Guyana was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result of scattershot British colonialism, this Anglophone South American country found itself stranded among neighbors who speak Spanish and Portuguese.
The mix of Indian and African descendants makes the population more like that of Trinidad than Venezuela and Brazil, and it’s with Trinidad that Guyana most readily identifies itself. Yet despite culinary overlap, Guyanese chow has unique and endearing features of its own.
Study them at Tripee’s, a Guyanese spot in Flatbush that features the national flag on a painted marquee, flapping above a seascape backed by green mountains that run down to the water. Inside, find a pair of rooms, one devoted to a steam table, the other, a few steps above, to a spotless dining room. Demonstrating the ineffable courtesy of the Guyanese, the old codgers passing time around the tables are likely to greet you warmly, even if they’ve never seen you before. On our first visit, the counter gal was filling up plastic cups with homemade yellow hot sauce—chunky, spicy, and seasoned with mustard.
The first entrée we grabbed was corned beef and cabbage ($5), well-oiled leaves ranging in color from pale yellow to deep emerald. With its pungent herby flavor, it beat the pants off the Irish American version. The dish reminded me that corned beef was once an oceangoing staple, and it reappears in the signature weekend feast of the islands, “cook-up” ($6). Typical of the colorful and gung ho names Guyanese confer on their victuals, this farrago of rice and miniature black-eyed peas can feature a host of additional ingredients. One day it was made with spinach; on another with chicken and smoked turkey parts. Either way, it’s worth ordering.
Spinach also figures in a briny slurry of salt cod that seems to lack a colorful name, typical of a whole class of dishes referred to simply as “vegetable.” One night we had to rethink our assumptions about the cuisine when the vegetable turned out to be bitter melon, stewed with onion and chicken. Did the vegetable originate in China or India? we wondered. We leaned toward China as we forked down a rather Cantonese lo mein, which, along with fried rice, are Chinese staples that have been assimilated into the Guyanese menu. Then there are the wild cards. On one occasion we wolfed down a strange casserole of elbow macaroni, tomatoes, and chicken, strewn with a crunchy dice of celery. It appeared to have sprung from the fertile brain of chef Maurice “Tripee” Gordon—who sometimes greets you from the stove with a wave. He is referred to on a handbill as “Guyana’s Legendary Master-Chef.”
Like the Trinidadians, the Guyanese make rotis ($4.50) with a flatbread called “roti skin” or “doll puri.” The bread is sometimes found in New York Bengali restaurants, giving us a clue to where Indian immigrants to Guyana might have originated. As opposed to the sandwich model favored in Trinidad, the Guyanese prefer a “bust-up shot,” in which the bread is wadded and the curry poured inside. The term is dialectal for “busted-up shirt,” meaning the roti resembles an old shirt too torn to be worn. The Guyanese maintain a loose definition of what can be thrown into a roti skin, and one day they deployed an oily oxtail stew. Good alone, it was rendered fabulous when roti-ized.