Flavors the focus for Guyanese at Christmastime

Black cake, pepperpot, rum all seasonal staples
Philip Fields, who was born in Guyana, shows off beef patties.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Philip Fields, who was born in Guyana, shows off beef patties.

Categories: Food

The cook is in the kitchen and what a meal he’s serving up for the holidays, especially if you’re Guyanese.

“It’s all about traditions,” said Philip Fields, deputy chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature. “You want to pass them on to other generations.”

Fields, who is an avid cook and was born in Guyana, said his holiday menu reflects a blend of Guyana’s cultural heritage. Guyana, officially the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, is on the northern part of South America where it’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Suriname, Brazil and Venezuela. Indigenous peoples called it Guiana or “the land of many waters,” hence its name. 

During the late 17th century, the Dutch settled in the area, followed by African slaves, peoples from India, Pakistan and the Chinese, who mixed with Amerindians and other multiracial groups.


The country became known as British Guiana and a member of the Commonwealth. In 1966, it gained its independence and is the only English-speaking country in South America.

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With all that diversity, it’s no surprise that food is what is celebrated. But before we get to that, are there any other traditions Guyanese enjoy during the Christmas season?

“Christmas trees are popular and lighting them,” said John Mootooveren, a member of Schenectady’s City Council, who was born in Guyana. “Stores even in Guyana sell them or people plant trees and decorate them. We exchange gifts, too. People are Christian, Hindu or Muslim — I’m Hindu — and we all celebrate Christmas. Peoples in Trinidad, Barbados, Suriname also have similar traditions. It’s not just Christmas. We’re celebrating each other.”

But it’s food that is the focus. And there are must-haves for a Guyanese table to be authentic. Black cake, also called Christmas cake or wedding cake, is top of the list.

“You eat it every day and you make an extensive amount of it,” Fields said. “It’s like an English fruitcake with brown Guyanese rum or red wine. Mother insists on having that. My grandfather used to put his own wine in that he’d made.”

Christmas cake

Ingredients

You’ll need for one round 9-inch cake:

1 cup of flour
1 cup of brown sugar
1/4 lb. or one stick of butter
1/4 cup of rum, or more if desired
1/4 cup of red wine
4 eggs
1/4 tsp. of baking powder
1 tsp. of vanilla
1/4 pound each of rum-soaked various dried fruits. At Mootooveren’s house, his wife, Rita, uses a combination of raisins, preserved carambola fruit, prunes and currants.
1/4 tsps. each of cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon

Steps

Put dried fruits through a blender until reduced to small bits and steep with the alcohol for up to two weeks. Beat butter and sugar together; beat eggs in separate dish and then add to butter/sugar. Add fruits. Sift flour/baking powder together and add to fruit mix.

Add vanilla and spices. Set oven for 350 degrees. Grease pan. Put batter in pan; cook for 45-60 minutes. 

Fields, however, makes the cake in quantity, which means making two 13-by-24-inch pans, plus several smaller pans. It’s also made well in advance — he was busy putting up the recipe before Thanksgiving. 

He uses a basic fruitcake recipe, grinds the fruit all up and then soaks the fruit a long time in the alcohol, adds some burnt sugar and continues on following the recipe.

Main dishes

Pepperpot is a type of stew. Fields uses any kind of meat (beef, lamb, deer, goat, buffalo, sheep) up to about 100 pounds total, and puts it into multiple Crock-Pots and a few regular pots along with (per pot) 1 cinnamon stick, a bit of orange peel, a few whole cloves, chopped sprigs of thyme, a small onion and two or three garlic cloves, maybe a couple of small hot peppers, salt, water as needed and the “must-have” ingredient: at least a third of a cup of cassareep per pot. This is an extraction from the yuca or cassava root that becomes a molasses-like sauce and can be found at local Guyanese groceries.

Depending on the quantity, the stew should initially cook for two to three hours at medium to low heat and then be refrigerated for up to at least five days before eating to let all the flavors settle together.

“It gets sweeter every day and will last beyond Christmas into the newyear,” Fields said. “You can also eat it for Christmas morning breakfast with a piece of cassava bread, which is made from powdered yuca flour.”

Fields also makes a curried chicken, which stands in for an Indian dish; a fish head soup, which is African; and cook-up rice. This is made with 2 cups of white rice, a can of black-eyed peas, small bits of meat such as ham, and 2 cups of coconut milk and cooked at low heat for 25 minutes.

Lots of vegetables are served with any meal, and fruits like pineapples, avocado, bananas, plaintains, and cashews are also set out.

There’s also chicken chow mein, which is Chinese; and garlic pork, which is European.

This dish involves marinating up to 3 pounds of pork in 4 cups of vinegar, three large heads of garlic and a few sprigs of thyme for as much as a week in a large, airtight container before draining off the vinegar and then frying the pork in its own juices.

Fields might also try his hand at fried cod cakes; or Guyanese beef patties made with ground beef, green peas, corn and seasonings put inside a pie crust in small round dishes and baked at 350 degrees until crust is golden.

What to drink?

“We don’t do so much wine. It’s usually rum,” Fields said.

But two Guyanese drinks must be included or it’s not Christmas: ginger beer and sorrel. Sorrel is a tea made from hibiscus flowers/leaves that are steeped like any tea leaves. This is enjoyed cold. 

Ginger beer

Ingredients

To make about two quarts of ginger beer you’ll need: 

8 cups of water
2 cups of sugar to taste
1/2 pound of peeled and then grated ginger root
6 cloves
Three pieces of dried orange peel and juice of one-half lime

Steps

Put everything in a glass container, stir, then seal for up to two days. Then strain and voila. Adjust sweetness as needed.

What’s great about having all this quantity of food, Fields said, is that when he goes on vacation after the holidays, he will have frozen what was not eaten in baggies and he can take it with him.

With only weeks ahead before the holidays, Fields can’t wait.

“I love to cook, especially Christmas food and holiday food,” he said.

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