A few months ago, I taunted y’all with promises of a roti recipe. We’ll, my article has been published in Caribbean Compass, which you can read in PDF format, but I figured I’d re-post it here because I know I’m totally lazy about downloading PDFs, so you might be, too.
Rotis with Ruthie (Caribbean Compass, October 2012)
I’m ashamed to admit that after six months sailing the Caribbean, I didn’t even know what a roti was when I lucked into a roti-making lesson in Bequia, in the Grenadines. My husband Pip and I had seen signs for them everywhere in the 10 islands we’d visited on our sailboat, a 40-foot Hardin Sea Wolf ketch, but hadn’t yet sampled a roti, despite our enthusiastic explorations of other island foods. So when a couple of fellow cruisers visiting our boat for sundowners started raving about the “made-from-scratch” rotis they had eaten at a local restaurant, I decided it was time to lose my roti virginity – particularly because I had just spent the afternoon laughing with the owner and suspected she’d be willing to let me watch her make them.
When we first dropped into the Whaleboner for beers and internet, the owner, Ruthie Hinkson-Williams was out. Her adorable, scrawny 8-year old son Camillo, however, was more than capable of filling in, asking us with precise politeness, “What may I bring you? That will be 12 dollars Eastern Caribbean, please.” I was charmed silly by his diction and good manners, and had to stifle a giggle as he opened our bottles by enthusiastically grasping them with both hands and fitting them into a traditional, wall-mounted bottle opener, levering them open with a great heave, as if they weighed a ton. Ruthie soon returned, and my amused retelling of her son’s bartending aptitude led to an afternoon of telling stories and laughing over working in our parents’ businesses as children.
Ruthie’s father started the Whaleboner 50 years ago. Whaling is a traditional, if controversial, activity on Bequia, started when a whaling ship from Nantucket was stranded on the island during a hurricane. In the year it took to repair the boat, many of the fishermen had started families and – not surprisingly – elected to stay in the island paradise rather than return to the frigid waters of New England. While the International Whaling Commission today permits islanders to take up to four whales a year using traditional methods – in an open sailing boat using a harpoon – there are few left with the skills to hunt them, and many years, no whales are taken. But a large pile of whale bones still exists on a small island known as Whale Key. Fifty years ago, Ruthie’s father was drinking with his friends one day down among the bones and exclaimed, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to open a bar with these?” and the idea for the Whaleboner was born. Today you enter the restaurant through an arch of whale ribs and sit on bar stools made from vertebrae as you look out over the crystal-clear, aqua waters of Admiralty Bay – and if you ask Ruthie nicely, maybe she’ll tell you the other story of the bar’s name.
The day we visited was a rare rainy day in Bequia, which had just entered the off season. The restaurant was quiet, giving Ruthie plenty of time to show me her roti technique. She first laid out all the ingredients, explaining that rotis came to the West Indies with Indian indentured servants after the end of slavery, though there were no Indians on Bequia, “it was all Africans and Scots here.” The roti – a tortilla-like flatbread filled with potatoes and meat or vegetables — is the “packed, fitted lunch with everything in there … a bulky, hearty meal for the husbands going out in the fields,” and each island makes them differently.
As she spoke, she mixed a basic flour dough, kneaded it and split it into two balls. Using her thumbs, she shaped each ball of dough into a small bowl shape, then placed a few tablespoons of mashed yellow split peas in the center. She explained that the split peas “add flavour and protein” as she pinched the sides of the dough back together into a ball. She set the two filled balls of dough aside to rest, covered with a cloth, explaining that she makes the entire roti from scratch each time, “because the dough is just not the same if refrigerated.” It’s a lengthy process, she explained, “But what I tell people when they start fussin’ is you’re gonna get the best roti you’ve ever had.”
Ruthie turned to the fillings as the dough rested: she’d decided to make both a fish and a veggie roti, but started the spice mix for both in the same pan. Over medium heat in a bit of oil, she sauted garlic, onions, peppers, cayenne, peppercorns, Trinidadian curry powder and chadon beni, a Caribbean herb much like cilantro. “You’ve got to let it heat up to get the flavors out of the spices,” she explained. “For the veggie and beef rotis, I like to add a nice strong cinnamon bay leaf, even though it’s not traditional.”
