Volume 20, Number 36 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Feb. 1 - 7 , 2008

Roti goes like hotcakes at Nio’s Trinidad Roti truck on Front St.

Al fresco Trinidad dish is a Downtown hit

By Linnea Covington

At lunch time in the Financial District, Alvin Badall wrapped and served a veggie roti for a regular from Buffalo, a chicken roti with pepper sauce to a man from the West Indies, and a shrimp roti to an Englishman – in less then five minutes.

Despite the freezing temperatures, a line of people formed at Nio’s Trinidad Roti truck on Front St.

“It’s a fast food that has the taste of home,” said Ramin Ganeshram, author of “Sweet Hands,” a Trinidadian cookbook. “It’s cheap, it’s quick and if you like it, you can go back — you don’t have to make the investment of immersion right away.”

Nio’s truck has become a beacon for the increasingly popular Trinidadian food in the bustling district where businessmen and women walk past hot dog stands, pastry carts, a vegetable truck and dozens of halal food vendors.

“We have a lot of different people,” said Badall, 23, who has operated his father’s truck for the past four years. “At least three to four times a week someone comes up and says, ‘Hey, what’s roti?’”

Roti traveled from India to Trinidad and Guyana where it evolved from the basic tawa griddle bread into a burrito-like meal filled with chicken, goat, fish, vegetables and other spiced fillings. Often, a coat of ground yellow peas covers one side of the bread.

At Nio’s truck, a customer can choose from three types of roti: dal puri, or plain roti, paratha, which is soft, and buss-up shut, which literally translates into “burst up shirt” and was named because of the texture — it is beaten with a wooden stick until it resembles torn up cloth.

Roti didn’t start out as fast food, said Ganeshram. It became a takeout meal about 20 years ago when it changed from a sit down delicacy in which you dip the large round bread into curry or stew, into a burrito-like snack.

“I think that Caribbean food, just like Latino food, is becoming mainstream,” said Ganeshram.

Nio’s truck usually sells out of everything. On a recent slow day, Badall had already peddled all the fish cakes and doubles, which consist of two little fried cakes with chickpeas in the middle.

Tim Coyne, 34, said he tried roti because his girlfriend was from Trinidad and now even his brother from Baltimore makes a point to eat roti when he visits.

“It’s the Caribbean ambassador to the community,” said Ganeshram, “roti and jerk [chicken].”

Roti remains true to its spicy origins. The only change is that about two years ago the truck started to serve boneless chicken because most Americans preferred it. Then again, so does the younger Badall.

“I know roti is not as common,” said Badall, “but I think we are getting there.”

Malcolm Nelson, a fellow Trinidadian and seven-year customer, agreed. “If you’re not an islander you are not going to buy it, but once you try it, you will like it,” he said.

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