What’s really cooking in Guyana?

By G. J. Giddings

Dr. Jahwara Giddings is Professor of History at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio

Food is so central to human life and culture that a West African proverb maintains that “There is no god quite like our stomach, as we must make sacrifices to it every day!” In fact, every culture is identified by, among other means, a distinctive cuisine and thus through food tells of its unique adaptation to the environment. Today there is a growing interest in sustainable food, with roots in the 1970s Slow Food movement, emphasizing local agriculture, optimal nutrition and environmental justice. Although typically trivialized as a mere necessity, food is an undisputed force and could be a site of empowerment against the hazards of commercial food industries. Guyana’s rich history and geography positions it to contribute to the modern sustainable food movement.

Guyana’s food sector should be a public policy priority in light of foodways’ strong cultural relevance and current trends in ecotourism, sustainable agriculture and diets. Guyanese understand the significance of being called a “nyam go way,” a name given to someone who visits someone’s home and eats, but leaves too quickly to gyaff or meaningfully interact.  Similarly, an Italian tradition maintains that it is ineffective to engage others on an empty stomach. Such entrenched values affirm the significance of food beyond sustenance and satiation.                      

What sparked my effort to understand Guyanese food culture, and the potential of this sector, was a conversation I overheard a few years ago at an internet café in Bourda, Georgetown about the apparent disappearance of a fruit called bird-shit. I had been returning to Guyana for annual visits and had already reacquainted myself with such fruits delights as Awara, Dunks, Genip, Gooseberry, Jamoon, Sapodilla, Maumee, Soursop, Tamarind, Kuru, Whitey, Five Fingers, Sourie/One Finger/Blim Blim, Simatoo, as well as Cheese & Bread, Fat Pork, and Stinking Toe. Even with such a seemingly endless array of fruits, I wondered at the loss of such a colorfully named fruit, and about what other foods might be endangered. Who knows, bird-shit could be the proverbial “canary in the mine,” warning of diminishing biodiversity and missed opportunities for food sustainability and security.      

Possibly near extinction too is a fruit-based marble game called Gam, which was popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. Mostly boys played Gam with a marble or tau, made from the single seed of the Kuru fruit. After selecting for size and roundness a unique tau was crafted, extending the life of this otherwise unremarkable semi-sweet fruit, a pale relative of the much brighter and sweeter Awara. Similarly, the seeds of many other fruits and vegetables such as Tamarind, Sapodilla, and Coconut shells are used to create art and jewelry.

According to Maulana Karenga, a motive force of history is that people “humanize” or shape the world in our own images and interests. As such, our foodways is one of the markers of our regional, national, ethnic, even transient cultural behaviors. Consider the anthropomorphically named married-man-pork  (sweet Basil) herb, which is an essential flavoring for Guyanese menu staples such as black pudding, white pudding, and cook-up. 

Guyana’s indigenous peoples, or Amerindians, contributed our popular Pepperpot dish.  Amerindians have cultivated the nutritious Cassava from which are created, sustainably, Casareep, Cassava Bread and Farine, as well as the popular Pone, Quinches, and Egg Ball.  Casareep, grated cassava juice caramelized, is an essential ingredient in Pepperpot and gives this dark stew its semi-sweet and preservative qualities. This special dish is served typically with homemade bread as a definitive Guyanese indulgent Christmas breakfast, or with rice anytime of the year. Today this stew typically contains multiple meats such as oxtail, cow heel, tripe, etc., but traditionally Amerindians made Pepperpot with fish. The 15th to 18th century encounters between Indigenous and Dutch peoples marked the first European colonization of what became the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, then British Guiana, independent Guyana and finally The Cooperative Republic of Guyana. 

Succeeding the Dutch, British colonizers increased importation of West African men and women as enslaved laborers for a burgeoning sugar industry. These ancestors brought with them many food memories and added same to Guyana’s cuisine culture. An example is Metemgee (Metem), a thick soup which contains ground provisions such as sweet potatoes and cassava with meats such as tripe, salt beef, and chicken foot, as wells as dumplings or duff and semi-ripe plantains, all braised in coconut milk, herbs and spices. According to Candace Goucher, in the African Twi language, Metemgee translates as “and plantains make it good” referencing a West African dish to which plantains are added to the pot last because it cooks quickly. Cook-up and Cow-heel soup are other one pot recipes also rooted in African foodways and the realities of enslavement, wherein the enslaved created delicious and nutritious food from such salvaged animal parts as pigtails, tripe, trotters, cow face, and even intestines and blood for Black pudding. 

After the abolition of slavery in the 1838, with resulting labor shortages, British colonizers created indentureship contracts with Portuguese men and women from the Madeira Islands, and with East Indian men and women. Guyana’s East Indian heritage is hugely impactful in flavoring Guyanese food culture. While Pepper Pot and Metemgee are indeed popular, curry is even more so on home and restaurant menus.  When considering the best preparation for the prized Gillbacker fish, curry is the popular choice, and whether it is fish, Ital, crab, pork, goat or labba curry, a popular side dish is roti or the split peas filled Dhal Puri. Indian Guyanese also contributed achar and other spicy chutneys or relishes crafted from fruits and vegetables.      

