What does it say about me that I have no less than a dozen hot sauces in my fridge? Or that I have a diabolical look of satisfaction whenever I see someone start to vibrate and sweat, both hands to the sinus area, from eating my homemade horseradish? It happens at least twice a year. While some parents are proud when their kid gets an ‘A’, I beam when my 10-year-old eats a jalapeño — we call it spice training.
Maybe my taste buds have been in a steady decline from my relentless, self-imposed, hot sauce torture, but I’m addicted to spice. It isn’t heat for its own sake, it’s the complexity of flavours I’m looking for — the burn, the excitement, the anticipation of my next meal as a platform to add heat. Spice is fundamental to pleasure. When I eat out, I usually gravitate to meals that I can’t easily make at home. This includes my favourite food group, curry. Yes, curry. There are few flavours, other than soft raw milk cheese sitting out for hours, that inspire me to leave the house these days.
Fourteen. That is the number of roti I ate to write this piece. My favourite recent memory was during the last deep freeze, sitting in Matha, the new roti joint on Harbord Street (formerly Flip, Toss, and Thai) eating a spicy (as I later found out, “white person spicy” — jeez. Really?) roti, my neck sweating and my face blush red against the backdrop of the blowing snow and grey clouded sky. I wasn’t registering the heat, but I did notice my face changing colour in the window reflection as I devoured their madras masala roti with methi leaves, coconut and fennel. I must have been in a trance. I’m haunted by the deep flavour of their curry, the smell of frying onions, ghee and coriander, the layers of heat, first mouth and then body, a warmth radiating in my core (or was that heartburn?), the garam masala and subtle cardamom — I’m entirely jealous that I will never be able to make this. I’m transported to the market place of my mind: rows of slightly dented but pristine aluminum bowls, where spices are piled high in perfectly sculpted pyramidal shapes and colours — reds, deep rust orange, pale yellows and green, line my neural synapses.
Roti is ubiquitous in our city and I have travelled to each end of it to find the perfect roti (thanks Suresh, D Hot Shoppe in Burlington was so good!). When I’m less adventurous, I like my spice route to be closer to home. Making small talk while waiting for my vegan curried mixed vegetable roti with added saag, I asked one of the staff at Roti Cuisine of India, “Would it be healthy to eat roti every day?” She responded, “Oh yes, we have customers coming in twice a day.” That would be my fantasy. Is this what it has come to?
All the places on my list (and I deeply apologize to those left out as there are so many great roti joints) really had the right balance of filling and sauce to roti flatbread or dhal puri — and some made the roti bread on site, from scratch. There is an art here. And please, please, more sauce. While it might be a bit camp or even retro to serve orange Fanta, the use of frozen ridge cut carrot and vegetable medley (I’m quietly protesting, while also forgiving) is not.