Through ingenuity, inspiration, or practicality in food preservation, human beings across the globe have agreed upon a few universal truths: Tropical fruits’ sweet, tart, and sour notes crescendo with fresh cheese. The velvety richness of ground peanuts stewed patiently with meat on the bone satisfies hunger and the soul. The daily bread — say a multilayered, buttery flatbread — should be soft enough to rip and dip into curry yet chewy enough to hold a platter’s worth of bone-in goat and soft potatoes in a tight handheld wrap.
Human forces — trade routes, colonization, indentured laborers, and immigration — reinforced these dishes and cuisines that blurred country lines and crossed oceans. As a result, we have maafe, a West African peanut stew, and Thai massaman curry made with peanuts. Alongside very different takes on curry, we have roti canai in Malaysia and roti in Trinidad (both influenced by Indian cuisine and all colonized by the British). And through restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, we have ways to compare them all in Philly. In making these culinary connections, Eater Philly spoke with Somaly Osteen, program director for the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia (AACCGP); Eric Nzeribe, publisher of FunTimes Magazine; Samip Mallick, executive director of South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA); Paresh Birla, president of the Council of Indian Organizations in Greater Philadelphia; Sasha Wijeyeratne, executive director of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities; and community leaders and food enthusiasts Jimmy Duran, Jael Conde, Sofia Nicot, Anna Coats, Archna Sahay, and Natee Amornsiripanitch.
Pink guava’s sweet and tart nectar lends itself to pastry and serves as the perfect foil for a soft, white, neutral cheese. Guava paste — essentially a firm, sliceable jam — can be found at most grocery stores. Bocadillo con queso, simply sliced guava paste and white cheese, is a popular Colombian snack. Home cooks can light up potlucks with thin slices of guava, cheese (go soft like a queso fresco or sharp like cheddar), and a cracker. This duo melts easily in pastries. Try pastelillos de guayaba at El Coqui Panaderia y Resposteria, a Puerto Rican bakery in Juniata; quesitos de guayaba y queso dulce at Silvia’s Bakery, a Dominican bakery in North Philadelphia; guava and cheese pastelitos at Home Cuban Cafe in Old City; pastelillo at Cafe Tinto Panaderia in North Philadelphia; and pastel guayaba y queso at La Caleñita Bakery & Café, a Colombian staple in Olney.
For an icy delight, try the fluffy, snow-like shaved Thai tea ice drizzled with guava and condensed milk at Kalaya Thai Kitchen in Fishtown. Get fresh guava juice at Sazón 2 Go, the ghost kitchen reincarnation of the popular Venezuelan restaurant, and guava agua fresca at South Philly Barbacoa. Or go the fruity Asian tea route: Sip on the pink guava fruit tea at A La Mousse, red guava tea at TeaDo, or the Guava Refresher with cooling and texturally delightful basil seeds at Mi ’N Tea in Manayunk. Guava hard candy in crunchy green wrappers are parting gifts at many Asian restaurants and readily available at Asian markets.
In West African cuisine, peanut stew called maafe is creamy (but not sweet like American peanut butter), spicy, and deeply comforting with chunks of bone-in stewed lamb. The stew is better described as meat coated in thick gravy, ideal with rice or sopped up with fufu, a West African starchy dough made with pounded yam, cassava, or green plantains. Try variations across the diaspora at African Small Pot, a Mauritanian restaurant in Southwest Philadelphia serving Mauritanian, Senegalese, and Nigerian dishes; Kings and Queens Liberian Cuisine in Upper Darby; Youma African Cuisine (also known as Kilimandjaro Restaurant), a Senegalese mainstay in West Philadelphia; and Le Mandingue African Restaurant, a Liberian-owned restaurant in Southwest Philly serving West African dishes and featuring live music.
Chicken, pork, and tofu satay, easy to eat on a stick or to share at the table, stands out with its thick, spicy, sweet, and salty peanut dipping sauce. Try variations at Sky Cafe, an Indonesian restaurant in Little Saigon; Vientiane Cafe, a Thai-Laotian restaurant in West Philadelphia (with a second Bistro location in Kensington); Banana Leaf: Malaysian Cuisine in Chinatown; and Seulanga Cafe, a halal Indonesian restaurant in South Philadelphia.
Massaman curry, a Thai fusion dish that reflects the influences of Malaysia and Muslim Persian traders, marries Indian spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg, with familiar Thai ingredients including roasted peanuts, chiles, shrimp paste, tamarind, and lemongrass. Panang curry incorporates ground peanuts into a curry paste made with traditional Thai ingredients. Try massaman curry at Smile Cafe in Center City, Green Basil Thai Kitchen in Queen Village, and Ratchada Thai and Laos Cuisine in South Philadelphia. Try the Southern Islam Massaman Curry at Circles Contemporary Thai Cuisine in Northern Liberties; panang curry fish head at Penang, a Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown; and panang curry at Vientiane Bistro, a Laotian restaurant in Kensington.
