Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are three little countries nestled along the Caribbean coastline of north-eastern South America, with Brazil situated to the south and Venezuela to the west. Now you can see why I couldn’t find a catchy name to incorporate these three countries – northeast South America? Too many directions! The cuisine in these parts is a curious melting pot arising from the long history of colonialism from Europe, influences from other colonies of the same powers, Native American cuisine, neighbouring regions and more recent immigration, ultimately combining culinary aspects from India, Africa, Indonesia, China, The Netherlands, Portugal, Britain, The Caribbean, France and Spain. All of this has culminated in a unique cuisine that is one of the most integrative that I’ve come across in my cooking adventures. The tropical and coastal locale of these countries also means that native tropical fruits and seafoods have been heavily incorporated into the diet, creating typically sweet, fruity dishes that are a perfect accompaniment to a hot sunny day on the beachside.
Fish sauce maracudja, kalawang, giraumonade and fried plantains
This dish is an assortment of foods from French Guiana, whose cuisine has influences primarily from Creole, Native American, European and African cooking. The first dish that grabbed my attention was fish sauce maracudja, describing a simply cooked fillet of fish that’s served with a sweet sauce made from a reduction of passionfruit seeds and pulp with orange juice and sugar. I rarely see fish served with sweet sauces outside of southeast Asian cuisine, but I don’t know why – the combination is brilliant, and this dish takes full advantage of the balance between flavours and textures. Kalawang is a green mango salad, prepared by chopping up the mangos and combining them with garlic, chillies, lemon, parsley, vinegar and some oil. This dish is especially popular at carnivals and parties, and is a typical “children food” that all kids seem to enjoy, in considerable quantities if they are fortunate enough to have a mango tree in their garden. Giraumonade (deriving from the French word for pumpkin, giraumon), is a dish of mashed pumpkin with sliced spring onions, butter, garlic, and bacon. I see mashed pumpkin dishes surprisingly rarely and I don’t understand why potato gets all the spotlight – the nutty sweetness of pumpkin is wonderful, and the texture no less creamy and comforting. Fried plantains are a staple all over the region and I’ve cooked them and waxed lyrical over their splendour countless times before, but that will never stop me making them again. I served these surprisingly sweet and tropical dishes with a balancing garden salad, and thoroughly enjoyed the sweet bite of the tropical coast.
Guyanese cook up rice/Surinamese moksi alesi
I’ve put Guyanese cook up rice and Surinamese moksi alesi together because they are both considered “peasant food”, consisting of a varied combination of mixed rice, beans, meat and vegetables flavoured with coconut milk, and I think I might have conceivably made a version of both (although each has its distinctive, yet flexible, traditions). For my mixed rice I first fried chopped bacon, onion, celery, scallion, green capsicum, garlic and pieces of chicken breasts, then added chicken stock, coconut milk, rice, chilli, bay leaf, thyme, okra, tomatoes, rice, borlotti beans and red kidney beans. I then put the lid on the pot and let it simmer until the rice was cooked, but still slightly wet and creamy. These dishes are traditionally made on the weekend, when lots of family are around needing their tummies filled, and leftovers and excess groceries from the week need to be used up. These dishes are also commonly made on New Year’s Eve, perhaps to fulfil the same purpose of using up all of the previous year’s ingredients to start anew on New Year’s Day. I always feel that the popular national consumption of a dish clearly intended to use up leftovers is a clear signal that the country contains very practical and sensible folk – after all, there’s nothing elegant or romantic about a fridge full of spoiled food!
Pom and goedangan
Pom is one of the top contenders for the most famous national dish of Suriname. Until the 1970s, Suriname was a Dutch colony for hundreds of years, and this is reflected in its cuisine, as are influences from indigenous locals, African slaves, Portugal, Indonesia, East Asia and French Huguenots. Pom is thought to have originated from Jewish Portuguese plantation owners in Suriname, seeking a little piece of homely comfort in the Portuguese dish “pomme de terre”, a sort of potato casserole. However, potatoes do not grow locally in Suriname, so this dish was adapted to use the local root of the Arrowleaf elephant ear, known locally as “pomtajer”, which gives rise to the etymology of “pom”. Pom is prepared by making a filling of sautéed chicken with onions, celery, tomato and nutmeg, which is sandwiched between two layers of raw grated pomtajer mixed with citrus juice and some juices from the chicken filling. The whole casserole is then baked in the oven until the top is golden brown. Like local food from many past Dutch colonies, pom, and Surinamese food in general, is very popular in The Netherlands nowadays, and has even morphed into a new food: broodje pom, constituting pom on a bread roll. Goedangan is a mixed vegetable salad, commonly bean sprouts, cabbage, steamed green beans and cucumber, combined with hard boiled eggs and a dressing with a basis of coconut milk. This salad has clear roots from Indonesia, coming to Suriname with the Indonesian plantation workers during the Dutch colonisation of both countries.
Pepperpot is one of Guyana’s national dishes, commonly served at special occasions, especially Christmas. It’s comprised of stewed meat, for instance a combination of pork and beef, along with cloves, cinnamon, chillies and cassareep. Cassareep is the defining ingredient of pepperpot, and is a thick black syrup made from the bitter juice of the cassava root. As hard as I tried, I could not source cassareep in Brisbane, so then turned my attention to finding out if I could make it myself. I possibly could have, as it involves a relatively uncomplicated process of boiling down cassava juice until it’s reduced by half, and flavouring it with cloves, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and salt. However, I was put off by the knowledge that the cassava root contains a lot of acetone cyanohydrin, which decomposes to hydrogen cyanide on contact with water and is highly poisonous if not cooked off correctly. Never let it be said that I’m afraid to take culinary risks, but I draw the line at risking my life. Sorry to disappoint! In addition to flavour, cassareep is used as a preservative, as it’s an antiseptic and so is often added to meat dishes to extend their lifespan. It’s common practice to reheat stews, adding a little extra cassareep each time to make sure it stays safe to eat. The “pepperpot” actually describes a special cooking pot that is commonly used for this dish, and which absorbs more flavour than a usual pot, which it then imparts to subsequent dishes. This has resulted in pepperpots that have been continuously in the same pot for centuries, with a few extra ingredients added daily to top it up. So, having failed to procure or make cassareep, I made a substitute that the internet had me believe tastes similar, using molasses, lime juice and vinegar, stewing it with the meat over several hours until the flesh was fall-apart tender and had absorbed all of the sweet and bitter flavours. The result put me in mind of sweet and aromatic Indian curries, although perhaps even sweeter. In truth, it was a little too sweet for me on its own, but absolutely delicious with any sort of carbohydrate (bread, rice, potato) to soak up the flavourful juices.