Into another pot went another handful of Trini curry powder and diced potatoes, set to boil while she cubed the firm kingfish into half-inch squares. Halving the now fragrant spice mix and starting a second pan for the vegetable filling, Ruthie explained that a vegetable roti can use any combination of vegetables, and is particularly good for leftovers. She used carrots and pre-cooked Caribbean pumpkin, throwing in handfuls of pigeon peas cooked in coconut milk and yellow split peas leftover from the dough. The cubed fish was added to the spices in the original pan, along with about a half a cup of water, and left to simmer.
Once the fillings were on the stove, Ruthie turned back to the dough, rolling it out onto a 12-inch round. She explained that the rotis are traditionally made on a roti stone, like a flat iron plate, but a flat griddle would work just as well in the modern kitchen. Tapping off the flour from the dough round, she gently placed it in a generous amount of oil then used a wax-paper ball to thoroughly cover the top of the round with oil. “Really cover the top with oil,” she instructed,” and let it sit a few minutes to cook. It might puff up, but you don’t want to let it get brown freckles – it will be too hard to fold.”
Finally, Ruthie slid the cooked flatbread onto a plate, the layered a potatoes, then fish, then potatoes, and folded the bread around the filling, gently flipping the whole thing over to keep the edges together. After repeating the same process with the vegetables, we carried the two steaming rotis out to the dining area, where my husband awaited eagerly. As Ruthie looked on, eagerly awaiting our verdict, we tucked into the rotis with delight, mumbling our praise around mouthfuls of deliciousness.
Satisfied that we were happy, Ruthie sat down with us and we wiled away the rest of the afternoon swapping stories and laughing together. Ruthie’s rotis were fabulous, but even more memorable was the afternoon I spent making a new friend and learning about her life, a cooking lesson that became a lesson in living fully.
For the dough:
three-quarters cup cooked yellow split peas, mashed with fork or food mill
2 cups flour
on half teaspoon salt
one quarter cup vegetable oil
one half cup water
Oil for sautéing
half an onion, very finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or grated
10 whole peppercorns
3 tablespoons diced cive: a cross between chives and green onions; either can be substituted
2 leaves chadon beni, sliced substitute cilantro if unavailable
one quarter teaspoon cayenne
one quarter teaspoon black pepper
6 tablespoons West Indian curry powder West Indian curry powder is different from Indian, but you can substitute any sweet Indian curry powder if you cannot find West Indian
2 medium potatoes, in half-inch dice
1 cup vegetables, such as diced carrot, pumpkin, squash, or greens
one half cup cooked beans or peas, such as pigeon or black-eyed peas
Mix the flour and salt in a bowl and add the oil and enough water to form a moderately stiff dough. Knead together just long enough for the dough to become firm and hold together. Divide into two and flatten into a 5-inch round. Make a well in the center of each and fill with 2- 3 tablespoons of the mashed peas, reserving the rest for the filling. Bring together the edges of the dough to form a ball and let rest covered with a cloth or plastic wrap while preparing the filling.
In oil over medium-low heat, sauté the onion, garlic, peppercorns, cive, cadon beni, cayenne and black peppers and 3 tablespoons of the curry powder in a few tablespoons of oil.
In a medium pot in salted water, bring the remaining curry powder and potatoes to a boil then lower to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, about 8 minutes.
If the vegetables are not pre-cooked, add them to the spice mix with about a half cup of water and simmer until tender, adding water as needed. When tender, add the cooked beans/peas and leftover lentils
As the potatoes and vegetables are cooking, roll out the dough into two 12-inch rounds. Heat several tablespoons of oil in a griddle or shallow frying pan over medium heat. Shake off the flour and place the dough round in the oil. Use a ball of wax paper or paper towel to generously coat the top side of the flatbread with oil. Cook for 1-2 minutes on each side; do not let brown marks appear.
Drain the potatoes.
Place each flatbread round on a plate. Place a quarter of the potatoes on each round, then half the vegetable mix, then the rest of the potatoes. Fold the edges of the flatbread over the filling, creating a rough cube, and flip so that the edges are under the filling.