You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? In Iconic Canadian Food, Gabby Peyton shares the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes. This month Gabby explores the history of a food that's growing in popularity across the country, the Caribbean Roti.
Doesn’t everything taste better wrapped up? Roti is a much-loved munchie all over the world, and what’s not to like? Savoury meaty filling enveloped by a crepe-like layer of love satisfies hunger from India to Trinidad to Toronto.
Unlike Butter Tarts or Ginger Beef, Caribbean-style roti wasn’t invented in Canada, but its spicy history contributes equally to the appetizing appendix that makes up our food history. Caribbean Roti may not have stretched its soft, warm, crepe-like layer to the far reaches of our country yet, but like most dishes that made their way to Canada over hundreds of years (origins of roti go back at least 5,000), it’s all about the ingredients and the people who cook it. The history of Caribbean Roti in Canada is poignant and peppery.
Let’s break it down a little. Roti is actually the thin unleavened flatbread that encases the filling, but it also refers to the complete dish. In regards to Caribbean Roti, which is typically Trinidadian, the piquant pocket is stuffed with either dhalpuri, dosti, sada or paratha (also known as bus-up-shut or buss-up shot referring to the last minute stovetop busting up right before the roti is served).
The history of Caribbean Roti in Canada is poignant and peppery.
Dhalpuri is a stuffing of cumin, ground yellow split peas, garlic, and pepper, while paratha is a layered roti, rubbed with butter and beaten until it's light and fluffy, and typically served with accompanying dishes, such as curries, stews or fried eggs.
The Timely Journey of Caribbean Roti to Canada
The roti being served in Canada now began its journey in East Africa, before expanding to India and then the Caribbean. From there, it finally reached our shores. The history of roti spans at least 5,000 years — culinary historians locate the origin of flatbread in India where, to this day, it's a staple with every meal.
During the 19th century, the British and Dutch brought indentured labourers from India to the Caribbean and they brought along their favourite dishes. Roti was being made and enjoyed there by 1840. Trinidad in particular developed its own style of roti and it’s hugely popular there. It's this roti that became known as Caribbean Roti in North America once it moved up north in the mental cookbooks of those migrating to Canada.
Caribbean peoples have been part of Canada since 556 Jamaicans, fleeing a British attempt to enslave them in their home country, arrived in 1796. Immigration from Caribbean nations was slow throughout the 19th century, with only a limited number of people coming to work in the mines of Cape Breton. However, since the 1960s, immigration from Caribbean nations has increased significantly. In fact, between 1996 and 2001, the population of Canadians of Caribbean origin grew at nearly triple the rate of the general populace.
The vast majority of immigrants from Caribbean nations (91%) settled in either Ontario or Quebec, with large and diverse communities developing in the hubs of Montreal and Toronto. In fact, Toronto’s Caribana is now the largest cultural festival in North America. Roti stands up with the rest of the many culinary cultures that make up Canada’s iconic foods.
Caribbean Roti: Famous in Toronto and Beyond
The most well-known Caribbean populations reside in the Toronto area, with roti shops spanning Scarborough, Etobicoke and Mississauga. The street-style roti is a favourite food in Toronto — in fact, Toronto is home to some of the best Caribbean roti in the country.
It’s a must-eat on many lists when it comes to famous Toronto dishes. On Huffington Post’s “Toronto Food: 32 Food Things Only A Torontonian Would Understand,” roti is predominantly featured, both the Indian and Caribbean varieties. There are dozens of roti shops in the GTA and people feel pride over their local. From Parkdale’s Bacchus Roti Shop to Mona’s Roti in Scarborough, asking someone where the best roti shop is in Toronto can be a loaded (with flavour) question.
The history of Caribbean roti in Canada is a delicious narrative: homesick Trinidadians and homegrown Canucks enjoy the enticing envelopes of goodness across the country. There’s a Roti Hut in Scarborough that opened in 1982, and one in Calgary too (no relation). Roti has grown in popularity over the past 30 years or so and is slowly spreading across the country outside of Ontario and Quebec. From Calabash Bistro in Vancouver to Halifax’s Caribbean Bliss, roti is best served busted up.
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Gabby Peyton is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.