Shak Sinanan sections off a handful of dough, rolls it on the stainless steel countertop a couple of times into a smooth ball, then flattens it into a thick disc. To his right, a flat, edgeless pan called a tawa is heating up over a flame.
From a second bowl, he scoops a handful of slightly pulverized, gritty yellow split peas and places the mixture into the middle of the disc, which then gets shaped back into a ball and rolled into a thin, flat, familiar shape.
Shak is making an order of dhal puri roti at Vashti Caribbean Cuisine, a bright restaurant in a strip mall off 34th Street. He shimmies the thin layer of raw dough onto the piping hot tawa and brushes it with corn oil. After a minute or so, the dough puffs up and Shak flips it carefully with a long wooden utensil to let it cook on the other side. He slides it off the heat a few minutes later, folds it into quarters, and there you have it: roti.
The term itself can mean different things to different people. Roti is a generic word for a variety of bread products that originated in India, including naan or chapati. But the kind Shak is making has evolved into a specific and popular Caribbean dish, a food that has found solid footing in the Tampa Bay area via a number of small restaurants owned by folks from places like Trinidad and Guyana.
Pam Prasad, who cooks at Pam's Roti Shop and Caribbean Market on 38th Avenue N and is originally from Guyana, says she grew up eating roti.
"I actually grew up cooking it, too. It's a household food. Almost like an everyday food."
On local menus, it pops up in various forms. It is there by itself, a flaky bread that you rip with your hands and dunk into a curry or use to sop up any extra sauce from your meal. It looks like a tortilla, but is somehow lighter and more flaky. The secret is the yellow split pea mixture, which is pressed into the dough before it's cooked, so it lends depth to every bite.
Roti is often either filled with or served alongside meats, like chicken or goat, or a chickpea mixture called channa. A complementary dish often served where roti is served is "doubles," which is bread made from a similar dough that is then fried and sandwiched around the channa mixture.
Shak's wife Vashti (they're both from Trinidad) says she learned how to make the classically Caribbean roti they serve at their restaurant by watching her mom make it.
"In Trinidad, in morning time, that's what most people eat," she said. "Not cereal."
The distinct food has attracted a loyal following locally. Around noon on a weekday at Vashti Caribbean Cuisine, there is a steady flow of customers dining in or taking out, and it's a diverse crowd. Shak says they can go through 150 to 200 orders of roti on a Friday night, and that people come from Spring Hill and Winter Haven to get their hands on goat curry or an order of "doubles," none of which set you back more than $10.
A couple of blocks north of Vashti, Pam's Roti Shop and Caribbean Market is serving up two kinds of roti — "If people want just the bread, they say they just want the shell" Prasad says — the dhal puri version with the yellow split peas, and a plain one made with just the simple dough of flour, water and baking powder. You can also order jerk chicken, pumpkin curry and beef doubles.
Prasad says she tries to make her roti as healthy as possible, using canola oil instead of other oils with more cholesterol during the cooking process and opting for unbleached flour in the dough. She cooks it the way she used to make it at home, adding just garlic, pepper and cumin to the dough.
With such a simple recipe, what makes roti different from other bread products? The unleavened bread is one of those foods whose simplicity you marvel at, especially if you've seen it go from gooey, unformed dough ball to blistered floppy saucer.
"We don't use any preservatives in the dough," Prasad said, "so it's very fresh, which makes it soft and tender. Also, the way it is cooked on the tawa over an actual flame sets it apart."
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.