I was ashamed to admit I wasn’t sure where Guyana was. Africa? The Caribbean? Was it an island?
Guyana (meaning “watery country”) is located on the northeastern corner of South America, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the north, Venezuela on the northwest, Brazil on the south and southwest, and the country of Suriname on the east. Guyana’s population arose from the original inhabitants of the land, mainly the Arawaks and the Caribs, and were collectively called Amerindians. The English and Dutch followed, and Africans were brought in as slaves. Later, immigrants from India, China and Portugal arrived.
This pepper pot mix of peoples resulted in a similar blend of cultures—and cuisine. Hence, it would not be surprising to find roti (Indian chapati or paratha), chow mein (influenced by the Chinese), and sugar cake made of coconut and sugar (products of Guyana itself) on a menu featuring Guyanese food. It also would seem logical to find great varieties of seafood on that same menu, like fish stew and fish curries.
Two seasonings are prevalent in Guyanese foods: casareep (sometimes spelled “cassareep”) and green seasoning. Casareep is a molasses-like marinade, and like green seasoning made from blended fresh herbs. It is used in pepperpot, as a marinade for meats and for barbecue.
Made from the juice of cassava root, casareep is boiled to a syrupy consistency with pepper, cinnamon stick, ground cloves and dark brown sugar. The recipe looked tedious to make, and since the initial cassava root juice is poisonous until it is boiled, I instead purchased two bottles, both claiming to be the real-deal, on-line. Casareep can also be obtained locally at specialty stores featuring Caribbean foods.
Preparing green seasoning is simple. One gathers bunches of herbs like parsley, basil, mint and thyme, adds a few garlic cloves, a little fresh ginger root, a small hot pepper, juice of a lime, a teaspoon of vinegar and blends them to the desired consistency. Experimentation with proportions is part of the art. Often used in curries, this beautiful green sauce will last for a few days in the refrigerator.
I did a little experiment recently to test the effect of casareep and green seasoning on a fairly neutral stage—chicken thighs. I marinated half the thighs in casareep and the other half in the green seasoning I had just made. I would have preferred to have grilled the meat, but darkness was closing in so I placed all the pieces in a baking dish and placed them in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. My impartial taste-tester and I were unable to identify a winner, and we placed our versions of Guyanese chicken high on our list of “company food.”
Both distinctive, versatile and highly flavorful seasonings can be used on pork, other meats, fish and vegetables whenever your taste buds need a lift. They can be used on roasted foods, in stews or on the grill—go-to seasoning when one runs out of ideas.
Roti is familiar to us who enjoy Indian and other Middle Eastern food like chapatti, paratha or naan. While there are other differences besides name, origin and ingredients, roti and its cousins are flatbreads which absorb the characteristics of whatever they are stuffed with or dipped in.
The ingredients are few: flour, baking powder, salt, oil and water. The preparation is a bit more complicated: the dough is rolled thin, “baked” on a cast iron or other pan and then “clapped.” As roti is cooking, it puffs up, and “clapping” is the method of popping those bubbles. The very hot round of flatbread is repeatedly clapped between both hands until the bubbles are popped. The result is a wonderfully, doughy, flaky roti. (More specific directions for making roti and other Guyanese dished are easily available on the Internet.)
My mother used to make “Nothing Soup.” When there was nothing substantial in the house for supper, she would rummage through the cupboards finding odds and ends—a can of peas, some onions, flour and eggs for little dumplings. She would add water, a sprinkle of paprika and voila! Nothing Soup. Every culture has its version.
Emergency Food is essentially the theme for Guyanese Cook-up Rice. The term "cook-up" is a Caribbean expression that refers to a dish made from whatever is in the Guyanese cupboard. While not designated as a national dish, Cook Up Rice is a Guyanese favorite, and I’m guessing there are as many variations as there are Guyanese households.
"Cook-up Rice" is the Caribbean version of Mom’s Nothing Soup. The creative Guyanese cook uses the ingredients on-hand in the kitchen: onion, bell pepper, garlic and Scotch bonnet pepper. These are cooked, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Water or stock, rice, beans, coconut milk and seasonings (here is a wonderful place to use casareep and/or green seasoning) are added, covered and simmered until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed (15 to 20 minutes). Cook-up rice can be served with or without meat.
The Guyanese, of course, do not live on rice alone and neither do I. One could easily push the body’s demand for insulin over the top with Coconut Sugar Cake. It was so densely sweet and hard that it took me several hours to consume one sugar cake 3 inches in diameter. It looked like a light brown (hard) blob of brown sugar and coconut, which is exactly what it is. The recipe below was adapted from a book by Deborah Barocas entitled "Guyana’s Tasty Exotic."
Ingredients: 1 medium sized coconut grated (or a similar amount of packaged coconut if you are lazy like me), 1 cup of brown sugar (Demerara preferred), 2 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger, 1 tsp vanilla essence and ½ cup of water
Instructions: In a sauce pot, add sugar and water, bring to a medium boil until it becomes a thick syrup and caramel in color. Add ginger, vanilla and coconut, stir well cooking on low heat. Continue to cook until it bubbles and thickens. Line a flat baking sheet with wax paper, drop spoonfuls of hot mixture to form a mound. Cool for 15 minutes on one side, flip over and cool for another 15 minutes.
There are, of course other Guyanese treats like flan (custard), cheese rolls and triangular pine (pineapple) tarts.
The Guyanese who were initially welcomed here by Mayor Al (Jurczinski) in the early 2000s are slowly impacting the already varied collection of restaurants in Schenectady. One in particular stands out, A Taste of Guyana Roti Shop and Bakery, 1414 State St.(518-346-0010), partly because it is bright sunflower yellow, but also because the food is fresh and authentic. Much of what I learned about Guyanese food I learned here by observing, tasting and talking to friendly customers and one of the owners.
Many traditional and well-known Guyanese recipes have been omitted from this introduction: cheese rolls, pine tarts, ginger beer, flan, pepperpot, callaloo, curries, seafood dishes, black cake and various fruits and vegetables like okra, sweet potatoes and fried plantains.