It looks like an ordinary birthday cake, but it is hardly just a cake. It is the famous Guyanese Christmas Black Cake. The icing is also not just simple little whipped up frosting in white and pink. It is the famous Guyanese hard icing underlaid with expensive and delicious marzipan.
Come on a fascinating trip of Guyana and Indo-Guyanese food as Writersbrew guest writer Lalita Arya returns to the land of her birth.
It is called black cake because once you cut it, it is all black, not like chocolate cake, but a moist, soft, intoxicating taste of which you may want to eat a lot, but can’t. Why? Because the cake is made up of many kinds of raisins and dried fruit crushed and soaked in Demerara rum for an entire year! Only when it has absorbed the rum then other ingredients are added for the baking process. After it is taken out of the oven and cooled, red wine is poured over the baked cake and it sits for a few days for the wine to soak in. I had a piece of the genuine stuff this year for my birthday, and in Guyana, the janam-bhumi, my land of birth.
I had not visited this land for over 36 years. My older granddaughters – born in the USA – persuaded me to go on a trip as they wanted to experience this land of my birth where I had spent about the first 28 years of my life. I had hesitated due to my matured age but thought, What the heck, let me take the chance and we’ll see what happens. It so turned out that we were there for 10 days, were out every day, had a glorious time, and I am content I was able to share that with this third generation. I must say that each member of the eight of my family watched over me with great care.
In fact, the name Guyana is an Amerindian indigenous word meaning “land of many waters”.
Guyana is the only English-speaking country on the South American continent; bordered on the east by Dutch-speaking Suriname, on the west by Spanish-speaking Venezuela, on the south by Portuguese-speaking Brazil and on the north by the mighty Atlantic Ocean. It also boasts the grand Kaieteur Falls with a water drop of 741 feet, which is probably the second highest fall in the world. The majority of the land consists of unspoiled rain forests and many rivers. On the western side of Venezuela we have the mighty Orinoco and on the Brazil side the great Amazon, both emptying their surging waters into the Atlantic. In fact, the name Guyana is an Amerindian indigenous word meaning “land of many waters”. And that it sure it – what are called rivers in some countries, we call creeks in Guyana – most of which are clear blackened with minerals from the mountains in the south cascading into the muddy beaches of the Atlantic. We are a strange land under sea level, so a sea wall decorates our coast land stretching over 65 miles. In some coastal areas, thick foliage has been planted to stay the water from overflowing the seawall. These walls not only prevent flooding, but provide romantic trysts for lovers.
I know of two prime ministers, one from Guyana and one from our neighboring island of Trinidad, who researched and traced their roots back to the villages of their ancestors in India.
Although English is the official language, Creolese and a form of Bhojpuri are also spoken here. Creolese was the evolution of mixtures of English and some African languages and dialects. Bhojpuri is from the original Bihar and UP districts of India, influenced by both English and African Creolese. Since some of the Indian labourers were from Tamilnadu in south India, there was a scattering of Tamil speakers as well. About 200 years ago, indentured labourers were brought from east and south India to work in the European colonies – Guyana happened to be one of them. On this visit we went to the Georgetown Registry of Indentured Indians and were actually able to see the Register of entries of the labourers. One member of my family was trying to trace his grandfather and found all the details of the ship’s name, date of departure from India, date of arrival in Guyana and to which plantation he was posted. It was fascinating and scary. When I think back to some of the sufferings our ancestors underwent, I tremble in agony. But those ancestors made us who we are today, successful in all walks of life all over the world in an Indian diaspora, melding into the cultures of the countries we have adopted. Some of us are prime ministers and leaders in the countries of adoption. I know of two prime ministers, one from Guyana and one from our neighboring island of Trinidad, who researched and traced their roots back to the villages of their ancestors in India. Their stories were reported in the Times of India. For our own family, thanks to the persistence of one of my sisters, we have located and visited our cousin and family descendants near Allahabad.
We have managed over these centuries to keep some of our language, culture, dress, forms of worship, and food. Though these have undergone changes, the basics still remain. Since this article is about food, I will address this very delicious and important aspect of Indo-Guyanese life.
