Chef Peter Prime has been eating roti all his life. But asked to define exactly what a roti is, he laughed and launched into a long answer.
It could be regular blistered bread, he said. Or the odd version, also known in his native Trinidad and Tobago as the buss up shut. Or a floppy specimen stuffed with chopped peas, also known as dhal puri.
“We call everything roti,” mr. Prime said as she spread a mixture of coconut oil and butter on a paper-thin piece of dough in her home kitchen in Washington, DC. It was meant to become closed buses – or rotis, depending on who you ask.
Roti is one of the world’s most ubiquitous and shape-shifting foods, a round, unleavened bread of obscure origin that has spread around the world, changing every time it reaches a new country, region or even household.
There are simple wheat flour and water variants found throughout India, the stretchy layered variety known as roti canai in Malaysia, the shaggy roti in Guyana and the slightly chewier ones in Kenya (also known as chapati), to name a few a few.
And today, roti takes on a new role – as a semi-finished product.
In the United States alone, grocery shoppers can now find frozen rotis of almost any variety. These can be ordered online or from enterprising chefs on WhatsApp. There’s even a machine called the Rotimatic that retails for $1,299 and promises to make perfectly round rotis in 90 seconds.
Roti has evolved to cater to the tastes of the multi-tasking generation that did not grow up eating strictly traditional foods. For home cooks, roti can provide the base for panzanella, French toast, quesadillas, tacos, or pizza.
For Mr Prime, 52, making fresh roti “used to be a labor of love”, requiring a lot of care and skill. But between work and parenthood, he doesn’t always have time. So he relies on a frozen version sold at his local Caribbean grocery store. He’ll eat it with chana beef or curry, or spread it with peanut butter and Nutella for a snack.
Palak Patel, who runs the cooking blog Chutney Life, turns rotlis—as they’re called in Gujarat, India, where her parents immigrated—into carousels filled with cream cheese. She also spreads it with jam and butter or puts it in the food processor and then mixes the resulting porridge with ghee and jaggery for her 1-year-old son Sahil.
“Being Native American, there’s such a gap and divide between my mother’s generation and mine,” said Ms. Patel, 37, who lives outside Philadelphia. Roti can be a bridge.
Of course, there are trade-offs when you buy roti from a freezer box: It can be less pliable, less soft, less “melt-in-your-mouth” than the homemade version, Ms. Patel said.
Still, being able to buy roti instead of spending hours in the kitchen can be liberating. In India, making roti is traditionally a woman’s job, said Riya Saha Shah, 45, an attorney from Northern Virginia. “Women, before they get married, should make roti.” Having frozen rotis available can ease that pressure, she said.
The word roti most likely originated in the Indo-Gangetic plain, in present-day northern India, according to Krishnandu Ray, professor of food studies at New York University. As a result, many people assume that the food itself was born there.
But Dr Ray said the idea of round unleavened bread was so basic that it was difficult to pinpoint an exact origin.
However, the word is used in many countries because South Asians brought their version of roti to different parts of the world through both forced and free migration. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, more than a million people were taken from the subcontinent to places like the Caribbean, Malaysia and Thailand as indentured servants working on plantations, Dr Ray said. During the same period, other South Asians traveled to these countries freely as traders and in other roles.
The basic roti recipe evolved to suit the needs of each region, he said. Fat, such as oil or butter, was often added to make the bread tastier and more durable. Refined flours took the place of whole wheat flours because they were cheaper and more stable in storage.
The word roti can now describe dozens of different preparations, and what is called roti in Malaysia may be labeled paratha in parts of India or butter roti in Guyana.
“When things and words travel,” said Dr. Ray, “they become more voluminous.”
That capacity is one of the reasons chef Sid Sunta focuses his Seattle food cart, Kottu, on roti. He specializes in a Sri Lankan dish called kottu roti, in which pieces of roti are fried with ingredients such as onion and egg.
Mr. Sunta grew up on Sri Lankan food and American snacks in St. Louis, and his menu reflects that, featuring condiments like gochujang, Old Vienna Red Hot Riplets and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in his kottu roti. When he’s preparing a large catering order and doesn’t have time to make roti in bulk, he’ll use store-bought tortillas instead.
He’s not worried about disappointing people looking for a more traditional version. “These are things I like and are part of my life story,” Mr Sunta, 41, said.
Seattle cookbook author Christina Arokiasamy, on the other hand, looks for a traditional version when she shops for roti canai—made by stretching the dough into a thin, large circle while buttering it.
Ms Arokiasamy, 55, grew up buying roti canai for a few cents from a corner shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and eating it with tea or coffee. She cooks frozen roti canai from the South Asian grocery store in a pan, then slaps it between her hands to make it even flazier, like the roti of her childhood.
But it will never taste as delicate as the fresh version, she said. “It takes a lot of work and skill to make a roti.”
Still, when roti becomes a convenience food, people who didn’t grow up with it can try it.
A decade ago, Lola Osinkolu, 39, a food writer in Murrieta, California, tried East African roti, also known as chapati. “I immediately fell in love with him,” she said.
Now she regularly buys the frozen version, and when she doesn’t have bread at home, she dips roti in an egg-and-cinnamon batter and makes a version of French toast.
Making the Indian version of roti reminded Michaela Pacurar, 40, a freelance editor in Belmont, Mass., of palanet, the stuffed flatbreads her grandmother used to make in a cast-iron stove in Romania, where Ms. Pacurar grew up.
Since then, she’s found all kinds of uses for roti: rolled up with eggs and lutenica for breakfast, or torn into pieces to make panzanella. She and her husband also sometimes host the Passover Seder, but they don’t like matzoh.
So a few years ago, they started a new Seder tradition: roti.