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HomeEducation / CultureCome for Roti…an opportunity

Come for Roti…an opportunity

By Johnny Coomansingh

Observations regarding culinary advances in Trinidad over the past 40 years have revealed a definite shift in the acceptance of Indo-Trinidadian cuisine (Indian food). Regarding cuisine, I noticed that the major ethnic groups (Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians) were literally polarized between the early 1950s and late 1960s. With particular reference to the flatbread known as roti, Indian food was always on the agenda for ridicule during this era. Nevertheless, the issue with Indian food has been somewhat settled in the years immediately following the country’s independence from the British Crown in 1962.

Rising from a point of sheer obscurity, Trinidadian Indian food is now offered as a commodity to the buying public inclusive of tourists who relish the spicy fare. In terms of its trans-nationalization, authentic Trinidadian Indian food using locally produced Trinidad spices and curry formulae are now offered in enclaves of Indo-Trinidadian populations in Canada, the United States, and England. Although the tourism industry was at one time “shunned,” the oil-rich state having suffered an economic downturn due to unstable oil prices during the 1980s embarked on the tourism industry in 1986 as a panacea towards economic stability. As part of the tourism product, ethnic cuisine became a major factor in selling the tourism product.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but in almost every plural society there are elements that support prejudice and provocation at every angle in the culture. “Coolie, coolie, come for roti, all the roti done; when the nigga raise the stick, all the coolie run.” Intricately woven into this simple-looking verse are psychosocial forces that have contributed immensely to the politics and culture of a nation. Almost every Indo-Trinidadian schoolchild is familiar with this little verse. Mere childish banter in the elementary schools eventually bore fruit in the covert polarization of the dominant races that comprise Trinidadian society.

An analysis of the statement introduces the concepts of nigga and coolie, referents to the two dominant races that occupy Trinidad. These are the descendants of enslaved Africans in the first instance, and descendants of Indian indentured servants, (Indo-Trinidadians) in the latter. These “Creoles” now inhabit the twin-island, democratic, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago; the southernmost state in the Caribbean archipelago.

Every Trinidadian also recognizes that roti is “coolie” food. Note that there are several types of roti including saada roti, dosti roti, paratha roti, pepper roti, aloo roti, and dhalpuree roti, the more popular ones consumed in Trinidad. Be aware that the two terms “nigga” and “coolie” are derogative terms in Trinidadian society. It is no different in Guyana; added to the verse is the term “mash potato,” representative of what South Asian cuisine prepares as the peppery “aloo choka” flavored with geera (cumin) and garlic. At one time, Afro-Trinidadians used items of food like roti (East Indian flat bread) and mash potato, (aloo choka) from the East Indian culture to ridicule Indo-Trinidadians.

As a carry-over from the elementary school, the culture of provocation meted out to Indo-Trinidadians found its way within the high school stream. From personal observation as a high-school student of Northeastern College (NEC), Sangre Grande, Trinidad, during the mid-1960s, it was fairly evident that East Indian children felt a sense of discomfort, especially while eating lunch. Even then, there was ample proof that the races were polarized. The East Indians stuck together and congregated in specific locations around the school premises. Most East Indian students brought with them sack lunches consisting primarily of saada roti (roasted flatbread made with white flour, baking powder, and salt).

The roti contained some type of filling such as thinly sliced, heavily seasoned, peppery fried “Irish” potatoes (aloo choka), seasoned fried eddoes, (a small corm) eggplant (bigan choka), snake bean (bodi), amaranth spinach (chorai bhagi or dasheen leaves), small fried fish (fry-dry), cheddar cheese, and stewed or curried chicken or goat. The brown paper sacks rendered translucent from the grease of the contents were normally held over the mouth of the eater to completely conceal what was being consumed. The fear of being ridiculed by Afro-Trinidadian students was always present. In this era, prejudice was rife.

In the days when Afro-Trinidadian children poked fun at “roti,” part of the staple diet of Indo-Trinidadians, it was out of sheer prejudice and ignorance. Roti, otherwise known as “Indian bread,” is now a delicacy, and a commercial restaurant item sold to everyone in Trinidad including Afro-Trinidadians and other ethnicities resident in the society. Many Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians have acquired the art of making roti and other East Indian dishes. Giving evidence of this fact, one writer intimated: “Black Trinidadians (Afro-Trinidadians) line up to eat at many of the city’s (Port of Spain) Indian eateries.”

On a more jocular note, Satnarayan Maharaj, former secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), the largest Hindu organization in Trinidad declared in a personal interview: “We used to hide to eat our roti in the old days, now we are still hiding because they (Afro-Trinidadians) want to take it from us now.” The popular Hot Shoppe roti shop continues to dominate the roti-eating public because of the quality and taste of their products.

Their advertising hook line is testimony to the hundreds of patrons of all descriptions who flock to savour a bite of the best roti in town: “We did not invent roti but we perfected the art.” Located in Westmoorings, Mucurapo Road, and Maraval Road directly opposite the former Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) station Port of Spain, the two outlets are strategically positioned to serve a more affluent clientele. In these two roti outlets, an Indo-Trinidadian worker is difficult to spot, indicative of the Afro-Trinidadians’ interest in Indo-Trinidadian ethnic cuisine. The “problem” relative to food discrimination in the former British colony, certainly turned into an “opportunity”.

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