Nobody just wakes up and says, “I’m gonna make roti today.” Not for the first time, anyway, and not without preparation.
So says Dawn Lewis, who over the last four years earned the title of “the Roti Lady” among Trinidadian expats exiting frenetic soca fetes at the South Loop club Bassline, who grew dependent on her curry-stuffed dhalpuri and paratha.
“I’d make 50 or 60 roti and pull up at the end of the night and sell them out of the trunk,” says Lewis. “Ten minutes later they sold out. Gone.” It wasn’t long before promoters started inviting Lewis inside the club to sell, and along with monthly sold-out online roti pop-ups, the onetime federal government worker built the nest egg that allowed her to move her operation out of her Dolton home kitchen and into a 200–square-foot kitchen at the South Loop Food Company in late March.
If you’re keeping score, D’s Roti & Trini Cuisine is one of two Trinidadian restaurants in Illinois, both of them operating out of that particular ghost kitchen.
Lewis, 42, isn’t Trinidadian, but she grew up among the south suburban expat community and learned to cook the island’s syncretic Caribbean cuisine after marrying a man from the mountains in the northwest of Trinidad. “I’ve been gifted cookbooks from a lot of Trini people I know,” she says. “I watched videos, read literature, or it was just trial and error. And we have people in the neighborhood. We have friends. Whenever I cook something I’m like, ‘Come taste this. Tell me how it is. What needs to be improved?’”
It didn’t come easy. Her first attempts at dhalpuri, the yellow split pea-infused roti, didn’t go well. “I did four roti and I thought I was gonna pass out because the dough was so hard to knead.” An ambitious early attempt at her husband Marvin’s birthday party ended up with rotis that were stiff and unyielding and could’ve been a setback if she hadn’t persevered.
“I know people were talking about me,” she says. “But you never give up if there’s something you love to do. I kept at it. I kept at it and here we are today.”
Dhalpuri and paratha are two of the most iconic and celebrated flatbreads in a whole Trini canon, most of them derived from the Indian migrant population. Dhalpuri incorporates ground yellow split peas into the wheat flour dough before it’s rested, rolled, and cooked on a flat griddle known as a tawa, producing a silky-soft envelope for fillings. Paratha often incorporates a bit of sugar into the dough, which is layered, and sometimes buttered, and pressed in from the edges as it cooks to achieve a tensile but flaky outcome. Paratha is also known as “buss up shut” for its resemblance to a busted up shirt. Lewis offers each of these with chicken, beef, or potato and chickpea curries.
She also does doubles: smaller fried flatbreads known as bara that come with curried chickpeas and are meant to be augmented with a handful of chutneys, including: tamarind, culantro-based shado beni sauce, pickled green apple kuchela, and hot pepper sauce made with her homegrown pimentos.
Lewis makes between 50 and 60 roti a day by herself, and though she can now bang out a batch of dough in five minutes (not counting one to two hours of resting), it took some time to get there. “You have to wake up early in the morning and go kill two chickens,” which is her sly way of not revealing certain secrets she’s picked up. “One thing I’ll say, flour is a fickle thing. People think you have to knead-knead-knead the flour—and you don’t. You have to be gentle with it. And you have to have a clean heart and pure hands.”
You might wonder why Lewis chose to move into the same ghost kitchen as the only other Trini restaurant for miles. But apart from the flatbreads, there’s little overlap between her menu and her neighbors at Cafe Trinidad. She offers fry bake and saltfish, a deep-fried flatbread split open and packed with salt fish, or buljol; reconstituted salt cod, sauteed with tomatoes, and peppers. Pelau is another regular standard: browned rice with stewed chicken, pigeon peas, and calabaza. On Fridays there’s Trini-style Chinese with five-spice-lacquered roast chicken and chow mein or fried rice. Saturdays bring more restoratives for folks recovering from the previous night’s liming: thick cow heel soup, or split pea-based corn soup. “There’s always that corn soup man selling after the party,” she says. “You get that corn soup after you’ve been drinking and it brings you back and opens you up. You say, ‘OK, I can go a little bit longer.’”
After that she offers the classic Trini Sunday lunch of stewed chicken, macaroni pie, red beans and rice, and callaloo. But these dishes represent just a fraction of her repertoire. Over the holidays she’s busy filling orders for tamale-like pastelles, rugelach-like currant rolls, coconut sweetbreads, and the iconic rum or brandy–soaked black cake. Her Instagram features a deeper bench, dishes she could only pull off in a brick-and-mortar, which is her long-term goal.
In the short term, she just wants more people to, “Try meh hand,” she says. “In Trini culture people say, ‘Try meh hand,’ try my food. Or, ‘She have a sweet hand,’ meaning she can cook.”
D’s Roti & Trini Cuisine
2537 S. Wabash