Cooking up a Guyanese Christmas feast

A Guyanese Christmas feast.
A Guyanese Christmas feast. PHOTOS: YAP CHEE HONG
(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Christmas is still weeks away, but there is a cheery, heart-warming sense of festivity in Stephanie Anthony’s home. A Christmas tree takes centrestage near the living room, there is a pretty little Nativity scene near the television set and Christmas lights sparkle and twinkle everywhere.
 
In the dining area, festive tablecloths have been laid out. In a nook near the kitchen is a complete collection of Christmas tableware (Anthony has different sets of eight). The tableware is so treasured, it only gets taken out once a year during the festive season.
 
Anthony is an accomplished home cook whose festive offerings are eagerly anticipated and relished by her three adult children, who grew up savouring her tantalising culinary treats. But it’s not just her children who enjoy her food; friends look forward to it too, and her cooking skills are so well-known in her neighbourhood that she is simply referred to as “the aunty who’s a good cook”.
 
Ironically, when Anthony was growing up in her native Guyana in South America, she was never interested in the kitchen.
 
“I was only interested in books. I was never interested in anything to do with cooking, because I always burnt myself while cooking. I still do!” she laughs, showing off a line of faint marks on her arm.
 

 Stephanie Anthony works hard to prepare a huge Christmas spread for her family, including husband Alex (centre) and youngest son Lloyd (right).

 
All that changed when Anthony met and married a Malaysian Eurasian, and moved here. She soon found that she had to learn how to cook – by hook or by crook. So she got a cookbook and started experimenting. Nearly five decades later, Anthony’s prowess in the kitchen is undisputed.
 
Come Christmas time, Anthony kicks things up a notch, cooking up a storm in the kitchen and yielding to her kids’ many requests for all their favourite Yuletide treats. Preparations for an elaborate feast begin two days in advance as the family often invites friends over as well, so larger quantities of food have to be prepared. Anthony confesses that for her, much of the charm of cooking for Christmas lies in satiating her family’s culinary wishlist.
 
“I love cooking everyone’s favourite dishes, cookies and cakes. They each have things that they like and I make them all,” she says.
 
Her Christmas menu is extensive and includes dishes from her homeland, like the famed pepperpot and rum cake.
 
Pepperpot is a meat-heavy dish normally made for Christmas in Guyana. The dish has richly nuanced spice undertones and an indulgent sauce made from cassava root.
 
“It started off because Amerindians used to go and hunt and they had these animals but didn’t have a fridge, so they would throw all these meats into a pot and cure it their way. Pepperpot is normally cooked a day ahead. Because it’s fatty, they skim off the fat the next day. It can also be eaten the next day for breakfast, with bread,” says Anthony.
 
The decadent, alcohol-drenched rum cake is also traditionally a Christmas staple in Guyana, and is often made months in advance. “Everyone in Guyana knows how to make it,” she says. “They call it black cake – because of the black treacle, the cake tends to get black. You can add more black treacle, but that can make it bitter as well.”
 
Then there are other favourites, like roast lamb and glazed ham, both of which have become firm fixtures on the family’s Christmas table. The roast lamb is a simple dish with very few ingredients, while the glazed ham is from a recipe Anthony obtained from her sister-in-law in Australia, who has since passed away.
 
“There are other options for a glaze, but I like this one, so I still make the same glaze for Christmas. For other occasions, I have other glazes that I use,” she says.
 
Anthony says that she feels that she has come a long way since the days when she couldn’t even cook rice, and is thrilled that her food now brings joy to her family.
 
“After being married for 46 years and cooking every single day, now I can cook everything. If you put your mind to it, you can always do it,” she says.
 
 

GUYANESE PEPPERPOT

Serves 8
 
1/2 kg beef topside, cut into large chunks
1/2 pork trotter, cut into chunks
2 large pieces oxtail, cut into chunks
2 whole Scotch bonnet chillies (or bird’s eye chillies)
2 tbsp brown sugar
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly sliced
2 tbsp dried thyme
4 cloves
2 pieces orange peel
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 cup cassareep (or thick soy sauce)
oil, for cooking
salt and pepper to taste
1 to 2 cups water
 

To cook

Place all the ingredients in a large pot, with a little bit of oil. Add salt and pepper to taste, and then add water. Cook over low heat for 3 hours, until meat is tender or in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes. Set aside and serve the next day with bread or rice.
 

ROAST LAMB

Serves 8 to 10
 
1 1/2 kg boneless lamb
5 garlic cloves, halved
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 cup water
orange slices, for garnish
 

Gravy

1 chicken stock cube
1 cup hot water
pinch of black pepper
pinch of cornflour (optional)
 

To cook lamb

Leave the netting on the lamb. Wash and pat the meat dry, then use a sharp knife to make small slits all over. Insert garlic into the slits. Mix the salt, pepper and herbs and rub onto the lamb. Put in a ziplock bag and leave to marinate overnight in the fridge.
Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Place lamb on a tray and cover with foil, then roast in a bain-marie for 1 hour. Remove foil and roast for 30 minutes more.
When done, cover with foil and leave to rest for 30 minutes.
Remove netting carefully and cut lamb into slices. Garnish with orange slices.
 

To make gravy

Once lamb is cooked, take liquid from the bottom of the pan and put in a bowl. Add chicken stock cube and hot water. If mixture is too watery, add cornflour.
Strain gravy and serve with the lamb.
 

GLAZED HAM

Serves 10
 
10 cloves
1 1/2 kg ham (cooked)
10 cherries
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp dry mustard powder
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
4 slices canned pineapple
 

To cook ham

Pre-heat oven to 180°C.
Pierce the cloves through the top of the ham. Skewer the cherries onto toothpicks and poke them into the top of the ham.
Mix all the other ingredients, except the pineapple slices, and pour over the ham, making sure it is well-coated.
Roast the ham in the oven for 30 minutes.
Using the glaze that has dripped to the bottom of the baking pan, keep basting the ham every 15 minutes or so.
Just 10 minutes before ham is cooked, add pineapple slices to the dish.
When cooked, cover in foil and set aside to cool. Slice and serve.
 

RUM CAKE

Serves 15
 

Cake

1kg blackcurrants
250g pitted prunes
1/2 cup rum
500g butter
2 cups brown sugar
8 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla essence
3 cups plain flour
1/2 cup black treacle
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 to 4 capfuls rum
 

Icing

2 cups icing sugar
1 medium lemon, juiced
 

To make cake

Soak blackcurrants and prunes in rum for at least a day (ideally, you should make this months in advance and soak the fruits for 3 months). Chop the fruits coarsely.
Pre-heat oven to 180°C. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth. Then, alternate folding in the fruits and flour. Add treacle and spices and combine well.
Bake in a large 25x25cm baking pan at 180°C for 30 minutes. Then, lower heat to 170°C and bake for another 1 hour, checking intermittently to make sure the cake doesn’t overcook.
Leave to cool in pan. Once cooled, prick the cake everywhere with a toothpick and drizzle a capful of rum through the holes made in the top (if you’re making it in advance, repeat this process every week – 3 or 4 times is good enough).
Seal cake in aluminium foil and put in airtight container until ready for consumption.
 

To make icing

Put icing sugar in a bowl and add lemon juice gradually until you get the desired texture. The mixture should be thick, not runny. Spread evenly over the cake, just before serving.