It was a bar by the beach at Pigeon Point, Tobago. We had only recently arrived in the island and were keen to try things out. Including the food. I had been looking up some of the oddities that were advertised, such as Buss up Shut. Apparently that was originally bust-up shirt, but given the Trini-speak treatment, and that is what it looks like – a shirt that’s been mistreated. And it’s a kind of roti.
Okay, what’s a roti?
To those not from Trinidad and Tobago, trying to understand their version of English, roti sounds like the past participle of the French word for roast. But no, it’s not a roast anything. “It’s a… it’s kind of hard to explain,” said the very pleasant Indian-heritage woman who appeared to own the place. But the people over there were eating one, so we had a look and decided to give it a go.
The basis of the roti is a flatbread, like a chapatti or what in some countries is called a wrap – a soft piece of bread rolled up with some kind of filling.
I ordered a meat one and was taken aback to be warned that it would contain bones and I should be careful. The thing about getting used to another culture is that you have to tread carefully. In England I would have helpfully suggested that they take the bloody bones out – which I still don’t think would be an unreasonable request- but if that’s the way things are done, then who am I to argue?
In some countries butchery is an art, with carcasses taken apart by skill rather than brute force. But there are also places – Venezuela is one and this seems to be another – where all that’s required is a heavy meat cleaver and some muscle. Instead of disassembling by separating the bones at joints, they give the thing a hefty whack that no leg can withstand and abracadabra: two pieces of meat – plus shards of spiky, dangerous bone.
One of life’s simple pleasures is watching people do something very well. It doesn’t really matter what they are good at, and butchery is as valid as sculpture or even accountancy. But wielding a sharp, weighty instrument instead is what gives butchery a bad name. It’s why when we say something was butchered we don’t mean a nice job was done, we mean it was the work of an unskilled, unsubtle person or a thug. There’s a horrible scene in The English Patient where a Gestapo officer takes someone’s thumbs off with a knife, but at least he does it skilfully.
But back to the roti. The fact that it is coming to be regarded as the national dish should not be taken as a criticism of TT food. There are plenty of local specialities that rarely make it onto the menus of posh restaurants, but the same could be said of many countries. In fact, the nations that do have a variety of famous dishes are the exception, rather than the rule. France remains the king of the food world, while Italy has taken the humble material that is pasta and come up with variations adorned with meaty sauces that can be found in every town from Alice Springs to Ankara.
As for the rest of us, we’re comparative amateurs. What has the mighty USA got to call its own? The hamburger, that’s all. England? Roast beef, and maybe fish and chips. Spain? Paella.
It’s all poor man’s food dressed up. Paella might sound like a treat when you didn’t grow up with it, but all it was originally was a load of yellow rice with whatever was available at the time. In a restaurant you might find it loaded with seafood and meat, but 100 years ago Senora Gomez was lucky if she could find a handful of peas and a few scraps of leftover chicken to throw in, so she will have made damned sure the rice was tasty enough to appease her ravenous family.
India has done a good job of using a few herbs and spices that may have been used originally to disguise the taste of dodgy meat, while the Chinese have built a worldwide reputation on the distinctly unexotic monosodium glutamate. Obviously there are talented chefs who can whip up a chop suey or a curry that is on a culinary par with coq au vin or the most exquisite seafood salad, but there aren’t enough geniuses to go round.
There is nothing wrong with local food, wherever you are. It just might not be what you are accustomed to. You might, for instance, have a natural dislike of choking or breaking teeth.