Heat In the Time of Roti
The moment I stepped off the plane into the dense heat of Jamaica, I realized that there, on that island in the Caribbean sea, time itself could be consumed by heat. I wore no watch that week and never checked a cell phone or clock in passing. They were relics of structure. For this one week, I'd let the the long and bright days stretch on forever.
I've never been to Jamaica as a tourist. When I go, we stay with my aunt in what can only be described as a family compound in upper Kingston. We stay in the new house and endure the heat of the island without air conditioning. The days keep me holed up inside our family’s house, perched in front of a fan, either muted with heat-induced fatigue, or incessantly rambling about how hot I am. Once the mercury rises over 85 degrees fahrenheit I transform into a beast.
A strange selfishness comes over me in this weather. With every creeping degree, I lose an ounce of compassion and seek out the coolness with little consideration for shame.
Ice is hoarded and hidden.
Sleep comes with a shocking stillness.
We do not discuss the weather.
But there is the fan. I'd build a shrine and worship at the feet of this most precious oscillating contraption.
That week in Jamaica, land of my father, I learned two things about myself: Firstly, that I would do nearly anything to escape the heat—and secondly, and far more importantly—I would forsake even more, including respite from solar oppression, to learn how to cook roti from my Aunt Yvonne.
There is a folklore in my family that has given rise to a set of culinary superlatives that we hold firm even to this day. Uncle Derrick makes the best curry goat (I credit this to the fact that he selects and butchers it himself). Aunty Ginger cooks 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 have actually done wonders for family meals; given no one is interested is abdicating their throne, the food remains as exquisite as ever.
Being the best at making roti is a special sort of triumph. Roti is bread and bread is life, so succeeding at this gives you a hallowed placed in the folklore. Roti is one of the many flatbreads in the cannon of Indian food. As the Indian diaspora spread beyond the subcontinent, so has roti (and naan, chapati, parantha, etc.) My father is West Indian. This is a nice general term you hear all the time in Canada and the Northeast to describe peoples from the Caribbean with ancestral ties to India, but it's used less and less the further west you move 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 bares 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 and 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. The last time I was in Jamaica, she taught me how to make it.
Almost the entire week had passed before my aunt called for me. I didn’t realize how long I had waited for this particular phone call until it finally came.
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 that number would be smaller than I’d ever like to admit, but when you make that walk, mid afternoon, in the thick humidity of a Jamaican afternoon, any number of steps grows by exponential proportions. Exaggerations become the best way to convey the acuteness of what you're feeling.
Yvonne opened the door for me, shooing me in telling me to be quick, to not let the heat in. My God, I thought. She gets me. She handed me a glass of ice water and we walked back to the kitchen. Her kitchen is long and wide and there are few things in it. Set out on the deep countertop she had a bag of flour, a large bowl, damp kitchen towels, and little balls of roti she had already began to work on. The air smelled smoky and scrolls of charcoal were floating into the kitchen from the doorway on the right. When I peeked my head into the dark room I saw a little grill set up near the patio with burning coals glowing in the shadows. Yvonne is maybe 5 feet tall on a good day and she flits around you like a hummingbird, giving directions, rolling out dough, smiling, and laughing, and always shooing you to do something quicker, quicker.
"Come on man, you have to be fast."
I walked to the house with my camera, tripod, a notebook, clearly too fresh into my graduate degree, obsessed with the idea that I was doing an ethnography or something. Rookie. Quickly enough, the pen any paper were tossed to the side and I was coated in the sheen of sweat and flour.
First we talk tawa. This is the flat, cast iron skillet the roti is griddled on. 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 but I fear that quickly verges into "I was into it before it was famous talk" so I'll leave it at that. 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 "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 sheet cast ion gets where is actually looks hot. You lay the roti on the tawa and wait for it to 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; a graduation of sorts. With the lights off, the stone walls, and the breeze coming into through all the open doors and windows, I understand 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 dinning 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 left Yvonne's house in the early evening and walked back to my Grandfather's house in the same heat, but this time, there's was nothing to exaggerate about the steps that were taken.