Thousands of years before Europeans crossed the Atlantic ocean, the Taino–indigenous peoples of South America–discovered the islands of the Antilles. They sailed in canoes and brought with them native foods–root vegetables and chiles–along with a method of slowly curing meat over fire, a style of cooking we now know as barbecue. The Carib–the indigenous tribe for whom the Caribbean sea is named–would season slow-cooked meats with chiles, both as a curative, and as a method of preserving food. This technique would eventually come to be known as jerking.
About 100 years after Columbus got lost on his way to India, the major powers of Europe began the era of colonization. England, Spain, France, Portugal, and The Dutch all engaged vigorously in the Trans-Atlantic trade of goods and humans. The natives of the Antilles were slaughtered wholesale, and the islands they once inhabited were appropriated as ports of sale for captured African slaves.
This may or may not be of consequence to Delroy, the statuesque man preparing an order of what may (arguably) be the best jerk chicken (with rice and peas, of course) in Brooklyn. A native of Jamaica, Delroy has been the cook at The Islands restaurant for 15 years, long enough to see tectonic shifts in the neighborhood. Despite the tower of glass and steel condos currently juxtaposed from the Brooklyn Museum, Crown Heights has largely defied gentrification. Delroy believes the changes have (largely) been good for business. The Islands–once salvation for Caribbean transplants, stalwarts seeking the comforts of home–now serves an entirely multicultural audience. The restaurant is tiny; scrunched unceremoniously between the local Key Food and the Dragon House Chinese restaurant: if you blink, you’ll miss it. Still, on any given weeknight, patrons of every pantone shade of melanin tromp up a precarious staircase to an impossibly narrow dining room, to sup on flavors as audacious as the immigrants preparing their food.
Jamaicans cook the way Usain Bolt runs: they don’t think their cuisine is better than yours; they know. The crisp-skinned jerk chicken is roundly spiced, with deep love yet profound respect for the mighty Scotch Bonnet pepper. It’s tender and fall-apart moist; diametrically opposite of the leathery toughness we normally associate with dehydrated jerky. As I eat, I offer a silent prayer of thanks to the Maroons: 17th century African slaves who escaped into the mountains of Jamaica, mingled with the remaining native population, and perfected jerked meats while evading recapture by the British.
Where a territory fell geographically in the spice and slave trade routes of the Caribbean determined the cultural direction of its cuisine. It is the amalgam of European commerce, Indo-American native foods, African slave traditions, Chinese laborers, and the curries and chutneys brought by the influx of indentured East Indians, that is responsible for the rich food culture of Guyana.
Bradley, the chef at Exotic Roti Express, is especially proud of his Guyanese heritage. “What makes Guyana different” he says “are the six races. The more influences you embrace, the fewer your limitations. I’m exotic,” he proclaims. “Go to any restaurant in the whole world; you’ll never find roti flavors like mine.”
Jane Bruce (our photographer) is making nom-nom sounds, with her eyes closed as she devours lightly battered Swai fish wrapped in spinach roti; it would seem she agrees.
There is no braggadocio in his grandiose proclamation. “We (Guyanese people) own our humility. We don’t advertise what we do,” says Bradley. “They say seeing is believing, but pretend you’re Stevie Wonder. In the restaurant industry, taste is the most important thing. The best way to advertise is to give people a taste.”
The sweetness of yams and the spice of boneless (yes boneless!) goat dancing inside my mouth–in sync with my nodding head–fully endorse this. Delicious food notwithstanding, Bradley faces all of the impediments common to a small, black-owned business. Most traditional Caribbean restaurants (tragically) don’t deliver, which means they’re missing out on the enormity of sales that might come from takeout services like Seamless or Caviar. Even if all of the superficial criteria are identical, minorities–and especially immigrants–face significant discrimination when applying for small business loans. Raising capital from investors still carries the old stigma of “begging for money.” And local businesses don’t come together to support each other.
“I’m former military” says Bradley, a Navy man. “If we sail on the ocean and the ship goes down, we ALL go down.”
Fulton Street bears witness to the veracity of Bradley’s words. Once upon a time not so long ago, Bed-Stuy was veritably littered with roti shops; an entire neighborhood wafted with the lush scent of doubles (curried chick peas with, mango, coconut, cucumber, tomato, and garlic, wrapped in flat bread) and oxtail stew. Today, few such places remain.
Amidst this background of continual renewal, Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop would seem to be an unsinkable ship. Gemma, a slight, raven-haired, tawny woman, is sister to Mr. Ali and the Grande Dame of Roti in Brooklyn. After four decades of continuous service—35 years in the current location—she has opinions about the local food scene. “Rents have gone sky-high,” she says gently. “If people can’t afford to pay, they have to move, or close down. Our success, the reason why people come and keep coming back, is because of the taste of our food.”
Sadly they are out of the conch roti just shortly after noon, a testament to the loyalty of their customers. One fluffy bite of the curry shrimp roti I choose instead, confirms everything that is flaky and buttery and right with the world. Still, as desperately as I’d like to believe that taste is all that matters, I can’t confirm her logic. I don’t know what factors contributed to the demise of other local food businesses. What I do know is: one thousand feet from Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop, an Applebee’s looms, as menacing as the first European boats to land on the shores of the Antilles islands.
I wonder to myself if Caribbean food will one day vanish from Brooklyn, as the Carib have vanished from history.
803 Washington Avenue
Exotic Roti Express
807 Nostrand Avenue
Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop
1267 Fulton St
All images by Jane Bruce