The butter chicken roti is a package of perfection. The large flat bread is heated on a griddle till it is crisp and slightly charred but still pliable. Then it is filled with a generous serving of velvety, slightly sweet but tart and fiery butter chicken, tightly folded into a wrap the size of a small iPad that is as heavy as a brick. It could serve two, but usually everyone gets their own to either eat in one sitting or save the other half for the next day because that’s when the spices intensify and the roti absorbs the flavours of the sauce.
It is believed to have been created about 20 years ago when a Toronto restaurateur decided to serve his East Indian curry in a West Indian way.
Despite it’s popularity here, you’d be hard pressed to find it outside the GTA. But that could soon change as the dish grows in popularity, and local chains specializing in the butter chicken roti make plans to expand to other cities.
A number of local restaurateurs point to Avtar Singh of Gandhi Indian Cuisine, a narrow Indian roti shop on Queen St. W., just before Bathurst St. as the creator of the dish. Singh had worked for 10 years at his family’s fine-dining restaurant, the now-closed Babur, when he decided to branch out on his own. He was opening his own restaurant and was looking for a dish that would stand out from the Indian buffets and his fine-dining past.
“The concept came from adding fine-dining dishes like the butter chicken to the roti,” he says.
Singh recalls tasting his first West Indies roti wrap in 1983 at the now-closed Ram’s Roti Shop in the Bathurst and Bloor Sts. area. He loved it and tried to make his own version.
“They’re making a West Indian roti (wrap), why don’t I make an East Indian one?”
Singh swapped out the jerk chicken and curry goat for butter chicken. The West Indian roti contains split peas, but Singh made the East Indian version, which just contains plain flour. He describes the East Indian roti being similar to a naan, but much thinner and cooked on a griddle rather than in a tandoor oven.
The butter chicken roti at Gandhi Indian Cuisine was an immediate hit.
“I’ve had people from the USA, England, Germany, Austria, France, Holland…” he says, before his wife Parveen Wadhawan interjects to say that people order out to bring it to the cottage and the airport for a pre-flight meal.
When Arul Rodrigues tried his first butter chicken roti at Gandhi’s, he was blown away. Three months later he also got into the butter chicken roti business opening Indian Roti House in 2012. The busy takeout shop is across from the Harbourfront Centre on Queens Quay (he later opened another location in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood).
“It’s so simple but so unique. If I worked in an office, this is what I’d want for lunch. I can eat as much as I want and then save the rest for later. There’s no right or wrong way of eating it, and it’s a big hit because it’s sharable and not messy.”
Rodrigues, who used to live in New York City, thinks the dish is particularly well-suited for Toronto because the dining scene is more laid-back compared to New York and the multicultural population is more open to trying different foods. The long winters and condo dwellers help too, as it is affordable and filling.
“In the winter, the restaurant may be empty but we do so much takeout because these spices taste good in the cold, and the roti holds up well for takeout.”
These days the butter chicken roti is a staple across the city with dedicated spots serving it such as Mother India, Roti Cuisine of India, Maurya East India Roti as well as chains My Roti Place and Butter Chicken Roti. Each have their devotees, and diners will debate who does it the best.
Butter chicken, along with roti (also called a chapati), has its roots in India. In the 1800s, the roti, an unleavened flatbread, made its way to the West Indies with the arrival of indentured Indian workers. There, ground split peas were added to the dough to create the dhalpuri roti. In nations such as Trinidad and Tobago, the dhalpuri roti was then used to wrap curries and stews (think stewed oxtail or duck) for a satisfying meal-on-the-go. Meanwhile, in East Indian cuisine, curries are typically served with rice or bread on the side, not stuffed in a roti.
“Migrants from the Caribbean moved to Canada in the ’60s and ’70s and brought their rotis with them,” says Suresh Doss, a CBC food columnist who runs food tours in the GTA. “And then you have Avtar, who comes from India, and thought, “Why don’t I borrow the idea of stuffing the roti? But unlike the dhalpuri roti, the East Indian roti doesn’t contain split peas, just flour, like a thinner naan.”
While Toronto is home to the butter chicken roti, My Roti Place is hoping to take it beyond the GTA. Since it opened its first location in May 2018, the chain, where diners customize their Indian rotis, has six locations in the city. Chef and co-founder Karthik Kumar, wants to expand to Brampton, Scarborough and Mississauga bringing the butter chicken roti experience with them. While there are no concrete plans yet, they’d also like to open in Alberta and B.C. So far, there’s the Indian Roti Kitchen in Vancouver, which claimed to be the city’s first Indian roti shop when it opened in 2013.
Kumar’s business partner and My Roti Place co-founder Vivek Deora, a restaurateur based in Nashville, can see its potential in the U.S. too.
“Butter chicken is served all over the world, but not served in the manner that is served in Toronto,” he says. “People’s palates and knowledge of cuisine have advanced, and people are moving beyond what’s mainstream. The U.S. has reached that point. If you want something that’s quick, a good value, and a sensory overload of flavour, that’s where the magic of the butter chicken roti comes in. Hopefully we’ll be one of the first to get it set up in the States.”
Karon Liu is the Star’s food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu