The one particular aspect about food in Guyana that I miss the most is fish. Fresh fish in a staggering variety, some of which I have never eaten.
There are two major fish-guys here in Barbados who import fish from Guyana. Their lists include: Hassar, Bangamary, Butterfish, Snook, Red Snapper, Grey Snapper, Basha, Curass, Catfish, Gilbaka, Pacoo, Huurree, Trout and Tilapia. While this list is every Guyanese’s (living away from home) dream, it is not quite the same as being able to get these fish fresh with the flesh firm and the skins and scales glistening with the water from the sea. I used to buy a lot of fish at one time here, about US$60 worth of fish each month. But I’ve stopped now for about 3 years because I got tired of the frozen fish not having much taste. The thing is, I’d always try to time my purchases when the new stock would come in but at the end of the day, it was really a gamble because there would always be fish from the previous batch that was not sold, understandably, they’d want to sell you those first. And, it is not always easy to decipher which packet is fresher than the other when frozen. I had spent way too many moments frowning at the plate of food in front of me because the fish was so very bland and tasteless; it had been in the freezer far too long.
The radical change really came a few years ago whilst on a trip to Guyana sitting down to eat from fried Bangamary my sister had prepared for me. The fish was so tender and flavourful. She hadn’t seasoned the fish in anyway different than I would, nor was it fried in special kind of way, so why did this fish taste so very different? Why was it this good? And then it hit me (of course I should have realized it immediately) that my taste buds had gotten so accustomed to the taste and texture of the frozen fish, hence my startled response to the fresh fried Bangamary. I vowed there and then that I would stop buying fish once I returned to Barbados. And so I did. The only time I get to eat any “Guyanese fish” is when I visit or someone is kind enough to bring me some cooked fish.
Ask any member of my family or friends, my first meal when I touch down in Guyana has to be fish in some form or fashion. I harass them on the phone, by email and instant messaging constantly checking on if they got it (fish), if they remember that I want fish for lunch; that the fish should finish cooking by the time I get to Georgetown. I know it’s only because they love me that they put up with my demands and the constant nagging about it.
For me, a visit to Guyana is incomplete without a stop at the fish section of any of the markets I frequent: Stabroek, Bourda or Mon Repos. At times I’d just stand there and gawk at the astounding array of fresh fish. Every time it makes me think, gosh I’d love to be in Guyana for a month, cook and eat fish and write about it.
Now it is not to say that there is not fresh fish to be bought here in Barbados. There is: Mahi Mahi (aka Dolphin, no, not flipper), Bill Fish, King Fish, Tuna, Shark, Pot Fish, Flying Fish and Red Snapper. Of the lot I only like the Pot Fish – so called because they are caught using pots or buckets. And I would buy the Red Snapper sometimes (it is only available during hurricane season). The other fish, I don’t find them particularly interesting. Mahi Mahi when cooked skillfully is not bad. Homemade fried Flying Fish is a wonderful thing, but you have to do it the Bajan way, twice and trice battered and then fried. I never make it at home and only have it when I’m dining at the home of friends.
When fish is fresh there is very little that I want to do with it. In other words, I only want to employ cooking methods and aromatics to coax the natural flavour of the fish. I want the texture to reflect the tenderness of the flesh. With some applications, I want the fish to be handled gently, delicately.
A couple of months ago, a friend returned from Guyana and brought me some butterfish that was bought the afternoon before she came back. The name of the fish was all the inspiration I needed to make: Butterfish in Butter Sauce. I served it with some boiled ripe plantains, cassava and steamed okra. The buttery, savoury sauce coated everything. Every mouthful had us groaning with pleasure. The next day I had the little left over with bread for breakfast. I toasted the bread and then let it sit in the hot butter sauce to soak. You know how good every bite of that bread was right? Enough said.
Butterfish in Butter Sauce
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (salted is fine too)
1 cup thinly sliced onions
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 clove garlic, crushed
Thinly sliced hot pepper, to taste
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 whole large butterfish, scaled, washed, and pat dry. Cut into halves
2 cups tap water
2 green onions (scallions, shallots) thinly sliced, white and green parts
Add the oil and 1 tablespoon of butter to a large pan and place on medium heat. When the butter has melted and the froth subsides, add the onions and cook until translucent (reduce heat if necessary because you do not want to brown the onions).
Add the fresh thyme, hot pepper and season with salt; continue to cook for 1 minute. Meanwhile, season fish with salt and black pepper to taste – inside and out.
Raise heat to medium high and pour water into pan with cooked onion mixture, stir and bring to a boil. When the pan comes to a boil, add the fish.
Cook the fish on high heat for 15 – 17 minutes spooning the sauce intermittently over the fish, almost basting it.
Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the pan, reduce the heat to low and let the butter melt completely; baste the fish with the sauce, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Toss in green onions, remove pan from heat and serve with boiled ground provisions, mashed potatoes or bread.
You can make this with any white fish.
Instead of water, you can use fresh coconut milk