It’s 8 a.m. in Guyana, a calm summer morning, and the knock on the door comes. In walks a surly kitchen lady, carrying a large aluminum hotel pan filled with covered dishes, crockery and a pitcherful of lightly fruited water. Breakfast time at Splashmin’s.
She balances the pan on her hip and moves past the bed to our little terrace, where we wait, like hungry children, to see what they’re feeding us this time. The Splashmin’s brochure says this water-park resort is “the very peak of all-inclusive vacations in South America,” and our package includes three meals a day. But no menu. We eat what we’re served.
That’s fine with us. Dave and I are in travel mode and trying not to think too much, so we don’t really mind the lack of choice. Our torpor grows by the day in this virtually activity-free resort located far enough away from Georgetown that we can’t be bothered to work out how to get off the compound and into the capital city.
We didn’t come to Guyana for the food, anyway. We came because this is a country of exceptional natural beauty. Most of it is covered by uninhabited rainforest, savannahs, low coastal plains and rolling highlands. A continental country bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, Guyana is strangely considered by many to be an island country because it’s a member of the Caribbean Community.
The big draw at Splashmin’s is a mile-long, man-made sand beach, washed by what the brochure describes as “a mystical black water lake.” Up close, the water looks something like Coca-Cola with all the fizz gone out. You dip your toe in, creep up to your knees, and lose sight of your feet. I have swum in the black water a few times but haven’t wanted to touch the bottom. I’m afraid of an endlessly deep mud suck. As it is, my feet keep getting tangled in the underwater vegetation growing out of the murk. Mangroves?
With little else going on here, the pageantry of discovering what specialties lie beneath the kitchen lady’s covered dishes has become the thrice-daily highlight of our week. This morning, Dave takes the pan from her and sets it on our terrace table while she picks up last night’s dinner pan, empty plates now crawling with ants, and leaves us to discover our breakfast.
We lift the silver covers from our china plates, and voilá! Tinned weenies in red sauce with scrambled eggs are revealed to us in all their glory. Dave then pulls a bowl from the hotel pan, lifts the lid, and uncovers a fried dough specialty known as bake. We’ve already seen this combination of bake and weenies during our time in Guyana. We’ve also learned that if you break open your warm bake, add a spoonful of guava jam and sprinkle some demerara sugar over it, it’s kind of like a jelly donut and quite yummy.
Rum and an Early Bedtime
The ritual of the kitchen lady’s visit has become comfortingly predictable, and luckily, we have access to all the rum we want. There’s a mini-fridge in our tropical villa apartment, which is a luxury considering that we’re the only overnight guests and the bar closes every night by about 7 p.m. after the day trippers have gone home to Georgetown.
In the evenings, we start drinking on the early side, making rum punch concoctions out of the juices, sodas and limes we’ve stashed in our fridge. We know that the sky goes black very quickly after sunset and Splashmin’s is a place where bedtime arrives early because, well, that’s just the way you feel. There’s no television reception and the dim fluorescent light is no good for reading so you might as well go to bed.
On the bright side, dinner comes early. So we sit on the terrace, sip our rum punch, and wait for the kitchen lady. Every night, and noon for that matter, we wonder, what will she bring us this time beneath those covered dishes? The mystery is invariably answered with two starches and fried chicken.
Let me say that with a little more excitement: two starches and fried chicken! Back home in Brooklyn, we’re on such a perpetual diet that you can’t even call it a diet anymore because you just have to call it real life. But the truth is that we love fried chicken with rice, especially when it comes with noodles, and here in Guyana, we get cook-up rice accompanied by a pile of macaroni, partnered with fried chicken. That will be lunch. Then for dinner, it’s potato salad, maybe, next to a heap of white rice, served on a bed of fried chicken. Or, best of all, a big clump of cook-up rice plus a heap of Guyanese-style chow mein noodles, and fried chicken on the side, of course.
In the open-air markets of Georgetown, we saw lush piles of produce for sale in the open-air markets—mangos, eggplants, calaloo, pumpkin, long green beans, pineapples and cassava root. We wondered why we weren’t seeing this freshness on our plates in the places where we ate, and were later told that people ate better at home than in restaurants.
‘Cassareep Is Traditional’
For truly local cuisine, we found no better place than Surama, an Amerindian village at the edge of the Rupununi savannah, about an hour’s flight from Georgetown. We slept in a palm-thatched benab under mosquito netting, and on our first morning our Makushi guide woke us at dawn to begin several days of hiking through the rainforest, climbing up Surama Mountain and paddling on the Burro Burro River. On long treks, spider monkeys swung through the trees, caimans swam alongside us, and we spotted every kind of tropical bird—toucans, macaws, parrots, parakeets, swifts and kingfishers.
During our four days at Surama, Zetta was our cook, and every meal that came from her hands was an event. From the kitchen to our table in the open-air dining room, Zetta carried each dish in an elegantly covered china plate or bowl, presumably to keep the flies away, much as our surly Splashmin’s kitchen lady had done, but Zetta was charming and proud when she revealed each dish.
On the night after our mountain climb, Zetta served us a jerk chicken feast.
“Your dinner tonight is jerk chicken.”
“It comes with two kinds of rice, cook-up and white.”
“This is steamed okra, and this is homemade pepper sauce.”
“And this,” pitcher lifted, “is lightly fruited water.”
For dessert, Zetta gave us fresh bananas in sweetened condensed milk.
We asked Zetta and the lodge’s manager, Jackie, about what is fresh and local in Surama.
“Cassareep is traditional,” Jackie said.
“Cassareep. It’s a thick black liquid made from cassava roots.”
“But you must be very careful about the preparation,” Zetta added.
“Yes,” Jackie said, “cassareep can be poisonous if not prepared correctly.”
“But cassareep is delicious!” Zetta said.
The next night at dinner, we learned that cassareep is indeed delicious—and spicy—when Zetta served Guyana’s national dish, beef. An Amerindian meat stew, which traditionally includes forest game such as armadillo and possum, pepperpot calls for a generous dollop of cassareep as the base of its sauce, flavored with scotch bonnet pepper, cinnamon stick, cloves, thyme and demerara sugar. The pig tail and trotters are optional, but nowadays ox tail and cow heel are essential. Pepperpot is especially good when accompanied by farine, a staple dish made from cassava fiber.
Pepperpot requires a lot of preparation and cooking time. Fried chicken, on the other hand, is an easy and fast crowd pleaser. The recipe below, adapted from a recipe found on www.guyanesepride.com, uses a batter that combines the unusual ingredients of beer and soy sauce with a dash of cayenne pepper.
Guyanese Fried Chicken
2 pounds of chicken pieces (including extra wings)
1/4 cup of beer
2 T soy sauce
3 T garlic salt
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp baking powder
dash cayenne pepper
Place chicken in a pot, cover with water, and parboil until cooked. While chicken parts cool, make batter by mixing remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Add chicken and toss to coat. Cover and chill half an hour.
Deep fry chicken in vegetable oil at 425° F until golden brown.
Serves 4 to 6