The main Indo-Guyanese meal is made up of Demerara rice, the short brown or white grains, unlike the famous long grained Basmati rice of India so familiar in Indian homes and Indian restaurants worldwide. South Indian rice resembles the Guyana rice a little, but tastes slightly different. The Guyana rice is creamier and sweeter. We have Daal (lentils) to go with the rice, that is usually just boiled and not like Pilav. The Daal is always yellow split peas, spiced with garlic, cumin, and turmeric (lahsun, jeera, and haldi). Sometimes, other spices are also included like long green or red chillies. Then there will be bhajee, a broad leaf spinach I think found only there, just sautéed in some cumin and coconut oil or ghee. Potatoes and pumpkin, a very sweet and yellow version, are normal curries with the white flour hand clapped Roti, flat bread that is peculiar only to this diaspora of Indian settlers. For festivities like weddings etc., the Daal-Puri – a flat bread stuffed with some cooked yellow split peas – is one of the most favoured Rotis of all Guyanese, be you Indo or not. Called Daal-Puri, it is not fried but cooked on a taavaa or flat griddle, and is almost a meal in itself when accompanied with some Mango Curry. There is also Cook-Up Rice, a rice dish with veggies and meat cooked in coconut milk. This may also be pure vegetarian. There is always some kind of chutney, pepper sauce, or achar, pickle usually made from home grown fruits like mango, kamarang, the five-finger, souree, or even golden apple.
This is rounded off with either Kheer – a rice pudding – or Mohanbhog made from white flour, a kind of dry pudding made with ghee, milk, and sugar. Mohanbhog is so called as it is the prashad or offering after worship or puja, especially of Sri Krishna, although he is not that well known in Guyana. Since our ancestors came mainly from near Ayodhya, Rama, Sita, and Lakshman with Hanuman are the favourite deities of Guyana Hindus. I saw many Hindu mandirs or temples, and even homes, sporting the jhandis (flags) of various deities in the front yards. The red langot or loincloth of Hanumanji, indicative of celibacy, is the favorite of devotees there. There are also black flags for KaliMai, and yellow for Durga and Lakshmiji. I did see some Shiva temples as well.
Rounding all this off would be home-made Ginger Beer – a fermented drink made from ginger root, or mauby; a boiled drink made from the bark of the mauby tree.
Channa, Potato Balls, Phulauri, and Barra.
For snacks from the Indian menu – Baraa, Phulauri, Potato Balls, Chicken-Foot… a name which always makes me laugh out as it is pure vegetarian but looks like fried chicken feet. Snacks from the mixed Chinese-Afro-Guyanese menu would be Chinee Cake, a sort of white cake with a sweet baked crushed black beans filling; Pine Tart, an English flat three-cornered cake; and Cassava Pone, a root cassava and coconut soft cake of African origin. This used to be my favourite as it is sweet, soft and oh so delicious. There are foods of the indigenous kinds from the Amerindians but I know only about Cassava Bread, a flat huge cracker like white wafer, very tasty when dipped in tea and is all starch. Metemgee is another favourite starchy dish made up of plantains, cassava, eddoes, yams, and sweet potatoes all cooked together in coconut milk. I am not familiar with the non-vegetarian dishes as I am vegetarian, but fish and meat dishes are popular also. Hindu meat eaters eat any kind of meat except beef, Muslims do not eat pork, and the indigenous hunt for their meat and fish.
One of the most popular local Indo-Guyanese songs celebrates the Phulauri, a fried snack made from daal flour – Phulauri bina chutnee kaisay lagee or How would Phulauri taste without Chutnee. These types of songs celebrate festive occasions like engagements, marriages Phagwaa (Holi), and Divali. My late husband, a Punjabi, had come to Guyana as an Arya Samajist missionary and was fascinated with the songs he heard at marriages, yagnas and other occasions. He recorded these in Guyana and Suriname, the neighboring country. Later he did his D.Litt thesis from the University of Utrecht on these – The Ritual Songs & Folk Songs of the Hindus of Suriname.
Calabash bowl of mixed meal.
While this article is mainly about the Indo-Guyanese food, I do want to mention the special dish we had of a combination of black beans, mashed potato with Baigan Chookha (an Indian recipe) of roasted spiced egg plant, and salad served in a calabash dish. I was fascinated with the calabash as this reminded me so much of begging bowls used in various village settings. This was at a rain forest jungle retreat run by an Afro-American woman from New York married to an Afro-Guyanese. The setting was so peaceful, quietly humming with lyrics from Nina Simone songs. There was a swimming hole overshadowed with rain forest trees and a shed with hammocks, macaws and howler monkeys.
I want to mention and thank our hosts at the famous Shanta’s Roti Shop, who catered our first set of Indo-Guyanese meal of Daal-Puri, deliciously spiced Daal, Bhajee, pumpkin, and regular Roti. They even included my favourite Mohanbhog, Pone, Pine Tart, and Chinee Cake with lots of Ginger Beer. These are the sorts of meals I enjoyed in my growing years there and I was happy to be able to enjoy them all over again so many years later.
Other baked teatime snacks.
Featured visual: Guyanese Christmas Black Cake
Text and visuals copyright Lalita Arya