Guyana - Land of Many Flavours
Guyana is an Amerindian word meaning 'land of many waters', but Guyana is also known as the 'land of six Peoples'. With a land mass of 215,000 sq.km it is roughly the same size as Great Britain or Idaho in the United States.
While Guyana is independent today it was once a colony of the Dutch and the English. The Africans, East Indians and Chinese arrived as indentured servants or cheap labour. Today a third of the population found in Guyana come from the Africans and the East Indians.
Guyana's history is a mosaic with many cultures, people, languages and beliefs. It is a diverse and unique country in so many ways and nearly all that diversity and uniqueness has found its way into its cuisine. Guyanese cuisine is akin to a culinary hybrid of South American and Caribbean flavours, infused with African, East Indian, Portuguese, British and Chinese influences.
A country with a rich mosaic of cultures blending together leads to a diverse menu of meals. So what exactly have the cultures given to Guyana and how did Guyana incorporate it into their day to day lives.
The European Contribution
Pastries: Pine Tarts, Salara and Cheese Rolls
The Europeans did not even know of Guyana till about five hundred years ago and since then Guyana has been a colony of British and Dutch, though it gained independence in 1966. Both left their mark on Guyanese cuisine in the form of pastries as well as many cakes and breads.
For many North Americans when they hear the term pastry they think of a flakey buttery pastry stuffed with a flavourful sweet center. In Guyana, a pastry is not necessarily a sweet treat nor is it usually flakey. Any food prepared or cooked in a rich short crust dough that's considered a pastry whether filled with fruits, sweet or meat and vegetables. Pastry refers not to the dough but the whole dish itself.
Pine tarts and cheese rolls are two popular pastries of Guyana. A pine tart is a short crust dough filled with melt in your mouth sweet and tangy pineapple. Cheese roles are the same thing, only filled with a lightly spiced cheese that results in you eating more than just one. Cheese rolls are great snacks throughout the day.
Salara is melt-in-your-mouth red coconut bread. If you love coconut, you will love Salara. It is a subtly sweet bread that has coconut rolled into it. It is great to eat anytime of the day. And best of all it is easy to make.
Even the Portuguese left a memorable cuisine fusion with Guyana. Pancakes. They resemble small solid donuts, not the flat pancakes many Westerners are used to. But they do make great breakfast in bed food.
Two of the best sources to find recipes for Guyana Pastries are Jehan Can Cook and Inner Gourmet.
Pancakes with a Portuguese Flair
Asian cuisine is seen in the form of Chow Mein, Lo Mein and a chicken rice dish called Chicken in the Ruff.
The chow mein may have the same name as its Asian predecessor, but it tastes entirely different for each locale serving it. Chow Mein is a dish that has always been versatile, in Trinidad it is mainly served with cabbage and carrots, in Guyana meat or sea food, local vegetables and peppers as well are thrown in. Some dishes may even have mango in it.
Chicken in the Ruff is chicken fried rice with a fried chicken on top. It is the same as take out chicken fried rice in North America. Just presented differently.
A National Dish
This national dish of Guyana comes from the Amerindian culture of Guyana. It really is a small explosion of flavours in your mouth from sweet, sour to smokey warm. This dish is often reserved for those special events or as a Christmas dish, as it is time-consuming but it does last a while in the fridge and gets better the longer it 'sits'.
Pepper pot is a strongly flavoured stewed meat dish that takes time to prepare. Cinnamon, hot peppers and cassereep. Cassereep is the ingredient in this recipe that gives the dish its unique flavour and its preservation abilities. Beef, mutton and pork are the more popular meats used but chicken is used too. My personal preference is beef.
It can served with a dense thick bread that sops up all the liquid, over rice or with roti. Though roti is not often used, doesn't sop up liquid well. A dense homemade bread is my personal preference.
Despite it being time-consuming, it is relatively easy to prepare and cook. The video below is from one of my favourite Guyanese chefs.
A Great 'How To' For Cooking Pepperpot
Curry and Roti
East Indian Influence
I absolutely love spicy meat and potato mixes rolled into a freshly cooked and clapped roti. Even just haphazardly slapping it on a plate and using the roti as the utensil is finger licking yummy. Roti and many curries used in Guyana today are of East Indian origin.
Roti is a staple in many parts of the world, it is a unleavened bread that is flat and thin. Cooked using basic ingredients (wheat flour, baking powder, salt, and water) it comes plain or has things like split peas in the middle. Once the Roti cooks, it needs clapping to help it be less rigid and more floppy.
In the world of cuisine we often find pairings that are just perfect for each other, such as peanut butter and jelly. Roti and curry is one such pairing.
Curry is a blend of spices, traditionally these blends were different based on culture and locale as such a variety of tastes are found, differing levels of heat and so on. These spices are then used, both wet and dry, on meat and vegetable dishes or just vegetables without the meat, for the vegetarians. Poured over rice or add some roti to eat it with and it's a heavenly dish.
Cook Up Rice
The African Infusion
One pot cook up rice recipes appear all over the map. More often than not cook up rice is a 'peasants dish' meant to be cooked at the end of the week using the scraps and food left over from the week. Rice, meat - beef, ham, pork, beans and sometimes vegetables were all tossed into a pot to cook with fresh herbs and spices.
Often called rice and peas in the Caribbean it is essentially rice with a legume or bean. While some enjoy mixing up the meat choices, when it comes to the bean, you stick to one variety. Most often black-eye peas, split pea and or red beans. I have seen many North American versions of this dish being made with kidney bean ... but I find the other three beans work better.
There's even more
Seventy percent of Guyana is near pristine rainforests and as such, ninety percent of the population live along the coastal belt in an area some two hundred and seventy miles wide and ten to forty miles deep. A mere four percent of total land.
With nearly everyone living so close to the coast, it is no surprise that fish and sea life is a common ingredient in many Guyanese recipes. Besides the more popular fare of shrimp and crab, there are also a number of snapper fish, catfish and some widely loved fish like hassar and gilbaka.
Besides he more commonly known fruits such as melons, plantain, coconut, mango, pomegranate and papaya; there are many more fruits that are not as well-known including mamey, aware, sapodilla, sweetsop, belembee or souree, guinep, starfruit, guava, jamoon, gooseberry, tamarind, breadfruit, soursop and jackfruit or katahar.
Whether it is spicy, sweet or sour you seek, you are bound to find it in the diverse world of Guyanese cuisine.