Most of the English speaking Caribbean will share a similar type of culture and history. Even though Guyana is situated on the continent of South America, we are culturally a part of the Caribbean. The food and the spices used in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica are very similar. These are countries which once had large plantation cultures during colonial times in the heyday of the sugar boom. After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, an indentureship practice was established engaging Asian immigrants from India and China as well as immigrants from Portugal. These groups of people each brought with them their culinary practices and traditions. Subsequently, they have been adopted into the regional cuisine and have been passed down through the generations. Caribbean cuisine is a rich mixture of our African, Amerindian, East Indian, Chinese and European heritages. This make for a colorful and flavorful melting pot and it can be seen in the cuisine through the use of spices and condiments.
In the Caribbean, many of us eat our fruit with salt and hot peppers. I know this may sound strange to some, but for many, it is a delicious way to prepare our favorite fruit when they are in season. In Haiti for example, fruit is never eaten with salt or hot peppers, nor are green fruit ever really consumed. This tradition might have seemed strange to some here, but over the years, several people I know have opened up to trying my way of preparing green fruit. Of course, in Guyana we also enjoy eating fruit in their natural simple form without any additional ingredients added; but there is a special joy associated with having them elevated to another level. Even pineapples are peeled and rubbed with a mixture of salt and sugar. This brings out the natural flavor tremendously. I also love cucumbers sliced thinly and seasoned with a little vinegar, sugar and salt. They are a lovely addition to any meal with rice.
A pineapple peeled and rubbed with a salt and sugar rub
Mangoes, guinepes ( quenepes), golden apples (pomme cythère) dunks, gooseberries and carambola (five- finger/ star fruit) are some of the favorites which we “soused” frequently at home. The fruit must all be unripened to be prepared this way. Mangos or golden apples are also delicious pickled when they are firm and just on the verge of beginning to sweeten. Once the fruit are ripe, they cannot be prepared this way as the high sugar content and the texture are not right for pickling.
Generally a “chow” is a quick pickle. This is done by peeling the green fruit and cutting into pieces. A mixture of salt, sliced hot wiri peppers or bird peppers are essential. An acid such as lime juice or white vinegar is an imperative addition to the mix . The hot, salty, spicy flavors meld together creating a quick “souse” or “chow” in about 10 minutes. The acid factor renders the green fruit tender and palatable and ready to consume. I must admit that the thought of this makes my mouth water as I write this. In Trinidad, a few more ingredients are commonly added which I quite like. These are shadoe beni or cilantro, sometimes sliced onions, and minced garlic.
A mango chow or cilantro mango salad
A pickle is made by soaking pieces of green fruit in a large jar or bottle and soaking in a pickling liquid for at least 24 hours or longer. The pickling liquid is made up of vinegar, hot peppers, and salt. The longer the fruit remain in the vinegar, the more acidic and spicy it becomes. The color of the fruit darkens or fades, depending on the type, thus should be eaten within 48 hours of pickling. How we Guyanese love our pickled mangos!! Growing up in Guyana, I would often be drawn to the street vendors and their array of huge glass jars of various pickled fruit which were in season. The green mango pickle was highlighted by the familiar red tinge of wiri wiri peppers beckoned me on my way home from school. There was always the temptation to stop to buy pickled fruit or snacks. Some other very common street foods are dhal puri with mango sour, potato balls, egg balls ( boiled egg enrobed with seasoned crushed cassava, cassava balls, fried channa (garbanzo beans) or fried split peas with Indian spices. Another common childhood favorite is a thin fried noodle-like pastry called “chicken foot”. It is made from ground split peas, turmeric, cumin and flour and is often served with a good lashing of delicious sweet, slightly sour and spicy tamarind sauce.
Potato Balls with pepper sauce
In Guyana, we have a love affair with hot sauces and condiments. This is thanks to our Indian heritage. We douse our pholourie, channa, bara, bhaiganee and puris with delight. We love our lime pickles, mango and tamarind achars, chutneys, tamarind sour and we cannot fathom a meal without our pepper sauce. Which self-respecting Guyanese does not have at least one big jar of pepper sauce or achar in their home? If you don’t have such a bottle(s) in your refrigerator and your friends come over for a meal, it’s grounds for “stiupsin” and all manner of “dressing down” in pure disbelief, bordering on a full out “bussing” or shaming !!
My mother and grandmother made pepper sauce in batches. There was a special blender consecrated for this preparation. They could not take a chance using the same blender for preparing anything else, as the pure pepper flavors and oils taint the plastic blender recipient. On a pepper sauce making day, the fumes would travel from the kitchen to the front door and burn our eyes and nostrils on arrival. Yes!!!! Wiri wiri peppers are that hot. The sight and smell of the container of puréed peppers filled me with awe. How dangerously wonderful this whole procedure was to me as a young girl. My mom added pieces of sourie or bilimbi fruit as well as chopped onions or green mango, mustard and salt to the mix. White vinegar was added to dilute and preserve and it was bottled and left to macerate for a few days in the sun until ready. The bottles of red or orange colored pepper sauce were sealed and preciously preserved or shipped off to various relatives abroad who always sent requests for “Guyanese pepper sauce”. The cardinal rule was “always use a clean utensil to serve”. An unclean or previously used spoon or fork could spoil the entire batch. My mother’s homemade wiri wiri pepper sauce with pieces of bilimbi & onions and a bowl of mango achar.
My mom would carefully seal the bottles for overseas travel with duct tape. They would then be wrapped in layers of newspaper just in case anything leaked. As an additional safe guard, they were also wrapped in plastic bags or bubble wrap. A small bottle of about 8 ounces could appear to be a huge packet double in size after this procedure. Traveling from Guyana to a place where Guyanese relatives and friends lived meant carrying every conceivable Guyanese product: peppersauce, mango achar, curry powder, casreep, Limacol, cassava bread, El Dorado rum, Demerara brown sugar and so on. There was also a great deal of praying and stress involved that no customs officer would pull you aside, especially if you had checked that you had “nothing to declare” on your customs declaration!!
How I miss Guyana sometimes… but you are so alive and clear in my memories.