Roti: Or, how to get obese in Suriname without really trying.
Despite typical over planning, I barely researched food in Suriname before we arrived. David is a vegetarian, and I have food allergies that can make large swaths of local cuisine verboten, so we usually just figure out food once on the ground and pack a lot of calorie dense protein bars. Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods” didn’t help much in his episode on the country, opting less for information and more for his normal shtick of endangered animal food porn voyeurism. Other than a post by couple Dutch vloggers, the cuisine was a mystery.
Suriname is diverse due to a long and turbulent colonial past – with the Dutch and British bringing slaves and indentured servants from all parts of their spheres of influence. Instead of having a single plural ethnic majority, the country is home to populations of indigenous Amerindian, Maroon (descendants of escaped slaves), Javanese, Hindustani, Chinese, and Dutch people. Suriname easily takes top honors when it comes to places I’ve traveled with the most ethnic diversity – so it’s rainbows all around (not the gay kind, the diversity kind). With all those interesting food cultures in a single place, there has got to be some damn good food.
Suriname is a gluttonous place. The list of local foods presented by each ethnic group, as well as those developed from cross-pollination of cultures, is extensive. If it weren’t for the intense heat and humidity, it would be easy to be 300 pounds in Suriname. I dream of being a fallen movie star, drinking and eating his days away in a sultry foreign land…avec aloha shirts of course. In this first of two posts on food in Suriname, I’m going to focus on the one food to rule them all: Roti.
Roti, as far as my unsophisticated palate can ascertain, is a mix of traditional Indian curries and local Caribbean spices like allspice and pepper, and ingredients like yams and beans.
Digging deeper, it’s more or less interesting depending on one’s attention span. “Roti” in Suriname means one of two things: bread (think Indian chapati) served anchored by various curried sides, or the meal in totality. Additionally, the roti wrap, a portable street food variation of roti (the meal), is also called “roti.” This lack of even the most lazily constructed taxonomy means that food in Suriname demands greater context. An American example of this is the use of “coke” to mean “soda” in the American south.
Thus, arriving in Suriname, roti was it. I met with the Director of the Suriname Tourism Foundation, not-so-fresh in sweaty clothes and a three day creep-stache, for an informal chat about tourism in Suriname. (Next LGBT hot spot? Hmm.) Mentioning my casual interest in eating roti, he graciously drew a map on the back of a napkin locating the two main roti shops in the city, Grand Roopram and Joosje, conveniently using the grand new McDonald’s as a point of reference. I grabbed David from his morning stray dog family cuddle sesh outside our hotel, and we were on our way. Paramaribo is a compact capital and it’s easy to walk across town in less than fifteen minutes. Roopram is only ten minutes walking via the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral from the Greenheart Hotel, so follow your nose.
Like Parbo Beer, Grand Roopram is a Paramaribo institution. There several locations in the city, and the chain has reached across the Atlantic with four locations in Holland. The location nearest to the Waterkant and tourist core is a stone’s throw from the Post Office (a lovely modernist building very worth visiting), at the intersection of Watermolen and Grote Hof Straats.
Watermolen, sadly, does not mean “watermelon.”
We were there early, at maybe 10am, and Grand Roopram was silent. Cool, recycled air enveloped us like a blanket immediately inside its automatic sliding doors. We chalked the emptiness up to how things operate on island time (yes, Suriname is not an island, but the nation is far more culturally similar to its Caribbean neighbors than its continental ones), as well as to our propensity to get up and out early. Amid freshly-cloroxed tables, we ordered two basic menu items: one chicken and one mixed vegetable, rounded out by a couple of fruit juices. Whatever kind of devil sour melon (oh, this) they put in the fruit juices was not our thing, but the food gave us life. Life that makes you scream “YASS!!” and dance your fat ass around in a flimsy restaurant chair.
Also, apologies, as none of the food photos here are manicured and fluffed for mass audience. Taking pictures while simultaneously trying to stuff your face with flaky, buttery chapati bread and spicy, soupy bits of curried long beans and pumpkin is no easy feat. There’s a reason why roti isn’t an Instagram or Pinterest darling – every time I ate it, I pretty much blacked out and came to five minutes later covered in lentils. I assume this is normal.
We ate at Roopram twice during our stay in Paramaribo, and would have eaten there more had it not been for their offbeat opening hours. Offbeat, in this case, means that the day of the week doesn’t appear to correlate with established opening hours. More of a day by day type of multi-location, super famous restaurant operation.
Joosje was our go-to evening meal-roti spot. To be frank, this was born from necessity, as Roopram was closed when showing up for our normal Early Bird Special at around 5:30 after a few djogo of Parbo poolside. We preferred the food at Roopram, BUT, the food was quicker at Joosje, and they serve beer there.
Good thing the two are only a five minute walk from each other.
The immediate environs of Joosje were a notch up from those around Roopram. Paramaribo is low key on the whole, but the further you are away from the Dutch tourist core around the Grand Torarical Hotel and the Waterkant, the more low-key it gets. To walk from our hotel (The Greenheart – seriously, stay there) took us around the sparkly Dutch bits, past the casinos representative of the grittier side (think…Vegas meets Heart of Darkness) of tourism in the country. The Paramaribo Princess Casino lacked a certain luster of another time, but neon is a people-pleaser, and the building is photogenic.
After you clean yourself up from the main event (Joosje has wet wipes), take an immediate left outside the building. Follow this with another left on Keizerstraat, and you’ll be greeted by one of Paramaribo’s most famous, and certainly most interesting sights: the immediately juxtaposed Keizerstraat Mosque and Beth Neveh Shalom Synagogue. These two buildings are one of only two places in the world where a mosque and synagogue share such intimate space, the other in Hebron, Palestine. A walk by these two religions, historically linked with such enmity, and their places of worship seems a particularly fitting end to a meal combining foods from cultures that serendipitously (OK, or thanks to colonialism) ended up cohabitating a place so distant from their respective places of origin.
In synopsis, in Paramaribo, there’s no reason to go hangry. Especially for vegetarians, for whom hot weather veggies like long beans, potatoes, and pumpkin are available in spades. In fact, I can’t speak for any of the meatier options of these two restaurants, never venturing beyond chicken. An aside: Roti could potentially not be great for those who are spice-averse. My spice receptors are dull from eating gochujang 24/7 for the two years I lived in Korea, so I found the spice to be pretty tame. Chances are, if you look like a tourist, you’ll get Gringo spice anyway. Like spice? Ask for a side of peppers – scotch bonnets are locally grown in Suriname, and a side of pulverized, slightly pickled peppers is a great way to give your roti an extra little kick. In your face.
A great addition in both restaurants is what looks like a gym bathroom sink – a column holding a circular ring of spouts surrounded by a plastic washbasin. While Grand Roopram had a restroom, Joosje did not, and the communal public sink was necessary for a proper and relatively hygienic roti-eating. Try eating with your hands! It’s how the locals do it, despite being a messy affair. We both made multiple trips to the sink to wash up during our meals, and had to use our own hankies as napkins to avoid embarrassment around asking for more paper products from the restaurant staff.
The food in Suriname, and the extraordinary history and circumstances that birthed it, was such a wonderful surprise. Next in this series will be an exploration of the Javanese warungs (mom and pop food joints) in the Commewijne District (just across the Suriname River from Paramaribo) in coming weeks. I’ve also solicited advice across the web for more recommendations of smaller, family run roti shops in Paramaribo, and will be sure to update this post with additional information as it is received.
And to my friends in Suriname, if you have recommendations for roti shops, leave their name and location in the comments section!