Guyanese Christmas has many flavors
On Christmas Eve, the air will fill with the scent of curry as the Guyanese residents of Schenectady take to their kitchens to cook chicken, goat, duck or lamb curry dishes, along with many other traditional foods.
Guyana, a country on the northeast coast of South America, is a member of the Caribbean community and has cuisine with a distinctive Caribbean flair. It’s rich in aromatic spices, relies heavily on rice and peas and often involves one-pot meals.
According to the U.S. State Department, 57 percent of the Guyanese population is Christian. Even some Guyanese who are not Christian celebrate Christmas.
“Christmas Eve, my wife will prepare like curry duck or maybe roast chicken,” said Vishnunarine Singh, owner of Cheese Bakery and Grocery in Schenectady, “and we’ll have dhal puri — it’s a flat bread with yellow peas ground in it.”
Traditional curry dishes are made with meat seasoned with a combination of curry powder, garam masala, hot pepper, black pepper, onion, garlic, tomato paste, green onion and ajinomoto, which is also known as monosodium glutamate, he said. The flavorful meat and gravy is served over rice.
Although he sells homemade curry dishes at his shop, Singh doesn’t have a set-in-stone recipe for them. “That’s where the mother or the wife comes in,” he said.
For Singh, the most important part of the holiday meal is the dessert. His favorite is a rum fruitcake, made with raisins, currants and ground cherries. The cake contains more fruit than flour. “That’s what Christmas is all about, the rum fruitcake,” he said.
The rum in the fruitcake is not the only alcohol that makes an appearance at the Guyanese table on Christmas Eve.
“Guyanese love their liquor. A lot of drinks. A lot of alcoholic drinks,” Singh said.
Favorite non-alcoholic beverages include ginger beer and a drink made from dried sorrel flower petals.
“This makes a red, red drink, a little sour, and you add sweet to it and you add the spice, you add cloves,” Singh explained.
Another popular beverage is a pineapple drink sweetened with sugar and spiced with cloves or cinnamon, he said.
Singh stocks Guyanese holiday essentials, including dried sorrel flower petals and ginger beer at his shop, along with meats like goat and lamb. Patrons pack the place to purchase meat for their holiday meals, he said.
Rukmini Madray of Schenectady makes chicken or lamb curry on Christmas Eve. Like Singh, she doesn’t have any written recipes for her holiday specialties. “We get it by our head,” she said. “I see my mom used to do that, so I learned from her.”
The scent of cooking curry is heavenly, Madray said.
“The whole kitchen will smell, the whole house smelling. It smells good!” she said with a smile.
Madray also makes two fried dishes for Christmas Eve: bara and gulgula. Bara is a savory dish that Madray creates from a dough made with flour, baking powder, garlic granules and salt. The dough is tinted with yellow food coloring and formed into small balls that are filled with shallots. Then they’re fried and served hot.
Gulgula looks similar to bara, but is sweet to taste. “You take blended banana and you put some essence — we just put a little of that, no sugar — and you put flour to make it not too soft, not too hard, and then you just mix it up together,” Madray explained. The dough is then formed into small balls and fried.
Another dish often served at Madray’s table on Christmas Eve is chow mein made with chicken, onions and garlic. Her family also eats dhal puri, the flatbread filled with peas, as part of their celebration, along with a garlicky split pea gravy that’s served over rice.
For dessert, Madray makes a white cake that’s spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Preparation for the Christmas Eve meal takes hours, she said. “We mix everything up and leave it to soak, and when it’s soaked, we tend the rice and the dahl and the curry cooking. The last thing I’m cooking is the bara and the gulgula.”
As a child growing up in Guyana, Naresh Buchanna of Schenectady enjoyed the chicken, duck, turkey, goat or lamb his family prepared for Christmas Eve. Often the meat was baked, he noted. When Buchanna was young, many people prepared their holiday meals over open fires, he said.
“We call it fireside,” he said. “A lot of them didn’t have stoves then. Stove was like for rich people.”
A makeshift stove was made from a metal form with two holes in the top where pots would sit.
“The baking would be done inside of that, where the firewood is. They put the pans in there. So Christmas Eve, most people are baking. High-income people, they would have their baking pans, stove and whatever it is, but in the countryside, mostly it was that.”
Now a vegetarian, Buchanna’s Christmas Eve meal consists of fried rice and vegetarian chow mein made with soy chicken, soy duck or soy fish. Although he’s a Hindu, he still celebrates Christmas with his family.
“With the multi-culture we’re in, even in Guyana, we’re accustomed to it,” he said.