This crispy, chewy, and buttery layered flatbread originated in South Asia and became a staple in Caribbean and Southeast Asian cuisine, too. In India, “roti” refers to bread of any kind, but as the particular style of flatbread moved across the globe, interpretations paid homage to the original. Roti, curry, and other Indian staples made their way to Guyana as well as Trinidad and Tobago by way of Indian indentured laborers who were brought in by the British after the abolition of slavery. In Caribbean cuisine, the flaky flatbread resembles paratha, a wheat flour flatbread, according to Anna Coats, a public librarian in New Jersey whose family is from Berbice County, Guyana, where many Indian indentured plantation laborers originally settled. She grew up eating roti with dal, a thick lentil soup. Jamaican curries use a spice mix called curry powder that takes the Indian influence but adapts, amping up the turmeric, using Scotch bonnets instead of dried chiles, and incorporating local seasonings such as allspice. This becomes the basis for curry goat, chicken, and shrimp platters that accompany roti, Coats says.
Visit the source material at Masala Kitchen, a fast-casual Indian restaurant with locations in Center City. The restaurant offers a variety of kati rolls — dramatically long rolls of roti filled with delectables such as achaari (Indian mango pickle) and paneer, lamb kebab, and chicken masala. Try rumali roti, an ultrathin flatbread that resembles and folds like a handkerchief, at Amma’s South Indian Cuisine in Center City and Manam Indian Cuisine in Malvern.
The Trinidadian interpretation, roti, refers to a roti wrap stuffed with bone-in meat or shrimp and a hearty filling of vegetables such as potatoes; roti skins are the flatbread on its own. Try curry goat, chicken, or shrimp roti at Caribbean Delight in South Philadelphia or Brown Sugar Bakery & Cafe, a Trinidadian mainstay in West Philadelphia that offers vegetarian options like channa and potato and a meatlike “soya.” Flambo Caribbean Restaurant, which specializes in Trinidadian and Tobagonian cuisine, offers buss up shut, a popular dish with layers of roti that’s been beaten and torn up on the cast-iron griddle.
In Malaysia, diners rip pieces of crispy, chewy, roti with gentle grill marks and dip them in chicken and potato curry as part of the beloved dish roti canai. Try versions at Penang in Chinatown and Golden Triangle, a Burmese-owned restaurant specializing in Malaysian, Thai, and Burmese cuisine in South Philly. Banana Leaf: Malaysian Cuisine in Chinatown has a robust roti menu section, including martabak, roti stuffed with minced beef, onion, and egg; and roti bom, a smaller, thicker flatbread made with sugar, margarine, and condensed milk.
Diners can sample a variety of international dishes dubbed “curry” around Philadelphia due, in part, to the colonial influence of the British Empire. The British used “curry” as an umbrella term for Indian cuisine (and by extension, Pakistani and Malaysian cuisine, among others), bastardizing the Tamil word “kari,” meaning a dish with sauce or gravy. When the Portuguese invaded Goa in the 16th century, a variation on the word “caril” also paved the way for dishes using vinegar, potatoes, beef, and pork, which Hindus and Muslims couldn’t eat, but converted Christians could.
Archna Sahay recommends a trip down the aisle of Indian markets or grocery stores that carry South Asian ingredients, such as International Foods & Spices in West Philly and Aslam Market in South Philly. “You can see pre-blended spices for specific Indian dishes, from pre-packaged spice mixes to jars of the sauce for the specific dish where you simply add the protein and heat!” writes Sahay, who emigrated with her family from the state of Bihar in North India.
Try Goan fish or shrimp curry cooked with a base of fresh coconut, onion, and tomato at Ekta Indian Cuisine; vanjaram and Kerala-style fish curries, made with tamarind and coconut milk, at Thanal Indian Tavern in Center City; Goan shrimp curry, crab cakes, and lamb vindaloo at Veda in Center City; and the weekly special Sri Lankan fish curry at Kabobeesh, a Pakistani barbecue restaurant in West Philly.
Philadelphians have their pick of Southeast Asian curries across the city. Explore variations on rendang, goat, chicken, and cow feet curry at Seulanga Cafe, an Indonesian restaurant in South Philly; and nom bunch-jok (sometimes spelled nam banh chok), a homey Khmer green curry noodle dish, at Sophie’s Kitchen in Little Saigon. The prik king jae, a dry red curry stir fry with tofu and long beans, is exceptional at Kalaya Thai Kitchen. Check out the sour, sweet, and pungently savory gaeng som, known as orange curry, which is traditionally flavored with tamarind and thickened with shrimp or fish paste. Crisscross the globe and city again for Tibetan curry, slow-cooked with tomatoes and onions, with beef, bone-in mutton, or chicken at White Yak in Roxborough. Home cooks can take advantage of Japanese golden curry sauces and breakable cubes — available at most Asian markets — that melt into gravy and pair deliciously with onions, carrots, and a fried katsu cutlet. The options for curry are almost as expansive as its global definition.