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


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.



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