Have you ever noticed that there are certain powerful triggers which can induce a wave of nostalgia in us? Sometimes it can be seeing images of a place which can take us back in time or even seeing a familiar food which perhaps you have not eaten for many years. It’s amazing how things such as these can transport you back to a time and place with happy associations. Nostalgia is something which can provoke thoughts of our childhood or of the good old days.
My new rendition of the familiar peanut star cakes.
I was looking at a post on Instagram and saw a picture of a plate of pow. I must admit that it had been years since I had one. I have had “Bao” at dim sum restaurants recently, and although they may almost be considered the same, they are in fact quite different for the pow which I grew up eating. I was instantly drawn back to a time of my childhood when my mother made pow. I was cast back to my best friend’s house in Lamaha street, Georgetown, circa 1975. There was a table in the kitchen with lots of aunties sitting around chatting but busy in the act of pow making in various stages. Outside, the kids and dads were busy in some other activity. However, they were all anxiously awaiting the pows to be steamed and offered. At the end, everyone could enjoy the warm, soft, doughy bun filled with delicious pork or chicken and vegetables. True to my nature, I had to plan to recreate those old recipes and went about making my own pow and star cakes.
Pow making by me in Haïti.
I remember well the times when my mom joined Aunty Joan and her sisters to make a variety of homemade treats. If you are not of Chinese descent you may not be familiar with this activity. If you are Guyanese-Chinese then you may remember the days you feasted on Pow, Tao sa (Sweet bean cakes) and peanut star cakes. It usually meant that your mom or grandmother had met with a group of other aunties and dedicated an afternoon to making these Chinese style treats. You might wonder why it was necessary to do this with a group of people? Well, I guess it can be deemed a social activity and a way to preserve the culture; but basically it was just more efficient to make large batches of pow with many others involved. The recipe has several steps and requires organization and dexterity. It certainly was more efficient to have several hands involved. The bounty would then be shared by everyone and they all went home taking the fruit of their labor to happy families.
Freshly steamed pow cooling on a wire rack
As a young girl of about 7 years of age, I looked forward to being able to help in any task I was given. In fact, by being able to be in the “thick of things”, I was actually learning and absorbing all the facets of this culture which is often passed down through generations. At first, I was probably given the task of cutting the 2” squares of parchment paper which would be stuck under each pow before steaming. I then graduated later on to filling the pow and then learning to carefully cup it in my hands and seal the edges. The aunties would sit around the dining table and each person would be in charge of a task.
Huge batches of pow dough were mixed and left to rise. During this time, all of the prepping and cutting of the vegetables like bora beans, carrots and onions would be done. In addition to this there would be wanee or cloud ears, Chinese mushrooms and sometimes water chestnuts for a crunchy texture. Although the ubiquitous red colored slightly sweet chasu pork is synonymous with steamed bao, stir fried pork or chicken mixture were often the protein filling for pow making in Guyana as I remember.
Stir fried pork with vegetables for my pow filling
Chinese mushroom and wanee
The vegetables and meat would be sautéed together and left to cool to room temperature. A hot filling would certainly affect the integrity of the dough. The other assembly line positions were those of the people responsible for rolling the little rounds of dough, those who filled the pow and carefully closed them without leaving any tears or openings. There would be someone who would then stick the parchment paper on the base and place them in the steamer basket. At these pow groups, I distinctly remember a gigantic steamer pot was a crucial part of the equation. It was quite unlike my bamboo steamer which I place over a wok. This metal or stainless steel pot had to be the “Mother” of all steamers and was tall with several layers of racks inside. No petite Chinese woman could handle this steamer; it needed either a rather tall person or at least a kitchen step ladder do the deed formidably.
Steaming pow in a bamboo steamer
A very important job in this process was that of the person responsible for the steamer and the all important 10 minute timer. Opening the cover of the steamer prematurely meant that you could spoil a batch; as water would condense and drip on the pow if they were unfinished. This would make the tops bumpy instead of smooth. The timer person was crucial and had to focus on this task and not be called on to work on other tasks.
It was the pivotal moment when the timer rang. The person responsible for the steamer would carefully lift off the cover of the huge steaming pot and lift out the stainless steel rack which was placed over about 2” of boiling water. The glorious transformation of the dough was wonderful to see. In a matter of 10 minutes, the steam had magically cooked the dough and the pow buns had puffed up beautifully and were almost touching each other. The next stage was to remove the batch to a grill rack to cool. The water level would be checked in the wok or pot, and if necessary, the steamer would be topped up with a little water and would have to come back up to a boil. Another batch of uncooked pow buns would be placed over the boiling water and to be steamed for 10 minutes. Dozens and dozens of pows were made at a sitting; especially if there were about 4 to 6 women involved. This meant that each person was probably taking home at the bare minimum at least 2 dozen pows to an eagerly awaiting household. If any were left over, they could be easily frozen and reheated. It took a village and then some to make pow!
