Guyana

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Welcome to the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America! This was not our first visit to the continent’s northeastern coast, where Guyana (once known as British Guiana) is followed to the east by Suriname (once Dutch Guiana), French Guiana (still a part of France), and the state of Amapá (once Portuguese Guiana) in Brazil. To the west is the Guiana region of Venezuela (once Spanish Guiana). Whew! One of the most fascinating lessons of our weekend adventure was that Guyana might well be called Indian Guiana, too, with almost 45 percent of the population being of South Asian descent. With cultural influences from Africa, Europe, Asia, and (of course) the Americas, we were excited to learn more about what holds this small country together and makes it special.

One of Guyana’s most famous foods is pepperpot, a dish with native origins made with cassareep, a special sauce made from cassava. The sauce has antiseptic properties, and acts as a preservative—-allowing traditional pepperpot stews to be consumed over several days and even replenished with fresh ingredients. Rumor has it that some pepperpot have been stewing away like this for a century or more! This renowned dish is what Jess got to work preparing on Friday night.

Without being able to purchase some cassareep sauce of our own, Jess had found a pepperpot recipe that nevertheless (with a mix of molasses and vegetarian Worcestershire sauce) promised flavor close to the real thing. The recipe also calls for tofu instead of meat, which worked well for us. Although the instructions call for the pepperpot to be left sitting out overnight, she didn’t want the dish to spoil (without the special cassareep) and so we stored it in the refrigerator instead.

The next morning, while the pepperpot was still chilling in the fridge, Jess also cooked up a typical Guyanese breakfast of channa (chickpeas) and boiled egg, with lots of spice in the sauce. We were starting to discover that Guyana has a very spicy cuisine!

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After breakfast, we oriented ourselves (as usual) with Georgraphy Now!

To accompany Jess’s pepperpot, for lunch, I boiled some rice and cooked some yam (the real yam, not a sweet potato) to serve on the side. Here are the tasty results:

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The bland rice and yam were a wonderful antidote to the fiery pepperpot tofu. We listened to a charming song called Guyana, from the singer Poonam Singh, as we ate. Singh was chosen to be Miss Global International Guyana in 2016.

We also took a look at a short travel video that provided some tips for people who were thinking of visiting Guyana for the first time. The bottom line: in South America’s poorest and perhaps least-developed country, enjoy the natural beauty but don’t forget to use common sense. While we watched, we snacked on some Guyanese parsad, a dough-like concoction popular during the Hindu festival of Holi:

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Our Guyanese breakfast had been “spicy.” Lunch, “fiery.” Little did we anticipate that the chickpea and potato curry recipe that I had selected for dinner would be the hottest of them all. I suppose that I should have anticipated it, perhaps, after realizing that Step 3 involved making a purée of onions and habanero peppers in the food processor. But this one really made us sweat:

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The potato-filled roti bread that I made to accompany the curry didn’t give us much relief, as the mashed potato filling also contained scallions and more habanero peppers.

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As you’ve probably noticed, the entire meal would not be out of place on an Indian table. The reason why so many Guyanese are of South Asian descent is (unfortunately) that the British brought over their ancestors as indentured servants, to work on the sugar plantations, at around the turn of the twentieth century. But what food!

Only with a couple of swigs of Jess’s home-brewed kefir did we finally begin to recover. The country does have a sweet side, however: its primary export is sugar. We happened to have some demerara sugar in our cupboard, a type of raw cane sugar with large, amber crystals that takes its name from a region of Guyana. You can see some in the photo at the top of our post.

Later that evening, we watched a documentary film called The White Diamond (2005). Werner Herzog has always had a knack for finding—and creating—weirdness; this film was no exception. As we moved through the Guyanese jungle, Herzog introduced us to a number of odd characters who shared their insights about life, death, and nothing in particular.

On Sunday, we enjoyed another breakfast of chickpeas and boiled eggs—not nearly as spicy (despite the bright red sauce) as what we’d been trying to eat the night before. We then got to work on the final recipe of the weekend, a side dish of fried okra known as ochroes. We had left the sliced okra out to dry the night before, but as it was still a bit juicy we dried it further by placing it in a warm oven. Once the okra had started to shrivel, it was time to fry!

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We ate the okra for lunch together with some leftover pepperpot tofu, yams, and rice. Later, after a rousing stroll through Buffalo’s west side, we watched the beginning of a historical documentary that was filmed in Guyana (or rather, British Guiana) in 1924. Most of the footage was captured in Georgetown, the capital city. I was fascinated to think that these lively scenes were filmed almost a century ago:

After another three-alarm dinner of curry and roti, this time with extra rice and yams to balance it out, we were ready to call it a weekend. We had learned much about this hidden corner of the Caribbean, where people of “not two but six races” (as Poonam Singh proclaims above) live together in peaceful harmony. The country is poor, but recent (and sticky?) developments in both the oil and honey industries promise a bright future. Farewell for now!

–Derek

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