Pass the Roti – A Look at Unleavened Bread in History

The Food Pathways of Grain

Archaeologists have uncovered primitive artifacts that chart the evolution of man’s gradual shift from nomadic hunter/ gatherer to the formation of small settlements where animals were domesticated and people practiced sedentary farming. Thousands of years ago, agriculture was not the principal mode of support for human societies; but those who learned to grow crops survived and increased. In turn, these techniques of production were passed on to other peoples. The cultivation of wheat and barley spread throughout the Middle East and into India. These crops also spread northward to Europe, where oats and rye were added later. From Egypt, the cultivation of grain crops, spread to peoples across Africa and onwards across the vast Sahara desert.

Unleavened bread has been a staple in the human diet for millennia

The earliest recorded types of unleavened bread were made from grains like corn, wheat and barley which were ground with stones and turned into paste by adding water. This paste was cooked on a flat stone or a piece of hardened clay placed in or near the fireside.  It is easy to draw a parallel between the unleavened breads of our ancestors and the flat breads we enjoy today. Matzo, Pita, Naan, Tortillas, Roti, Lavash are all breads that feature prominently in regional cuisines worldwide. Matzo and Pita are from the Middle East, Naan and Roti are Indian, Tortillas are a Mexican staple and Lavash is a mainstay in Eastern Europe.   Unleavened bread reflects how regional cuisines have been affected by culture, religion, geography, climate, and cookware.  

The climate and geography of Latin America is perfect for corn

Corn also known as maize is a staple of that region and the main ingredient in tortillas. The Aztecs were probably the first people to grow maize as an agricultural crop. Maize made up a large part of their diet and was eaten straight off the cob or ground into cornmeal to make dough called masa. The Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés, were the first Europeans to see corn growing in The New World. They arrived in what is now Mexico and found the Aztecs using corn to make flat bread.

Matzo bread is an important part of the Jewish Passover

Matzo bread is important for its symbolism and history. Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from the pharaoh in Egypt.  Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in such haste, they could not wait for their bread dough to rise; the bread, when baked, was flat. Eating Matzo symbolizes redemption and freedom, it’s a “poor man’s bread,” that reminds us to be humble, and not forget what life was like in servitude. Matzo bread looks like an oversized cracker and is a must for the aptly named Matzo ball soup.

The Tandoor Oven, Naan & Roti, hallmarks of Indian cuisine

The rudimentary design of the Indian tandoor oven has not changed much. The tandoor is essentially a large cylindrical clay pot with a heat source from underneath capable of temperatures as high as 900F. Naan bread one of the most popular Indian flatbreads is baked in a Tandoor oven. Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian due to the Hindu and Muslim beliefs that make up a large percentage of the population. Flatbreads replace the need for utensils. They accompany the wide variety of stews, legumes, and vegetarian fillings popular in Indian cooking. As in most Middle Eastern and African culture where food is eaten with the hand, unleavened breads are a common accompaniment with most meals and are used to pick food up in bite sized portions.

In 1845 the first wave of Indians came to Jamaica to work as indentured servants

Along with their farm tools and cooking utensils they introduced Jamaicans to curry and callaloo. They also brought the recipe for making the unleavened bread roti and their love of using curry to cook goat. As with all new immigrants they were met with resistance at first but over time aspects of Indian culture and identity began to assimilate itself into their new homeland. Curry goat, roti, callaloo, mango chutney, are but a few of the additions that have helped to add diversity and depth to Jamaican cuisine.

To make Roti, you need a cast iron skillet

There are no factories that produce roti on a production line. Roti is one of the few unleavened breads that is still handmade in Jamaica.  It is a time honored technique that is deliciously simple to make. Curry goat and roti is a must at any party and can be made a day ahead if necessary. Whenever roti is on the menu for a party, Jamaicans try to find someone of Indian descent to add that authentic touch to roti. Making roti means a kitchen filled with women who manage to effortlessly make hundreds of identical circular disks amidst the laughter and chatter of a social gathering. Children come and go, a dog barks in the distance as the rhythmic sound of rolling pins sends puffs of flour swirling in the air. There is a slight sizzle as a woman expertly picks up a cooked roti from the hot skillet and places another in place. There are no wasted motions and in a few hours a stack of cooked roti sits in a large bowl covered by a dish towel.  The party is tomorrow, but the celebration has already begun, tonight I’ll be having curry chicken, rice & peas and roti for dinner.