Tasting the fruit of my solo labor
Another group baking event was that of Chinese bean cakes or Tao sa, and were a specialty of my grandmother Celestine. She learned to make them from my Chinese born grandfather when they married and over the years had truly mastered the art; even though they were not a familiar food of her childhood. She would painstakingly make the sweetened bean paste from black eye peas which she boiled and ground in a food mill. It would be cooked with sugar until it transformed from a grey paste into a dark mahogany colored flavorful sweet bean paste. She championed the two-part pastry which comprised of the rich pastry and the poor pastry. When combined, they made a very delicate flaky pastry most suitable for these well known and loved treats. My grandmother made several dozens at a sitting for her many clients who still remember her legendary Chinese cakes.
My maternal grandparents on their wedding day in 1945
I also learned the process of how these were made at a young age, as she allowed me to help her for her orders for her catering business. As a little girl, my first job was to brush the egg wash on the bean cakes and then carefully place the red dot in the center of the cake before they were placed in the oven. The red dot signifies that it is a sweet pastry and not a savory. I remember with great fondness these bygone days in Guyana. It’s quite amazing how so many things which I learned at that time have served me in my life today.
With this deep nostalgia, one very important thing I take with me of my childhood was the profound sense of community in which I was raised. Our family friends and neighbors were a tight group. Everyone helped and supported each other whenever it was needed. Life in Guyana back then was not supremely glamorous, but in my memories it was good, simple and wholesome. During the 70’s and 80’s there was a mass exodus from the country to Canada, the USA and other Caribbean countries. Many Guyanese feared for the future as there were difficult political and economical problems in the country. Most of my extended family members immigrated to other countries in the mid 60’s and the remaining few left during this period.
My parents were the only ones in their families who remained in Guyana at this time, along with my grandmother. In subsequent years, we were happy to have my aunt Margo return to the country after many years working abroad. It was devastating when family members left the country for greener pastures. We were very lucky that we had good friends with whom we could continue traditions. I learned well and from an early age during my life in Guyana that it was instrumental to be creative and open minded dealing with challenges. The importation of foreign products was greatly reduced due to foreign exchange constraints. As such there were many food shortages and the rationing of products during a period of time back then. There was a national drive to learn how to substitute many imported items with whatever was locally available. As the old saying goes, “ necessity is the mother of invention “ and I remember my home economics classes at Bishops’ High school, when we learned to make pastry with breadfruit and cookies with locally made rice flour, as no wheat flour was available for a period of time. Innovation was key to functioning with shortages, but we all managed and are certainly no worse in retrospect for this episode; but perhaps wiser.
Luckily, Guyanese fruit and vegetables are fresh and abundant. As such, when we could not find potatoes or carrots, we used other things like breadfruit and yams. Apples, grapes and pears were not missed; we had Buxton spice mangos, golden apples, carambola and sweet pineapples galore. Local production and local industry became more important.
In those days, our parents were challenged to become resourceful and experimental in their day to day lives. As children, we grew up as a generation who knew little of a Pre-Colonial Guyana but for our penchant for Cadbury’s chocolates, British biscuits and teas and seeing the Colonial buildings, bandstands and the old statue of Queen Victoria which stood in front of the High Court, in downtown Georgetown. We were truly the 1st generation of Guyanese as was anyone born after May, 1966. Our birth certificates did not state British Guiana as country of birth and the complexities of the time were processed by us perhaps differently, as we were not of the generation which could compare with something else.
I feel that the strength we found in our friendships were invaluable at this time. We were all going through the same highs and lows of the time. Our family ties were sacred and we supported each other in any way that we could. Good friends were also like family and we lived together well in our communities irrespective of color or creed. We were also taught to always respect our elders and to have a nationalistic pride about being Guyanese. This is the Guyana I know, the Guyana I love and the Guyana of my memories
I am most thankful for my life experiences growing up in “the Land of Many Waters” in the country which was “Land of 7 Peoples or Nationalities “, as it all contributed to making me the person I am today. I have always been and always will be a very proud Guyanese. My upbringing and situations which I was exposed growing up, in so many ways prepared me for my life in Haïti and strengthened my ability to adapt. It’s so funny how Life is sometimes… we never know why things happen the way they do, but as I have always known; God really does have a plan for each one of us.
Visiting Kaieteur Falls with my boys when they were much younger