When you enter Ali's Roti Restaurant here in Boston, the blaring Carnival Soca music and panoply of aromas make you feel as though you've been transported to the West Indies.
With West Indian populations burgeoning in the United States, many Caribbean neighborhoods, such as the one along Blue Hill Avenue in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood, can deliver a genuine taste of the islands.
No starred chefs operate the mom and pop eateries here that prominently display their national pride with flags, but the simple dishes offer a taste of home to recent immigrants and a chance to revisit island memories for New Englanders who have vacationed there.
"We have people coming from all over to eat at restaurants along this Blue Hill strip in Dorchester – people from New Hampshire; Springfield, [Mass.]; Rhode Island; Connecticut," says Charles Wynter, a Jamaican immigrant who works at Ali's. "When people travel or spend time in the Caribbean, then they want to eat what they tasted on vacation in the islands when they return home," he concludes.
The Caribbean embraces a wide expanse of islands between Florida and South America. Explorers, conquistadors, and pirates have all sailed the trade winds that sweep the West Indies, shaping its demography in the process. Caribbean cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, French, African, and Indian influences mixed with local produce and bountiful seafood. Goat is another staple that features prominently in many Caribbean dishes.
Even among the islands, cuisine varies widely, depending on the colonial history. For instance, the Chinese introduced rice to the Caribbean and people from India brought curry when both groups first came to work as indentured servants in various sugar-cane plantations.
Rice on each island also may be a little different. Some season their rice, others add peas or other touches – including, coconut.
Trinidadian food is dominated by yellow curry and roti (a flaky bread cooked on the stove similar to a tortilla or the Indian bread called naan), whereas Jamaican food tends features more "jerk" seasoning, milder sauces, and flour dumplings.
"Heat" is common to the all West Indian cuisines, whether it's from spices like turmeric or cumin or from hot sauces made from peppers. Freshly made "green seasoning" is a common meat marinade made from green onion, hot peppers, ginger, cilantro, and garlic. Menus also include a lot of seafood – so it's hardly surprising that Caribbean restaurants have found a particular niche along North America's East Coast.
The majority of West Indian immigrants in Boston tend to come from the larger islands of Jamaica and Trinidad – and so those palates dominate the dishes offered by restaurants in the United States and Canada. The shift to a northern clime – with all its hurry and cold weather – makes Caribbean restaurants even more appealing to those populations used to a slower pace and a warmer region.
"There is a lot of work that goes into making Caribbean dishes," says Hanif Abrahim, manager and head cook of Ali's Roti Restaurant, which opened in 1989. "When people move here, they don't have time to spend all day cooking their favorite meals."
Typical of most cooks in locally owned Caribbean restaurants, Mr. Abrahim never had any formal training as a chef. The Trinidad-born cook began his career laboring in family owned restaurants until he emigrated to the US in the 1980s. Although he initially moved to America with hopes of playing in cricket league clubs, he eventually gave up that dream to become the general manager of two Caribbean restaurants in Boston.
Owners of the Caribbean restaurants in Mattapan estimate that about 60 percent of the clientele are from the Caribbean; the rest are mainly white and black Americans. Blue Hill Avenue in Boston's Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods is dotted with Caribbean restaurants and bakeries that serve almost every dish that one can find in Trinidad, Jamaica, or Haiti.
"I don't even know anyone from the Caribbean, and I am not sure which particular food comes from which island – I just like to switch up the food I generally eat and I enjoy roti and curried goat," said Nelson Thomas as he ate his roti lunch at Ali's and sipped a Jamaican cream soda.
Because of their out-of-the-way locations, many ethnic restaurants tend to remain unexplored by most city dwellers, except for those who live in the immediate neighborhood. But with millions of tourists making the trek southward in winter, even high-end Boston restaurants may feature Caribbean-influenced seafood. And in some North American cities, Caribbean food has already entered the mainstream diet.
The Caribbean food company GraceKennedy recently unveiled a new line of frozen foods, which will feature meals such as jerk chicken with rice and peas, jerk shrimp, and curried chicken. The new meals are being targeted at the burgeoning Caribbean populations in Toronto and surrounding areas. Ethnic frozen meals are one of the fastest-growing food categories, says Gary McFarlane, president of GraceKennedy Ontario, so "it is important our customers find the trusted Grace brand in their supermarket freezers," he says.
Not all Caribbean meals take all day to prepare. "Doubles" are a popular meal found on Trinidad and other islands. The name comes from the two pieces of fried dough used to make the spicy chickpea sandwich , which is often eaten for breakfast, or as a snack at other times during the day. A mainstay of the Caribbean diet is roti, which is normally considered a foundation food and comes in a variety of forms. Roti can properly be described as a thicker tortilla – it's treated like a burrito at times – that can be infused with potato or ground yellow lentils. Roti is usually filled with curried meat (goat or chicken) and vegetables and eaten like a sandwich, perhaps dipped into curry or stew sauces.
"Here in the US, they will fill the roti with curried chicken, curried potato, and rice!" Abrahim exclaims, making a face of disgust. "But I guess that is the American or Mexican twist to the Caribbean dishes. In this country, all the groups will influence each other eventually," he says, grinning widely as he vigorously stirs a steaming pot of curried chicken.
While many Caribbean dishes are elaborate and require several hours to prepare, not all Caribbean meals have to take all day to make. A popular meal enjoyed in Trinidad is 'doubles,' which refers to the two pieces of fried dough used to make a sandwich with chickpea filling.
1/3 cup warm water (100-110 degrees F.)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
To make the dough: Place the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a separate small bowl. Set aside until the mixture bubbles. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, turmeric, cumin, and black pepper. Stir the yeast mixture into the flour mixture and add additional lukewarm water as needed – about 1/2 cup – until the mixture comes together into slightly firm dough. Knead until smooth and elastic and cover with a damp cloth. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.
1 16-ounce can chickpeas
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4-1/2 teaspoons curry powder (or to taste)
Pinch of ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil for frying
Hot sauce for serving, to taste
Finely shredded cucumber, pickled vegetables, or chutney for toppings
To make the filling: If you're using dried chickpeas, rinse and drain them. Next, put them in a pot with six cups of fresh water. Bring to a boil and simmer for about an hour, or until tender. Drain and set aside.
If you're using canned chickpeas, drain them in a colander and rinse well with cold water. Set aside.
Heat the tablespoon of canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the onion. Cook until translucent. Add the garlic and stir well, frying for one minute more. Add the curry powder and mix well. Cook for 30 seconds and add 1/4 cup of water.
Stir in the chickpeas, cover, bring to a
boil, and simmer for five minutes. Remove
the lid and add one more cup of water. Stir in the cumin, salt, and pepper, and lower the heat. Simmer until the chickpeas are very tender. Set aside.
To complete the doubles: Punch down the dough and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Pinch off walnut-size pieces of dough and flatten each into a thin circle about 4-1/2 inches in diameter. Dampen your hands with canola oil if the dough is sticky.
Heat about one cup of canola oil in a frying pan or medium saucepan that has sides at least three inches high. Test the oil by sprinkling a bit of flour into it: If the flour bubbles and sizzles, the oil is ready. Add the dough circles and fry, turning once, until they are lightly browned on both sides, about 40 seconds. Place two tablespoons of chickpea filling on each piece of fried dough. Season with hot sauce and add vegetable toppings if desired. Top with another piece of fried dough.