A Recipe for Roti

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

1 tbsp. baking powder

¾ cup water

Vegetable oil to lightly coat the cast iron skillet

Flour for dusting

Method

Carefully sift the flour into a bowl. Add the salt. Pour in the water and mix to form soft dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. On a floured surface, divide the dough into 6 equal round balls. Sprinkle a work surface liberally with flour and roll each portion out into a thin circle. Have a hot cast-iron griddle ready on a medium flame and slap the rolled circle on to the griddle. Cook lightly for 10 seconds or until one side browns and then flip the roti and cook the other side. Serve hot or let cool and store in a covered container.

Walking Through the Revolving Door Scott Left

“Few things are more beautiful to me than a bunch of thuggish, heavily tattooed line cooks moving around each other like ballerinas on a busy Saturday night. Seeing two guys who’d just as soon cut each other’s throats in their off hours moving in unison with grace and ease can be as uplifting as any chemical stimulant or organized religion.” ― Anthony Bourdain

It’s hard to see a good cook leave. It’s hard to see someone with the spark, roll up their knife kit and quit. People come to the life of professional cooking for many different reasons, most will say it’s because they love being around food. They love the creative process that stems from the craft of cooking; love the adrenaline rush, enjoy the sense of camaraderie, hate the idea of working a 9 to 5 job. Others credit their interest in professional cooking to the rise in prominence of celebrity chefs and the plethora of culinary schools that glamorize the kitchen, capitalizing on the larger than life rock star personas splashed across our television screens. Culinary schools have been signing up students in droves with deceptive promises that sugar coat the harsh reality of low wages and long hours endured by line cooks.

The strain on both mind and body is incredible. The craft can be taught, but cooks, especially good cooks, need to possess a burning ambition, talent, passion and sense of timing that borders on near ruthlessness to progress upwards through a kitchen’s hierarchy. It’s a fight to the top that starts from day one as an intern and never lets up until you either quit or lose nerve. Professional kitchens are littered with cooks who’ve lost their nerve, surpassed by someone faster, better, more ruthless. The relative safety of working the same position for years – breakfast cook, grill cook, garde manger kitchen – is the best guarantee of job security in the rapidly changing dynamic of a busy kitchen.

The first thing a new hire has smashed to pieces are their ideals. A busy kitchen has no time to be sugary nice; your new station, your prep list, the cook that will be training you, are all waiting to see what you can do. Mistakes in the first few weeks are forgiven but patience wears thin rather quickly if you don’t get it. No one’s really interested in what you did in your last kitchen, how good you were, or how much you know. It’s what you do here and now that counts.

Our new short order cook was a recent graduate from the C.I.A. He had recently completed an internship with a Michelin starred restaurant in Australia. He was young, passionate, knowledgeable and full of himself. He wanted to work with Foie Gras,Truffles and Molecular Gastronomy. His plates whenever we had a “chefs table” were intricate, creative and indicative of his fine dining background. The short order station didn’t need his artistry. He stayed with us for nine months. Every day he came to work, made French onion soup, marinara sauce, cut potatoes for hand cut truffle fries and flipped hamburgers on a small grill. The prep is tedious and many nights he was still in the kitchen long after everyone else had left. The short order station is one of the busiest in our kitchen and you have to be able to cook and prep simultaneously just to keep up.  It’s grueling work and for our young cook the first true test of his passion for cooking.

He was talented, it was obvious and it showed in the quality of his work. Perfect knife cuts, commitment to quality, his willingness to do more. He had the spark and if he could stick it out in five to eight years he would be a great sous chef. We were surprised when he put his resignation in. “Are you moving to another kitchen” I asked. “No, I’m going back to school to study finance.” I was saddened by his reply because he had the makings of a great chef.  He’s long gone now; his last day was three weeks ago. Even though we all promised to stay in touch, I haven’t heard from him since. Someone else is working his station, his prep is gone, the combination to his locker changed. The kitchen has closed ranks and moved on, hungry diners order from the menu, servers refill water glasses and every night we put plates in the pass as the dance continues.

Fried Chicken with Mediterranean Spices

Fried Chicken

So Plump, Tender, and Juicy

full of

flavor and crispy,

From Legs, Breast, Thighs, and Wings

a bird worthy of feeding a king

As the last piece comes to an End

don’t worry Chicken, we will meet Again!

