin disc, then brushed with a mixture of butter and oil, rolled into a coil and allowed to rest again. The coiling of the dough is what forms the flaky layers. Think Caribbean puff pastry. The whole thing gets repeated once more before rolling into a thin disc, oiled and cooked on a tawa (griddle) until blistered and golden. My first attempt was actually pretty close but a bit tough–I hadn’t added enough water or baking powder. My second attempt was far better–the right combination of flaky, chewy and tender. We had it for dinner last night with super spicy curried goat–thankful for the bread to sop up the rich, peppery sauce and thankful for that delicious place between A and B.
3 cups (400 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading and dusting
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the water and stir to form a sticky dough. On a lightly floured board, turn out the dough and knead briefly, adding a bit more flour to keep your hands from sticking. Shape the dough into 4 balls, place on a floured baking sheet and cover loosely with a sheet of oiled plastic. Let sit for 30 minutes.
2. In a small bowl, combine the butter and oil. On a floured surface, roll a ball of dough into a 10-inch disc. Brush with a thin layer of the fat. Using a knife, make a cut starting in the center and extending to one edge. Roll the dough into a cone-shaped coil and press the edges together. Using your fingers, pinch the ends together to form a ball. Return the ball to the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes in a cool place. Repeat the rolling out, brushing and coiling once more, letting the dough balls sit for 30 minutes in a cool place. (The coils create the flaky layers.)
3. Preheat a griddle over moderate heat. Roll the roti dough to an 11-inch circle and brush one side with more of the butter mixture. Working with one or two at a time, place the roti on the griddle, buttered side down and cook over moderate heat until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Brush the surface, flip and griddle until golden. Brush and flip the roti once or twice more until blistered in spots and cooked completely through, about 2 minutes longer. Lower the heat if the roti darken too quickly. Fold the roti into quarters and serve with curry, dal or grilled meats.
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