Guyana's beguiling food-tasting journey

by Ibon Villelabeitia

May 3, 2001

GEORGETOWN (Reuters) - Calves' hooves boiled in bitter black sauce, salted pig tails bathed in creamy coconut milk and golden brown brain cakes topped with root bread.

In Georgetown, Guyana's graceful capital, a food-tasting experience can be a beguiling journey through 400 years of history that have shaped this isolated South American nation.

Each wave of settlers - Dutch traders, African slaves, British colonists, labourers from India and immigrants from China and Portugal - brought new flavours and textures that mingled with indigenous offerings to create Guyana's spicy, fruity, unpredictable cuisine.

Now, as Guyana struggles to emerge from years of isolation, the country is marketing itself as a destination for adventure travel - and its food as part of the adventure.

In recent years, Guyana, a sparsely populated country the size of Britain sandwiched between Venezuela and Suriname, has begun to take pride in its cuisine - with the publication of its first cook books, experimentation with new dishes and the opening of restaurants along the streets of the capital.

"Guyana's culture is mostly oral. When our dishes were put in print for the first time we had to decide on a way to spell them," said Magda Pollard, one of the authors of "What's Cooking in Guyana."

The book published by the Carnegie School of Home Economics in Georgetown attempts to capture a rich culinary tradition that features Indian curries, African stews, British pastries, Portuguese seasoning and Native American root vegetables.

Guyana's national dish is the pepperpot, a stew with Native American origins made from the soft inner part of livestock hooves - cow, calf or pig heels will do - mixed with rice and boiled in cassareep, a dark caramel-like juice from cassava, a native plant that is poisonous unless it is prepared just so.

Nomadic tribes developed cassareep as a preservative to keep their syrupy black stew fresh as they migrated in steamy jungles. Thus, cooks say, the best pepperpot is the one that has been cooking on the stove for months, or even years, with fresh hooves tossed into the caldron for every new serving.

Legend has it that at the exclusive Georgetown Club, built in colonial days for the governor's circle and sugar plantation owners, waiters served pepperpot that was 100 years old.

The cookup, a Guyanese staple, is of African origin, invented by descendants of slaves brought by Dutch settlers. A successful cookup - a stew of peas, rice and meat - requires creamy coconut milk, achieved by grating the flesh of a coconut, mixing it with water and then squeezing it.

Metem-gee is another popular stew, made of curly pig tails and root vegetables simmered in coconut milk.

Indentured labourers from India who came to work on sugar plantations in the 19th century brought along their piquant curry. Curry dishes are often served with roti - thin pancakes dipped into bowls of curried beef, chicken or fish.

And, of course, there is Guyanese black pudding, a version of Scottish haggis, normally served on Saturdays.

To make it, you stuff a mixture of rice, coconut milk and pig tails into the intestines of a cow or sheep.

Many modern Guyanese recipes were developed in the 1970s, after the government banned the import of up to 100 food items, including flour and potatoes. The measure forced Guyanese to turn to their traditional ingredients and be creative, building on a culinary identity that began to emerge after independence from Britain in 1966.

"Before independence there were dishes that were not socially acceptable in certain circles, especially the pepperpot because it has a black sauce," Pollard said.

"Independence elevated our cuisine and we discovered we had an haute cuisine."

In a country where ethnic antagonisms have long run deep, food - along with cricket - is the real melting pot, bringing Guyanese of different creeds and races to the same table.

Recent elections have been marred by riots touched off by racial resentment.

But in Indian neighbourhoods, where women wear saris and Hindu temples sit on street corners, African stews are served, while curry floats in the air in African districts and Chinese restaurants line major highways.

"We might fight during elections but food belongs to all of us," said a waiter in a Georgetown restaurant.

With its horse-drawn carts, palm trees swaying in sultry Caribbean breezes and white colonial-era houses on stilts, Georgetown exudes the feeling of a bygone era.

Coconut stands dot roadsides, traffic hums by on the left, children in crisp white uniforms play cricket and the wide boulevards bear names such as King Street, Wellington or Regent - relics of British rule.

Canals and the city's seawall tell of a Dutch past.

But hard times have fallen on Guyana, whose 750,000 people labour under a debt burden of $1.1 billion despite rich reserves of bauxite, gold and timber.

Large numbers of young Guyanese are emigrating to the United States, Canada or Europe.

The government is seeking to promote Guyana's untapped ecotourism industry. Almost entirely covered by rain forest and jungles, Guyana - "Land of Many Waters" in a local Amerindian language - claims to have the largest single-drop waterfall in the world, the 741-foot (226-metre) Kaieteur Falls.

The country is also home to species such as the jaguar, the anteater, the giant river otter and the black caiman.

While neighbouring Caribbean countries like Jamaica or Barbados fill tourist guides with their sandy beaches, local entrepreneurs think food can play a role in boosting Guyana's undeveloped tourist industry.

Some 75,000 people visited Guyana last year, but many were emigrants returning home for a visit.

"People have done Belize and Costa Rica. Guyana is the new destination. Things here are like they were 300 years ago," said Shaun McGrath, an Irishman who is co-owner of the Cara Lodge Hotel, one of the leading hotels in town.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Britain's Prince Charles have visited and dined on local food at Cara Lodge.

"There is a whole level of cuisine that has yet to come into existence," said McGrath, a former president of the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana.

"The ingredients are there, just waiting to be explored."