A friend who is perhaps too fond of playing the ponies called a couple of weeks ago to breathlessly report that, on his way to Aqueduct, he’d noticed several roti shops along Rockaway Boulevard. He knew that while eating them in Flatbush I’d developed a craving for these flatbread-encased treats—which resemble a wrap or burrito—and he also knew I’d recently spent a week in Trinidad for the express purpose of wolfing down more rotis.
The wrapper originated in India: a wheat flatbread with crushed yellow split peas crammed between its buttery and flaky layers. This “dal puri” was brought to Trinidad and Guyana in the early 20th century by indentured farm workers from what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. The immigrants used the floppy bread to invent a portable meal that could be carried into the sugarcane fields by rolling it around a few spoonfuls of savory curry, adding extra vegetables like potatoes, chickpeas, pureed orange squash, spinach, and okra. Before enfolding the mixture, they’d dribble on a sweet tamarind relish and an incendiary Scotch bonnet sauce.
So, the following Saturday, my posse and I hopped into a rented blue Prius and, trying mainly to use the electric motor by going too slowly, headed for South Ozone Park, Queens. We orbited the city on the BQE, Gowanus, and Belt Parkway before exiting at Woodhaven Boulevard. It felt weird being in the neighborhood without going to Kennedy Airport. Bombing down Rockaway Boulevard headed east, we passed auto-body shops, warehouses, residential neighborhoods filled with modest frame houses, and bars with names like the Winner’s Circle and Trackside, until we spotted Rockaway West Indian Roti Shop, which turned out to be a Guyanese place. Auspiciously, it shared premises with a car service and an auto-repair shop, and looked brand-new. The broad but shallow storefront was crowded with well-polished cases, behind which a line of pink-uniformed women stood at attention, ready to assemble our order.
Big as an ocean liner, the steam table lusciously displayed chicken curry, goat curry, stewed oxtails, fish curry, fried rice, cook-up, and chow mein—the latter brought to Guyana and Trinidad by Chinese indentured workers about the same time the Indians arrived, and now integral to the overlapping cuisines of the two countries. Sadly, the chow mein is more interesting from a historical perspective than as something to eat. By contrast, cook-up ($7) is a delicious pilaf of rice and just about any other ingredient the cook might want to throw in. That day the cook-up was almost Cajun, a relentlessly beige affair of rice, black-eyed peas, chicken, carrots, cilantro, green onions, and okra. The taste was earthy and mellow, and only a little bit hot.
At the roti shops of Brooklyn, it’s increasingly rare to find dishes made with duck, which are included on menus more as a reminder of home than as an actual choice. Nevertheless, wonder of wonders, Rockaway Roti had a duck roti available ($8.50), in a curry so dark and rich that the chunks might be mistaken for chocolate bonbons. Conforming to Guyanese preferences, we ordered the roti with the flatbread on the side, ripping up pieces and using them to pick up pieces of duck and to absorb the gravy.
As we departed, we noticed the façade of the Flamingo Cricket and Social Club just across the street, reflecting another West Indian passion. Heading further eastward, we next encountered Dan’s Bakery, a formerly Italian establishment turned Guyanese. The playfully named baked goods included pine tart (made with pineapple, not with fir tree), vaginal butter flap (oddly vaginal), and black cake (not really black). A heated glass box on top of the pastry case displayed salt cod fritters, beef pies, and other warm and flaky entities. As at Rockaway Roti, the flatbread came on the side with our goat curry ($6), which featured tender morsels of meat with only a little bone and integument, with a potato or two providing contrast. The hot sauce was a little too mild for us, but then the bespectacled and inquisitive counter gal may have sized us up and decided we wanted the bland version.
On a glass counter above the steam table we also spied a plate of thumb-sized fish, fried brown with a slight dusting of bread crumbs. Freshwater fish are an important staple in Guyana, where Amazonian rivers produce a bewildering variety of species, often given goofy names like marbled headstander, talking catfish, and greenstreaked eartheater. “What are these tiny fish?” We inquired. “Oh, they’re bangamoori,” she said, then pointed at the steam table, “and these are the much larger curried bangamoori.” She loaded up a Styrofoam carryout receptacle with white rice, dished on a little bit of each vegetable she had—which ran to okra, pumpkin, and greens—then dumped seven or eight baby fish on top. And, man, were they good! We gobbled the babies, heads, tails, and all.
Further east my crew and I hit the mother lode at Annie’s Roti Shop, a charming Trinidadian café with a bright red awning. Inside we found a lavish display of main courses, snacks, and West Indian sodas. Since we’d noticed a live poultry slaughterhouse down the street, we figured the chicken must be something special. It was. We ordered a conch roti wrapped up in the usual manner, and a chicken roti ($7) configured as a “buss-up shot,” which is Trinidadian for “busted-up shirt.” In this formulation, a different flatbread that looks like a worn-out shirt is offered on the side. We chose a puree of pumpkin as our secondary filling—not of the jack-o’-lantern sort, but made from calabaza squash.
Also on the steam table were a beguiling display of stewed crabs, which kicked like the Rockettes at Christmastime, and bulging eggplant fritters. Called “bigan” in the island’s Hindi dialect, the fritters were split with a knife and dressed with several sauces before being served. Vegetarian choices abounded, including a Chinese-Caribbean mélange of fresh vegetables stir-fried with mild spices, and a sweet curry of fresh sliced mango that was astonishingly toothsome, and unlike anything we’d ever eaten before.
As we sat in the sunny front room eating our rotis, fritters, crab, and “macaroni pie” (a veggie-dotted mac and cheese), a group of schoolgirls in crimson pinafores burst in the door and ran up to the counter demanding doubles ($1 each). These snacks consist of a pair of small puffy pooris twisted around a filling of curried chickpeas, further improved with spoonfuls of tamarind syrup and hot pepper sauce. We looked longingly at the doubles, and then continued eating the tableful of food already spread before us.