Amazing Grace -November 8, 2001
WGrace William flashed a big smile and announced to the nine cruisers crowded around her, "I'm not keeping anything back - no secrets." We nodded in unison, clutching pads of paper, waiting for our first lesson in roti-making. "Well," Grace conceded, "maybe my hands are my secret." This turned out to be only partly true.
The group of us was assembled under the thatched roof of Grace's Roti Shop in one of the boatyards in the Chaguaramas area of Trinidad. Six days a week, Grace serves breakfast and lunch to a faithful throng of cruisers and local workers. Many of her patrons claim she makes the best rotis in Chaguaramas...maybe even in the world. Every once in a while, with much prodding from her cruiser fans, Grace will agree to share her secrets and hold a roti class after she's closed her regular kitchen for the day. After an earlier encounter with this delicious cuisine (see August 30th log entry, "Different Drummers") we jumped at the opportunity.
To the uninitiated, a roti comprises curry-flavoured stew wrapped in flat, unleavened bread, similar to an Indian chapati. The basic contents are a peppery mixture of potato and channa (chick peas), to which other vegetables and chunks of meat can be added. Although the spices and main components exhibit an east Indian influence, rotis are distinctly Caribbean. Grace, whose grandparents emigrated from India, is very definite on this point. "I actually don't like Indian curry dishes," she admitted.
The first challenge in attending one of Grace's cooking classes is to find her shop. It's tucked in a grove of trees on the edge of Power Boats boatyard, overlooking a dead-end canal. When your cooking is as good as Grace's, you don't need to advertise with signs.
We started our lesson by making the dough for the roti "skins". The ingredients are simple: white flour, baking powder, and water. The actual quantities are a bit more of a mystery ("maybe a cup and a half of water, maybe more or maybe less"), as is the kneading technique ("keep it up until it feels right in your hands").
Once the dough was mixed and kneaded, it was set aside to "rest" and we turned our attention to making the fillings. For all of the fillings, the curry base was the same. Grace started by frying a generous amount of minced garlic in vegetable oil in a heavy sauce pan and then added a little saffron and a lot of curry powder. She mixed in enough water to make a thick paste and continued cooking the mixture. Grace stressed the importance of thoroughly cooking the curry base before adding any of the other ingredients. In separate pots she then prepared chicken, potato/channa, and mixed vegetable fillings. The chicken had been chopped into chunks - bones and all - and marinated overnight in fresh "shandon beni", the Trinidad version of cilantro or coriander. The vegetables featured chopped bodi beans and diced pumpkin.
Grace's recipes included a lot of "optionals", although she voiced a preference for keeping things simple. If you have some, you can add locally obtained spices like "anchar masala" or "geera" (cumin). While onion is an optional ingredient in most of the fillings, garlic is definitely a must. In fact, Grace constantly added more garlic as she stirred each dish on the stove. "As soon as I don't smell it any more, I put in more garlic," she advised.
With all the fillings bubbling away, we were ready to prepare the skins and assemble the rotis. Now things got complicated. Grace divided the dough into tennis ball-sized spheres, flattened them into four-inch diameter disks, stuffed them with cooked, ground split peas, and re-formed them into balls. This took Grace only a few seconds to accomplish and involved some truly amazing movements of her thumb in poking and pinching the dough. The object is to have a thin, consistent layer of ground peas between equally thin layers of dough when the ball is rolled out to form a fifteen-inch diameter skin. We each took turns at forming the stuffed balls and each failed miserably. At this point, David stopped scribbling in his notebook and simply wrote, "buy a package of prepared roti skins in the supermarket."
It was easy after that. We fried the roti skins in a little oil on a heavy griddle, a few seconds on each side, flipping them three or four times. Grace spooned the fillings into the centre of each skin and folded the edges in to make a bulging square packet. Then the best part - we sat down and devoured our afternoon's project.
Licking our fingers afterwards, we knew Grace's secret was safe. It's all in her thumbs.