This article was published originally on the author’s blog and is reprinted here, in a slightly altered version, with her permission.
The moment I step off the plane into the dense heat of Jamaica, I realize that here, on this island in the Caribbean Sea, time itself can be consumed by heat. I wear no watch this week and I’ll never check a cell phone or clock in passing. They are relics of structure. For this one week, I’ll let the the long and bright days stretch on forever.
I’ve never been to Jamaica as a tourist. When I go, I stay with my aunt in what can only be described as a family compound in upper Kingston. I stay in the “new house’ (“new” since it is the most recently built) and endure the heat of the island without air conditioning.
These days keep me holed up inside our family’s house perched in front of a fan, either muted with heat-induced fatigue or rambling incessantly about how hot I am. Once the mercury rises over 85 degrees, I become a beast. A strange selfishness comes over me. With every creeping degree I lose an ounce of compassion and seek out the coolness with little consideration for shame. Ice is hoarded and sleep comes to me with a shocking stillness I never knew I possessed. And then there is the fan. I would build a shrine and worship at the base of this most precious oscillating contraption.
This week in Jamaica, land of my father, I learn two things about myself. First: I would do nearly anything to escape the heat. Second, and far more importantly: I would forsake even more, including respite from solar oppression, to learn how to cook roti from my aunt Yvonne.
Family folklore has given rise to a set of culinary superlatives to which we hold firm. Uncle Derrick makes the best curry goat (I credit this to the fact that he selects and butchers the goat himself). Aunty Ginger can cook as well as my grandmother—a true accomplishment in itself— and Uncle Trevor is simply the best cook. But no one, no one, makes roti as well as Aunty Yvonne. These carefully appointed culinary identities define family meals, and no one is interested is abdicating his or her throne. On this visit, it is confirmed: the food remains as exquisite as ever.
But being the best at making roti is its own special sort of triumph. Roti is bread and bread is life, so succeeding at this dish gives one a particularly hallowed placed in the folklore. Roti is one of the many flatbreads in the canon of Indian food. As the Indian diaspora has spread beyond the subcontinent, so has roti, as well as other Indian breads, among them, naan, chapati, and paratha.
My father is West Indian, a nice general term one hears all the time in Canada and the Northeast U.S. to describe people from the Caribbean who have ancestral ties to India. The term is used less and less the farther west one moves across the United States (as I’ve learned based on my current tenure in Iowa). His culture, and thusly part of my culture, is directly informed by his Jamaican nationality and Indian heritage. In my family, the presence of the Indian influences bears the same weight as the Jamaican influences and is mostly expressed through language and our food… which leads me back to roti. It’s our bread.
Younger generations eat roti less often and Jamaican staples like hard dough bread—basically pan de mie—has mostly replaced roti as the bread of regular rotation. But when the whole family gathers–when there is a party, a wedding, a baby, or a funeral– there is roti and Yvonne makes it.
I didn’t realize how long I had waited for this particular phone call until it finally came: Aunty Yvonne rings to ask me if I’m ready to learn to make roti.
I wish I had counted the number of steps it took for me to walk from my grandfather’s house to end of the street where my aunt lives. I’m certain it would be smaller than I’d ever like to admit, but any number of steps grows exponentially when making that walk in the thick mid-afternoon of Jamaican humidity.
Yvonne opens the door for me, shooing me in and telling me to be quick, to not let the heat in. “My God,” I think, “she gets me.” She hands me a glass of ice water and we walk back to the kitchen, which is long and wide. There are few things in it. Set out on the deep countertop she has a bag of flour, a large bowl, damp kitchen towels, and little balls of roti she has already begun to work on. The air is smoky and scrolls of charcoal float into the kitchen from the doorway on the right. When I peek my head into the dark room, I see a little grill set up near the patio with burning coals glowing in the shadows. Yvonne is maybe five feet tall on a good day and she flits around like a hummingbird, giving directions, rolling out dough, smiling, and laughing, and always shooing me to work quicker, quicker.
“Come on, man, you have to be fast.”
I had walked to the house with my camera, tripod, and a notebook– clearly too fresh into my graduate degree– obsessed with the idea that I was doing ethnology or something. Rookie. Quickly enough, the pen and paper are tossed to the side and I am coated in the sheen of sweat and flour.
First, we talk tawa. This is the flat, cast iron skillet on which the roti is griddled. Next up: coconut oil. I could go on and on about coconut oil and the Ramdeen family, how it’s been the de facto oil since forever. Then, we talk flour. She tells me Jamaican flour has less gluten than American flour and I know she’s using a sort of cake flour. We add flour to the bowl, salt, baking powder, and enough water until, she says, “it feels right.” It’s this touch-based confidence of a true cook, of the roti maker, I hear with this particular proclamation.
Good roti dough is kneaded until it’s smooth and velvety. I watch how she handles the dough and recognize it’s the same way my dad does. There’s a finesse to it. We separate the dough into little balls and this is when I see her true skill come into play.
First the dough is shaped into disks. Then, holding the disk flat in one hand and using the edge of your other hand, you press the dough down the center and move your hand from side to side to flatten the dough. It sounds far more complicated than it is.
Next, the flattened rounds are rolled out until they are very thin, so thin that you can layer another rolled out roti on top between a thin coating of coconut oil and cook them at the same time. I never quite grasped this part.
All the while the tawa is set over the stove on the highest heat. We rub it with coconut oil and it starts to take on that sheen cast iron gets where it actually looks hot. You lay the roti on the tawa and wait for it took cook. This happens quickly. Sometimes air bubbles form and you press down the opposite side to push the heat through. You flip them, you remove them, you stack them, and you do it all over again.
Thirty minutes in and we’ve amassed quite the stack of roti. It’s getting hotter and hotter in the kitchen so Yvonne says I can move to grill in the dark room where she’s been working; it’s a graduation of sorts. With the lights off, the stone walls, and the breeze coming into through all the open doors and windows, I get why this is where she cooks her roti. Never mind that this grill is infinitely hotter than the stove, that this tawa is twice the size, and everything cooks in a fraction of the time.
Once we’ve finished cooking, we move to the dining room where we roll the roti into columns, stack them in a large container, and cover them until it’s time to have them with the curry goat Uncle Derrick will make for the party that night.
I leave Yvonne’s house in the early evening and walk back to my grandfather’s house in the same heat. This time, however, there’s nothing to exaggerate about the steps that are taken.
About Hali Ramdene
Hali Ramdene is an editor, writer, photographer, and food stylist. She received her MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University along with a Certificate of Culinary Arts, and her BA in Art History from the State University of New York at Albany. She currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and has lived in upstate New York, New York City, and Valencia, Spain. She has shaped her career out of her two loves, art and food. Her love of food stems from the subtle magic it brings to the everyday, and has been influenced by her family, heritage, and life experiences. She writes about art history at Dinner With Panofsky and curates content on her nascent editorial project, The Collective Table.