Do Jamaicans Dream of Dhal Puri?
Written by Djamil Ninsoo
Sunday February 5, 2023
Whether handmade by my NaniJi in her Jamaican kitchen or bought from Singh’s in South Florida as a reward for good behaviour, fresh paratha roti was an integral part of my childhood and has continued to be a mainstay into my 20’s
Now this sentiment might seem odd coming from a Jamaican. In fact over the last three years I’ve encountered the occasional Jamaican who asserts that roti is anything but Jamaican, as well as a Trinidadian who tried to say that curry chicken and the likes were cultural and culinary hallmarks of places such as Trinidad and Guyana. However, the simple truth of the matter is, roti in its various forms and the accompanying curries are an inheritance handed down since the first shipload of jahajis arrived in Old Harbour on the 10th of May in 1845. Amongst the many jahajis who crossed the Kala Pani, was a little girl who eventually grew up to be known as Alice Anderson.
While I never had the opportunity to meet my Bahut Nani (Great Grandmother) Alice, stories of her many jingling silver churiya, “tall” white hair covered by an orhni, and her tendency to tell Anansi stories have painted quite the picture of who she was. But perhaps my favourite “Alice Story” as I call them, is the one told by my eldest cousin who knew Alice quite well. According to him, when Nani Alice had the desire to make roti she would take a 16x20 or 20x20 piece of zinc and place it on top of 3 stones. She would then build a wood fire inside this makeshift chulha, and as the fire began to heat the zinc, Nani Alice would roll out the roti with a bottle of daru and use coconut oil on the zinc to cook the roti. Our NaniJi would confirm his retelling by sharing her own childhood stories of her mother laying the roti by the fireside until it swelled.
Although I haven’t quite inherited Nani Alice’s round roti making skills (according to one of my cousins the last roti I made looked like it went to war), I have inherited her knack for storytelling and her love for family. A family that over the years I’ve come to describe as a masala: a mix of Africans, Indians, and their Dougla children. If you included the spouses of some of my cousins then we could serve as the picture definition of Jamaica’s motto “Out of Many, One People.” And aside from our shared family ties, one of our running connections is our love for roti. Even my mother’s eldest sister who is fully Afro-Jamaican and who grew up in Portland instead of Saint Mary has shared with me memories of her Indo-Jamaican neighbours introducing her to roti, tarkari, and even how she once attended a multi day Hindu wedding. Back in 2022, while visiting a cousin to drop off some belated baby shower gifts, my mom and I found ourselves leaving with some dhal puri wrapped nicely in foil. Even within the first few weeks of 2023, one of my aunts (really my cousin) hosted a small Indian session/family get together. As our family's resident historian it was incredible watching my mother and her second cousins reminisce about summer holidays at my Nani Alice’s home in the countryside and Sonny Boy who always stopped by NaniJi’s for a visit when he was taking goats to market. Perhaps the biggest joke of the night was my mom exclaiming that she had not been offered roti yet, her question was met with much laughter as one cousin asked “Now why would you ask that?” This prompted an exchange of roti recipes, techniques and elders pointing out which youngsters had excelled in their mastery of belaying the roundest roti. At that moment I couldn’t help but look around at my family, our faces a mix of Africa and India, four generations spread out throughout the room… brought together by our love for family, dhal puri and some curry goat.
About the Author
Author of the book “Eva, My NaniJi”, Djamil Ninsoo is a family historian and cultural activist. A proud son of Jamaica, Djamil is perhaps best known by his social media handle “DouglaBwoy”. His Tiktok content about the rich African and Indian cultural legacies have been reposted by the likes of reggae artist Sizzla. He has also led a workshop at Jahajee Sisters 2020 Empowerment Summit. When not sharing the richness of his culture with virtual or in person audiences, Djamil can usually be found enjoying a slice of sweet potato pudding with a glass of cream soda.