Double or Nothing
Harry Singh's Original Caribbean Restaurant
3205 Cedar Ave., Mpls.; (612) 729-6181
Monday 4:30-8 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., closed Sunday
"Girl," says Harry Singh in a lilting singsong: "Girl, if you will go with me to Trinidad you will do two things: You will eat doubles and drink beer, and you never get drunk but you have a good time!" Singh laughs expansively, his eyes far away.
It took Singh only about half an hour of shooting the breeze in his sleepy Cedar Avenue restaurant before he was fitting me into next winter's travel plans--the millennium in Trinidad. From what I can tell, the jaunt will include me, whomever I can round up, Harry, his friends, some customers, and any City Pages readers who want to get into the act. We'll stay in Harry's native Princes' Town in south-central Trinidad, in hotels and houses and wherever. We'll roam the island drinking Red Stripes and Carib beers. We'll sample roti vendors, which are as numerous there as burger joints are here; we'll feast on doubles; and we'll remain there, at least through Carnival. In a nutshell, we'll just "get the gang and say, Let's go!"
Singh doesn't seem to see me as he spins this plan. He's already a 12-hour, three-part flight away from the slush rink outside and the buses roaring down Cedar Avenue.
Then, dumb me, I break the reverie by asking what on earth doubles are. Haven't I been at his restaurant, he demands to know, when they were a menu special? I confess that I haven't. A sadness flickers over his face: Am I another fair-weather friend who sings his praises as a chef but rarely puts her money where her mouth is?
Ever since Singh's restaurant moved into this Cedar Avenue storefront five years ago (from its previous home on Lake and Lyndale), traffic has been dwindling. Sometimes it seems as if all Singh's business consists of catering for longtime, devoted customers and cooking to order for chefs from other Caribbean restaurants who are trying to ferret out his recipes. He gleefully launches into a story about the time one of these chefs came in and demanded Singh serve him a full-throttle extra-spicy curry-filled roti, and Singh hit him with a chili-pepper KO. "I sat here, and I watched him sweat!" he crows.
Still, life was better when the restaurant was full, and when Singh's wife was by his side. She died suddenly in November. "They tell you life's a piece of cake," says Singh, "Hell no, it's a piece of rock." He and his wife used to run the restaurant as a team; now it's just Singh chopping vegetables under the watchful eye of a little black-and-white television, just Singh shaping roti into perfect 12-inch rounds, just Singh searing the flatbreads on the flat, black iron grill--the tawa--he brought from Trinidad.
In Hindi, roti means bread. But in Trinidad, roti is a very specific kind of bread, as well as the embodiment of an amazingly multilayered culture. To make a long story preposterously short, the island, originally populated by the Arawak tribe, became part of the British empire in the 17th century; the crown first colonized it with indentured servants from the British Isles, then with African slaves, and finally with indentured servants from Portugal, China, and northern India. Trini cuisine is primarily an African-Indian fusion based on local produce and fish.
Harry Singh making roti is a wonder to see. Every morning he boils a batch of special yellow peas imported from Trinidad; they look like large yellow and orange split peas, but have a more resilient texture. Singh drains and grinds the peas with a big, hand-cranked grinder, then tosses them with a variety of toasted spices (top secret, of course, but I picked out coriander and cumin). From a batch of baking-soda-leavened bread dough he pulls out a tennis-ball-sized piece, shapes it into a cup, and inserts a few tablespoons of the pea-spice mixture. He then seals the edges, rolls out the ball as flat as a pie crust, and lays it on the tawa--half a minute later he's got a tan, blistery bread seamlessly fused around a thin, fragrant, deceptively understated filling.
Singh says the best way to eat a roti ($2.50) is straight from the tawa--it's delicious, simple, and as plain-looking as a cloud. But I find it impossible to let it go at that. There could be dipping! There could be wrapping! Gild those lilies!
So, behind the neon palm tree that marks the entrance to his restaurant, Singh offers roti filled with a firm, curried mixture of chickpeas and potatoes ($4.95), or with delicious boneless curried chicken ($4.95). An order of pelau ($9), a thick stew of coconut milk, rice, rough-chopped carrots, celery, bell peppers, and beef cubes or pieces of browned chicken is a gigantic pile of food, sweet and savory. Jerk pork or chicken ($9.95) is a densely spiced, richly nuanced version of the Jamaican specialty, served dry and dry-rubbed, the flavors perfectly condensed.