Rashaan Patterson

I live in a modest two bedroom apartment in Atlanta. The kitchen is typical in size and furnishing; small with a preinstalled dishwasher, electric stove and refrigerator. I have a thing against electric stoves, it irks me when I can’t jiggle the handles of my frying pan or swirl sauce as it reduces. I’ve learnt to adapt to my constraints and have produced many a fine meal with a bare minimum of equipment. It helps that I live close to Atlanta’s best farmers market, which allows access to the widest and freshest array of produce, seafood and meat under one roof.

Recently, I found a restaurant supply store on Pleasantdale road that sells professional kitchen equipment at very reasonable prices. I’ve started buying all my small equipment from this store it’s a lot cheaper and does the job just as well as more expensive gadgets from Williams Sonoma and the Cooks Warehouse. Bit by bit, a balloon whisk recently purchased, a baking tray, a stainless steel mixing bowl, a 2 qt. sauteuse, a matching pair of plastic lexans; my plain, simple, rudimentary cooking space is attaining the comfortable patina of a well-used kitchen.

Yesterday, I bought a whole chicken and fresh thyme and rosemary from the farmers market.  The plan was to roast the chicken for dinner along with sautéed corn, broccoli and carrots. Instead of traditional Jamaican “rice and peas,” I decided to substitute rice for barley. Maybe changing one thing triggered the desire to change another and I decide to fry the chicken instead of roasting it. In the South, buttermilk fried chicken is the standard, but I opted for a more flavorful version using cumin, coriander and turmeric as a part of the spice rub. These spices which are main ingredients in Curry feature prominently in the cuisines of the Middle East and India. I thoroughly enjoyed this meal and want to share this recipe so you can enjoy it too.

Fried Chicken with Mediterranean Spices

1 whole chicken (cut the chicken into 10 pieces – 2 legs, 2 thighs, cut the breasts in two, 2 wings)

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

2 teaspoons onion powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoons turmeric

2 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

6 cups all-purpose flour

2 eggs (beaten)

Canola oil for frying

Method

  1. In a medium bowl, mix all of the dry spices. Add chicken and toss until well coated. Let the mixture stand at room temp (if cooking within 4 hours) or refrigerated in a large bowl for one hour.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the flour with salt and pepper to season well. One-by-one, add the chicken pieces, making sure they are thoroughly coated with flour on all sides.
  3. Shake off excess flour and immerse each piece of chicken in the egg wash.
  4. Dredge with flour a second time making sure the pieces are thoroughly coated.
  5. Fill a large pot four inches deep with oil and heat to 325 degrees.
  6. Grab each piece of chicken and slap it back and forth between your hands a few times to knock off the excess flour before slipping it into the oil.
  7.  It is important not to overcrowd the pot. The temperature will drop as the pieces go into the oil, resulting in soggy greasy chicken that steam instead of crispy fried. If your pot is not big enough fry the chicken in two or three batches, the results will be worth it.
  8. Also do not over compensate by turning the heat to high, you want the heat a little over medium the entire time.  Too high and the crust burns while the inside remains undercooked. I like to cover my frying pot with the pieces inside and let them be.
  9. Check every 5-7 minutes for each side and turn them when necessary.
  10. Average cooking time 15- 20 minutes until golden brown and at least 160 degrees at the bone. The juices from the meat should run clear when pierced with a fork.

Tomato Basil Bruschetta

There are hundreds of variations on this popular appetizer and rightly so because this recipe is extremely adaptable and easy to make. This is a simple version that uses Roma tomatoes, fresh basil, red onions, a little olive oil and vinegar. Sometimes simple works best and in this case anything else would be too much.

Tomato Basil Bruschetta

4 Roma tomatoes (diced)

2 tbsp. Red onion (fine dice)

2 tbsp. Fresh basil (finely minced)

4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

3 tbsp. White balsamic vinegar

¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese

Salt & Black pepper to taste

1 French Baguette

Method

1)      Use a sharp knife to cut the Roma tomatoes in halves and then in quarters. Save the skin and remove the seeds and pulp. Roma tomatoes work best for this recipe because the skins are much thicker with less seeds and pulp.

2)      Dice the tomatoes. Put tomatoes, diced red onion, white balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, in a bowl and mix. Add the chopped basil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3)      Cut 12 slices of the French baguette on a diagonal about ¼ inch thick. Brush each slice with olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper.  Toast them on the top rack in the oven at 350F for 5 – 6 minutes or until lightly browned.

4)      Spoon the Tomato Basil mixture unto the baguette and garnish with parmesan cheese.

5)      To avoid the bread becoming soggy make bruschetta a few minutes before serving. Makes 12 Tomato Basil Bruschetta