As non-settler colonizers the Dutch and British rarely made Guyana their permanent home; therefore, most European Guyanese are Portuguese. Some European men and women, including the Irish, worked as indentured servants and contributed also to the food culture. The infamous long distance 17-19th century triangular trade of produce and persons forged innovations including food preservations such as salted, fermented and smoked meats which persist in the cuisine today. Guyanese fishcake, made with saltfish, is distinguished by its torpedo shape and the inclusion of “English potatoes” and popularly paired with Dhal and rice or wrapped in Dhal Puri with sour. The Chinese imprint on Guyanese cuisine is definitive. Arriving after the mid-1800s, mostly Cantonese men and women emigrated to Guiana for political and economic refuge, but a few worked as indentured servants. Not unlike the global scene, Chinese food is the most popular commercial food and here it is a unique fusion with Caribbean flavors in restaurants and at homes where cooks personalize fried rice and chowmein recipes. 

Guyana’s environment also is essential to its cuisine. Located entirely within the unique Guiana Shield tropical rainforest system, sheltered from the annual Atlantic hurricanes, and geographically the largest Caribbean country, this “land of many waters” is so fertile that it yields two sugarcane harvests annually. Fertility is evident as well in a fauna teeming with animals offering diverse bush-meats to interior residents and whoever relishes a nice curry Labba or Iguana cutters, etc. As the original medicine, it is no surprise that food is still used to comfort and repair the body and that various botanicals and wholesome foods are increasingly embraced as alternative medicine. Juiced, fermented, and seeped beverages of Passionfruit, Turmeric, Golden Apple, Sorrel, Corilla leaf, Mauby bark, Ginger root, etc., are medicinal and are sustainable uses of each growing season’s bounty. Guyanese ancestors and elders have passed down Bush medicine knowledge, over a hundred of which are memorialized by pioneer Guyanese Calypso artiste Bill Rogers’ 1929 “The West Indian Weed Woman” song and include: Cassava  Mumma, Physic Nut, Stinking Toe, Man Piabba, Woman Piabba, Granny Backbone, Job’s Tear, Jumbie Basil, Devil Dua, Chinie Mint, Suriname Bitters, Coolie Bitters, Putagee Bumbo, Yoruba Leaf, Congo Lana, French Toyo, and “… down to a certain bush wha Bajans does call Puss in Boots.”    

Independence from Britain and becoming a Republic saw Guyana positioning itself as a regional leader in agriculture and environmental sustainability. A large share of Guyana’s “six sisters” leading export commodities – bauxite, fish, gold, rice, sugar and timber – have been food-focused, inspiring a vision for Guyana as the Caribbean “bread basket,” with Feed, Clothe and House the Nation as a national mantra. But economic crises, including the infamous bans on many foreign foods in the 1970s, precipitated mass emigration. Yet the absence of many Guyanese coupled with scarcity and relative poverty unintentionally led to reliance on, and preservation and innovation of traditional tastes and recipes. 

Liberalization of the Guyanese economy, starting with the Hoyte administration in 1985,  opened up Guyana’s economy and created new challenges and opportunities in the food sector. We have seen the emergence of foreign fast food franchises: the American KFC chain came to Guyana in 1994, Popeyes in 2003, and Burger King in 2017. Such developments, as with most commercial foods, offer new challenges to Guyanese food systems.  A local newspaper praised The Carnegie School of Home Economics, which trains many Guyanese food industry professionals, for serving Guyana’s growing fast food franchises, but which might be a veiled criticism of Carnegie’s missed opportunity to help cultivate Guyana’s unique food culture. Forging a contemporary and relevant Guyanese cuisine can however be seen in such small enterprises as Tuma Sala, Delvin Adams’ Backyard Café, Ron Hawker’s Burger Shack & Grill, and Warren and Tracy Douglas’ Pandama Winery and Retreat.  A small pig farmer from Buxton, after experiencing plummeting sales in Georgetown due to low priced imported pork, shifted his sales target to his local Buxton and neighboring village markets. This farmer also helped found the Guyana Swine Producers Cooperative Society Limited (GSPCSL) to tackle issues unique to this sector even while working with the Guyana Livestock Development Authority (GLDA).  Even in Guyana’s large Diaspora, Guyanese are thoughtful, possibly nostalgic, about the foods and traditions they missed back home. But just like their ancestors, these expatriates carried with them many food memories, and are even sharing same with others at enterprises such as Back Home Bakery in Brooklyn and Sybil’s restaurant in Queens, New York.

The growing global popularity of eco-tourism and interests in local wholesome foods, offer opportunities for unique Guyanese contributions to this meaningful movement. Guyana’s food environment, or terroir, is sufficiently unique to secure, for example, Protected Designation of Origin branding for food products like Casareep, cane sugar, aged rums, unique fruit wines, etc. Indeed, Guyana’s organizational infrastructure, which include the Amerindian People’s Association, Carnegie School, Iwokrama Centre, Guyana Marketing Corporation, National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute, Red Thread Women’s Development Organization, Demerara Distillers Limited, GLDA, GSPCSL, Jah Works Enterprise, etc., can be harnessed to help explore and share more effectively with the world, what is really cooking in Guyana.