At Singh's, it's also a good idea to venture deeply into the side orders. The Caribbean salad ($1.75) is a just-made, sweet, fresh red-cabbage coleslaw that serves as a great contrast to the thick textures of the rest of the menu. A bowl of lentils ($1.50) can be the highlight of a meal, the perfectly salty, piquant, carrot-studded night-black soup practically asking to have roti dipped into it. A yellow split-pea dal ($1.50) that I requested "hot and spicy" was the perfect counterpoint to food ordered "bland." (Dal is a thick spicy legume mixture with a texture like split-pea soup.)
Unfortunately, on my winter visits, none of Singh's homemade ice creams were available. When it gets warmer, look for flavors like coconut, mango, or soursop (a creamy fruit that looks a bit like an artichoke). In the meantime you'll have to content yourself with soursop soda ($1.50).
Sadly, the Cedar Avenue incarnation of Singh's doesn't have a beer license or a vestibule; recent visits left me, paradoxically, freezing in my coat from the comings and goings of people arriving for takeout and wishing I had a beer to quell the fire of Singh's famed hot sauce. (If you're getting takeout, make sure Singh doesn't think you're a snooping chef--I must have seemed too snoopy and suspicious once, and got takeout that was so hot it was inedible.) The story with hot sauce, for those who aren't devious spies, is that Singh asks what level of spiciness you're up for, tempers that with a bit of impromptu psychological evaluation, and keeps the seasonings a tad below what he figures you can handle. A little cup of his homemade hot sauce is then served alongside the food so you may jazz things up yourself.
With all my talking and eating, I never did find out exactly what doubles were, so I turned to Callaloo, Calypso & Carnival, a 1993 book on life in Trinidad and Tobago, from which I learned that they are "both double-sized drinks and doubled-up snacks" like a sandwich of channa (a chickpea spread) and hot sauce on fry bread made from a mixture of pea and wheat flour. The book paints Carnival as a combination of party, heaven, and stage musical during which the island becomes revelry incarnate and costumes, dancing, and partying are the very air. According to Callaloo, Calypso & Carnival, Tambu, a contemporary soca (soul and calypso) singer gives the following carnival advice: "Whenever you lose your energy/We have a good remedy...To put back what you lost/Try a beef roti or a glass of seamoss/Then it is back to party!"
I'm not sure that I'll be ringing in Carnival 2000 in Trinidad with Harry Singh, but at least I know where to get my beef roti for 1999: After all, this Sunday the 14th is Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), Monday the 15th is Jour Ouvert (Carnival Monday), and Tuesday the 16th is Mardi Gras.
ROTI A GO-GO: In other roti news, The Roti Shop--open for the past eight months on the corner of Bloomington Avenue and 38th Street--can provide you with some interesting comparison shopping. The Guyanese roti here ($1.79 each) are vastly different from Harry Singh's, so oily they're translucent, and so full of those ground yellow peas they're a pretty cornmeal color. I'm a little ambivalent about whether this is a good place to eat, though it certainly is an interesting one. The curried chicken ($4.99) is probably the best dish; it consists of hacked chicken pieces served in a cereal-sized bowl with a ladleful of thin, very flavorful spicy broth and a big plate of rice. Other dishes I tried, like the stewed beef and rice ($5.50) were tough and not particularly appetizing, and the deep-fried mashed-potato balls ($1.20) are definitely to be avoided.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the restaurant is that it's connected, through an interior doorway, to Amand's Exotic Food Market. This little store, obscured from the street by a bunch of bleached South American pop-star posters, is a real find, featuring more than a dozen pan-American hot sauces (most priced around $2), exotic soda pop (champagne flavor!), and all the hard-to-find root vegetables (taro, cassava, true yams) you need to tackle your South American cooking projects. The Roti Shop is located at 3765 Bloomington Ave. S. in Minneapolis; (612) 721-0264. Amand's Exotic Food Market is at 3759 Bloomington Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 724-8696.
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