My grandmother left Guyana for New York in 1981 in search of better economic opportunities and safety. Political strife and racial tensions made it untenable for her to stay in her home country, but she didn’t leave behind her whole life. For years she worked as an international trader, moving fabric and consumer goods between the U.S. and Caribbean. And she continued to cook Guyanese food for herself (and me), including roti.
Indian immigrants introduced roti (unleavened flatbread) to Guyana, then British Guiana, during the period of indentureship in the mid-1800s, when plantation owners looked to India, among other places, for workers. It became a celebrated part of Guyanese cuisine — regardless of the ethnic background of the cook — often served with vegetarian dishes, meat stews, and curries contributed to the cuisine by African slaves, Indigenous peoples, and indentured servants from Europe, Portugal, and China.
As roti became integral to eating in Guyana, so did the tawa (or tava), which Indian immigrants also introduced to the culture. Meaning “iron pan” in Hindi, it’s a simple tool that’s an absolute necessity to cook a roti to perfection.
Cultures across Asia, the Middle East, and West Indies have used similar griddles by various names (tava, tapa, saj, sac tava) and made from various metals (pure iron, cast iron, carbon steel, or aluminum). In India, roti is made with atta, milled whole wheat flour, and doesn’t contain any leavening agent, but in Guyana workers used their tawa to create a unique variation using the ingredients they received as rations from the British. All-purpose flour gives the roti a lighter color, while baking powder makes the texture softer and airier, and helps give a variety of popular flatbreads like dal puri, sada roti, and parathas the best texture: thin and crisp, yet soft and fluffy.
When my grandmother prepared to leave Guyana, she too packed up her cast-iron tawa. Growing up as a Guyanese American, hers was just one of several I saw at family events, when we’d gather under pop-up tents in backyards to stretch rotis with belnas (rolling pins) before slapping the dough on tawas placed over outdoor burners. Tawas are typically passed down within families, and I was lucky enough to receive my grandmother’s after she used it for 40 years.
I’ve continued to practice my own roti-making technique, but have also found plenty of reasons for anyone to pick up a tawa. It’ll help you achieve the perfect crispy texture on any food, and it’s equally appropriate on a lazy weekend morning, on a camping trip, or at a big family celebration. Skip the griddle, cast-iron pan, nonstick skillet, crepe pan, pizza stone, and any other fancy pan, and get yourself a time-tested, do-it-all tawa.
Why you need one:
A tawa provides the perfect sear for a variety of foods. Tawa chicken, a classic Guyanese dish of small pieces of stir-fried marinated meat, caramelizes until golden; another standby, tawa pone (seasoned, grated cassava) achieves its hallmark golden-crusted texture: crisp and chewy on the outside, and gooey on the inside. You’ll find yourself reaching for the tawa any time you need even cooking and browning, whether you’re in the mood for pancakes, grilled cheese, or quesadillas. One of my favorite things to make is toast — thick slices of Guyanese plait bread slathered with butter on both sides, then cooked on the tawa. It makes a crust like no electric toaster ever could, like Texas toast with Guyanese flavor.
While versions in other parts of the world have a more concave shape, allowing them to act as woks for stir-fries, in the West Indies the pans are completely flat, usually about 10 to 14 inches in diameter with a single loop handle that projects evenly from the surface on one side. This layout maximizes the cooking space, offering enough room to spread a hefty roti, and makes the pan sleek and ergonomic. While a cast-iron skillet or griddle are decent substitutes, they’re not quite wide enough to fit a large roti comfortably, and the sides of a skillet cut your room to maneuver when it’s time to flip.
The hardy metal is able to reach a medium-high preheat and remain there, evenly distributed. Pure iron, cast-iron, and carbon steel versions also naturally create a nonstick barrier due to frequent oiling when cooking roti. Just as with seasoning a cast-iron skillet, heating the tawa to a high enough temperature permanently bonds the oil to the metal in a process known as polymerization. This coating helps browning, prevents food from sticking, and protects the metal from rust. A well-seasoned iron tawa releases food just as easily as a nonstick pan, without a flaky coating to worry about.
Many people still use their tawas directly over open flames (in Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago, roti is cooked over an outdoor fire or chulha, a hand-built earthen clay oven), but they’re perfectly at home on gas or electric stoves. A pro tip for electric users: Opt for a rubber spatula to flip the roti rather than your hands to avoid moving the tawa and scratching the ceramic or glass cooktop.
If you really want to see how a tawa shines, use it to make roti. A variety of rotis in Guyanese cuisine, including the intricate dal puri, puff up beautifully on a tawa, but the modest sada roti proves how integral the pan is to the cooking process. The simple recipe contains few ingredients — just flour, water, and sometimes a leavening agent and fat — and the cooking process is simple, too. Preheat the tawa for 5 to 6 minutes until hot, but not smoking. Roll out the dough, and once the pan is ready, plop it on. Cook until little bubbles begin to form, then flip it using a spatula or, if you’re feeling confident, bring the roti to the edge of the tawa and flip using your bare hands. With a natural nonstick surface, plenty of elbow room to flip, and perfectly distributed heat to cook the dough through, the roti should swell after just a few minutes into a fluffy, delightful pocket.
What to look for:
For the full benefits, invest in a cast-iron tawa, which is both sturdy and commonly available. Aluminum tawas are also easy to find, affordable, and relatively light compared to cast iron. They also heat up quickly, but may leach into food over time like a nonstick. Carbon steel tawas, made mostly from iron and a little carbon, are another good option, providing a smoother cooking surface. All three may eventually warp, creating a recognizable rattle against the stove as you place the dough on top.
Before using a brand-new tawa, you’ll need to condition it with oil, like preparing a new cast-iron pan. Wash the tawa, wipe it, and place it over a medium-low flame to ensure it’s completely dry. Remove it from the heat, brush on a thin layer of neutral cooking oil such as canola, avocado, or coconut, and wipe it with a paper towel. Finally, heat the tawa until it faintly smokes, then turn off the heat and allow it to cool. After sealing in this nonstick surface, use the tawa as much as you can and oil it regularly to maintain its condition. If you notice any rust or caked-on grease, a good scrubbing and oiling will easily bring it back to life. If properly cared for and loved, tawas can last for generations.
How to get it:
Anyone without roti-cooking elders to pass down a tawa can purchase one and get started on their own family heirloom. Take a look at Indian or West Indian stores. For an average-sized tawa, you can expect to spend $30 to $50. They are also available for purchase online at BuyEasy or Amazon.
Alica Ramkirpal-Senhouse is the founder and editor of Alica’s Pepperpot.