This is the fifth of five posts that get all food travelogue-y about Barbados, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Grenada. The previous posts were “Return from the Windward Islands” “Coconut Drops from Carriacou” “St. Vincent and the Grenadines” and “More Fruits in Heaven and Earth. . .”
I’ve been thinking about convenience foods. Partially, I’ve been thinking about it because I wrote an article on TV dinners for the newest Local Banquet and partially because it drives me around the bend when people use the phrase “convenience food” to mean “terrible food that you should be ashamed to feed your children” and largely because I read a description once of Spanish missionaries arriving in what is now Mexico in the 1500’s and finding streets full of vendors with all manner of what we’d call tamales* for sale as takeout. That last idea has lodged in my imagination, much like the fruit descriptions from the last post.
[*If they had been eating tacos I would have been able to link this thematically appropriate article from the Smithsonian - but tacos are a recent invention. Thus, linked in a footnote]
Convenience foods are. . . convenient. Somewhere we (and by “we” I mean “liberal Vermonters”) developed a negative moral judgement around convenience - which, granted, the behavior of many fast food chains helped reinforce, and for some of us Fast Food Nation was published about the same time we started fending for ourselves as adults setting our own food rules, thus impeding our ability to enjoy fast food hamburgers ever again. Getting judge-y around using convenience really is a self-generating moral quagmire because convenience foods have for thousands of years been associated with working classes and, well. . . tamales are still delicious.
This bigger point is that convenience foods and takeout foods have a centuries (millennia, even) old pedigree that far predates McDonald’s - and it’s not entirely Americans who set the agenda in this field, even today. I’ve mentioned Icelandic hot dogs and South African bunny chow before, and now let me speak the word “roti”.
A roti is a flatbread originating in India, and as it has traveled across the globe it has evolved to mean a wrap around a meal of curried items. I realize that “curried items” covers a huge range of possible interpretations - but that’s correct, we’re talking about a huge range of possible interpretations. The rotis I had in St. Vincent were filled with either conch, fish, or lobster. In nearby Trinidad they apparently get even more creative (I may fly to Trinidad some day just to taste their rotis). And then there were the Chefette rotis in Barbados.
Chefette is a chain of fast food restaurants with solidly good-tasting food. They’re a Barbados company, founded in 1972. Everyone we talked to -- from the cab driver to the founder of the Bridgetown food tour -- adored Chefette. I’m sure it’s not universal. I’m sure that, just as you can find someone in Vermont who will disparage the local maple creamie stand, you can find people in Barbados speaking ill of Chefette, but nonetheless eating there felt like we were rooting for the hometown team against KFC and Burger King (and did you know that KFC is a major pro cricket sponsor? Something I learned while sitting at a Barbados bar eating Chefette rotis and watching sports TV). I particularly liked the Chefette beef and potato rotis, with a mild-yet-not-insipid curry flavor, tender meat, and potatoes cooked to soft yet not mushy, and the roti wrapper tasted somewhere between the soft, flour-y rotis I know and a crepe - and how do that you quality control that dish in a fast food snack bar system that’s on every corner? The potatoes alone - the texture was perfect, I’d be happy just to know the potato secret.
Anyhow. Chefette proves two things that I’ve long believed: 1. The roti is the most brilliant fast food ever* and 2. screw McDonald’s**! Which doesn’t have outlets in Barbados.
[*It tastes great and also its packaging (the roti) is edible. Want to hear about wild stuff happening in edible packaging? Here’s a podcast on that very topic]
[**Except when McDonald’s is doing things like creating massive demand for meat to be antibiotic free and eggs to be cage free, in which case, yay McDonald’s! And, McDonald’s, I thank you in advance for figuring out a way to popularize veggie burgers, since surely your food technicians can produce the same Big Mac taste without ground beef, and you can find a hot shot marketing person to invent a way to sell it. Yes there is an article to link on that topic too - it’s about junk food ending obesity - I told you at the beginning I’ve been thinking a lot about convenience foods]
The next questions is - naturally - how can we make these foods from scratch at home, thus making them much less convenient.
I’ll defer to better home-cooked roti experts first with these two recipes:
- Simply Trini Cooking (which gives several variations)
- How to Make Soft Roti (okay, this is South African, not Caribbean, but I enjoyed rotis a great deal as a college student in South Africa)
If you want to experiment at home. . . the filling could be anything curried, usually with potatoes. You could even maintain the convenience spirit and get curry in a can / premade sauces. Here is the most recent recipe I made, a sort-of-Asiany fish that I wrapped up with yogurt-braised potatoes in a coconut "roti" (see below).
- 2 Tb Ginger Paste (or very finely minced ginger - when I get a big ginger root I puree it in the food processor and then freeze it by the tablespoonful in trays made from plastic Pete & Gerry’s egg cartons)
- 2 Tb Green Curry Paste
- ½ an Onion
- Juice of 1 small lime
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 Tb canola oil
- 1 hot red chile seeds and membrane removed (optional)
Puree all these in a food processor, then blend in about ¼ cup of water (to make it a marinade)
Cut about 1.5 pounds of a white fleshed fish fillet (cod, catfish, etc.) into bite sized chunks and marinate it in the marinade, in the fridge, for about 2 hours.
In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of canola oil, then gently cook the fish chunks until they’re about cooked through (this will depend on how large they are). Towards the end, add enough of any extra marinade to be sure the final fish are coated in it.
For the roti, I recently stumbled on this delicious option. In a mixing bowl, mix up
- 1/2 cup rice flour
- 2 1/2 cups regular flour
- 1 egg (lightly beaten)
- 1 can of full fat coconut milk
- However much hot water you need (if any) to make a very soft dough.
Knead gently just until it holds together in a smooth dough. Put in a greased bowl, covered, and leave out 12 hours. Then break the dough into pieces the size of a clementine, roll thin, and cook in a hot skillet until browned on each side.