Rolling out the Roti For Caribana

The debate could go on for hours. Long into the night, likely with much ranting and arm-waving, the people of Parkdale are always willing to argue over which neighbourhood roti shop is the best. In an area where residents are alarmed if they don’t wake up to the smell of curry, preference is based predominantly on location and proximity, but the fact that each roti shop offers a different style of roti also plays into each person’s choice. Many of the ‘Dale’s roti shops are also long-standing family-owned businesses, so allegiances can run deep based on how long each customer has lived in the neighbourhood.

This coming Saturday, when millions of Caribana revellers flood into the neighbourhood for the parade, every Parkdale roti shop will be jumping up to meet the demand. It’s common knowledge that on the Sunday after the Caribana parade, Parkdale residents step out of their homes en masse, garbage bags in hand, to pick up the styrofoam containers of gnawed goat bones from their front lawns. We’re not bitter about this because probably we’ve all made some money the day before by renting out our driveways and front lawns as parking spots for tourists.

Having moved from one part of Parkdale to another a few years ago, I now find myself frequenting Island Foods on a regular basis, where I would previously rotate my roti purchases between Bacchus, Ali’s and Roti Lady. And while the Trinidadian style of roti at Island Foods can be a bit too heavy on the gravy for some people, it’s become my preferred style and go-to shop because the flavours of each component really seem to stand out.

The roti, of course, is the bread or “skin” and is similar in appearance to a very large soft tortilla, although it is usually airier due to the use of baking powder. This bread is filled with various curried stews and folded in a manner similar to a fajita. The bread itself comes from India and is eaten with many Indian foods, but the filled roti is traditional to West Indian cuisine. All types of roti are typically made with wheat flour and fried on a type of griddle called a tava.

The main style of Trinidadian roti is the dhalpuri, where ground yellow split peas and spices are sealed into layers of the bread before it is cooked on the tava. The consistency of the bread is light, but crumbly when the diner bites into the layer of ground peas. Examples of this style of roti skin can be found at Ali’s and Island Foods, with the rotis at Ali’s having a heavier ground pea mixture in the bread. Guyanese-style roti skins, as can be found with the whole wheat-only skins at Bacchus, tend to be soft and slightly greasy, but reveal flaky layers when eaten. This style of roti-making takes a skilled hand, and longtime patrons of Bacchus can tell who is in the kitchen by the quality of their roti bread.

Roti fillings are generally long-cooking stews, many of which are based around a curry. Spicing varies between nationalities although the main ingredient offerings are usually similar. For meat, chicken is a given, offered in many places both boneless or bone-in. Goat is also a typical item, as is shrimp, although beef may make it to the menu in some shops, depending on the background of the owners. Jerk chicken is also an option at many shops.

For vegetables, chickpeas and potatoes are the standard and come in all rotis, even if the main ingredient is meat. Other options almost always include a green of some kind, usually spinach or okra, squash, mixed vegetables or eggplant.

Hot sauce is added to each roti as it’s made to order, but can vary depending on who is making the dish. I’ve seen customers insist on the hottest spicing available only to be warned by the server that it’s really, really, REALLY hot. With the typical West Indian hot sauce being made from scotch bonnet peppers, a lot of roti newbies don’t realize just how spicy things can get.

There is also some debate on other roti condiments and their appropriateness and authenticity. Bacchus Roti offers cheese and onions as an addition to their rotis although some purists find that to be the ultimate insult to the dish.

Ultimately, Parkdale’s roti shops offer a roti to suit every taste and personality. It may take some experimenting and research for each person to find their favourite shop, ingredient combo and heat level, but once they do, they can join the rest of us in the grand Parkdale argument over whose roti is the best.

Island Foods
1182 King Street West

Bacchus Roti
1376 Queen Street West

Ali’s West Indian Roti
1446 Queen Street West

Roti Lady

269 Dunn Avenue

Mother India

1456 Queen Street West

Chicken Plus
216 Close Avenue

Note – as part of the Island Soul festival at Harbourfront Centre from August 1st to 4th, vote for your favourite Toronto roti – the winner will be announced August 3rd.