Cook-up rice: A must have in every Guyanese home on ‘Old Year’s night’

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By: Lakhram Bhagirat

Whether it is made with mixed beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, calaloo, pigeon peas, or a combination of all, cook-up rice must be present in every Guyanese home on December 31.

While for many the origin of the old year’s day cook-up rice is a bit sketchy, the delicious tradition remains unchanged. It is perhaps the only day when you can visit different homes and have the same meal in completely different styles.

You see, cook-up rice is versatile. It is one of the dishes where the core ingredients remain the same but the method of preparation changes from person to person, hence the reason for no two cook-ups tasting the same. While there are recipes that guide one’s cooking, the responsibility of preparing the traditional Old Year’s cook-up rice is usually given to the best cook in the family.

In my family, that would be my mother. However, the extended family’s favourite cook-up rice would ideally be the one prepared by my aunt, Annie. Her cook-up rice has the right balance of rice-to-bean-to-meat ratio; the right balance of spices and wetness.

For me, a good cook-up rice is not too dry or too soupy, and it takes great skills to achieve that level of ‘cook-up perfection’.

Like everything in life, everyone has a preference when it comes to food and with cook-up rice, it is no different. Some prefer simplicity while others prefer extravagance and for me, the more extravagant the better. However, there needs to be a balance between the extravagance and the taste because quite frankly, no one wants a tasteless cook-up rice on Old Year’s Night.

I remember my grandmother telling me, after I asked her, that cook-up in the house on New Year’s Eve brings good luck and assures you that the incoming year will be filled with promises. In some customs, it is believed that beans signify wealth and having them in the house as well as consuming them assures the promise of wealth in the forthcoming year.

Armed with that knowledge, cook-up became one of my must-haves.

In Guyana, we go to great lengths to have that pot of cook-up in the house on December 31. I have seen women, and some men, spend hours standing at butcher shops waiting on that tripe, salted beef, pigtails, chicken, oxtail and other cuts of meat to ensure that they have the best for what is considered as perhaps the most anticipated meal of the year.

Beans and peas would disappear from the supermarket shelves after Boxing Day as persons would stock to quell the fear of not getting them.

Here in Guyana, unlike in other countries, we would not dare make our cook-up rice with canned beans and peas. Everything must be sourced as fresh as possible and every ingredient has a part to play and don’t even think if you miss one, no one will notice.

The early hours of December 31 would be spent at the markets and meat shops sourcing the ingredients. The night before the beans and peas would be soaked so as to ensure easier cooking. We got to have the freshest fine leaf thyme, the proper smelling broadleaf thyme, and don’t ever forget the marrid-man poke!

These three herbs are the foundation of the cook-up flavour and if you are going to be using canned or packet coconut milk then just forget it. Nah baddah mek no cook-up!

After a morning spent gathering the right ingredients, preparation would start around 16:00h. We getting out the pressure pot to cook the beans.

One whistle, two whistle, three whistle – yuh bettah air out de pressha pat and check de beans.

The beans have to be soft but still retain their integrity because they would get another cooking with the other ingredients. Oh, please don’t forget to add salt to cook the beans.

Seasoning is vital people, it is!

Now that we have the beans cooked and waiting, we begin with the meats. Properly washed with some vinegar and lime juice to get rid of the ‘rank’ smell and we’re marinating it in the proper things. Yuh homemade seasoning blend of peppers, garlic, onion, and other herbs. Chip up lil mo marrid-man poke, fine leaf and broad leaf thyme and let it soak.

Now we come to the rice. Some people prefer the good old white rice while others settle for parboiled rice and yes the rice makes a complete difference. In typical Guyanese, we would say “brown rice is scattah and white rice does stick up”. But no what type of rice you choose, please ensure that yuh wash am!

The Old Year’s cook up is sacred, so preparation carries the level of sacredness and the oil to fry up never gets heated before sundown.

That cook up has to be finished by 21:00h before the partying starts.

So cooking starts around 19:00h when we bring out the big ‘canaree’ or that special heavy-bottom pot. We firing up the stove or fireside set in a corner of the yard and throwing on that vessel. Oil heating, but here is where things get a little haywire and preparation varies.

For me, I would first sauté my meats ensuring that it is browned and all the fat gets rendered down. I would then remove the meat and in goes my rice that has been seasoned with a good helping of herbs and spices. Now is where we resurrect the good cassareep that was left back from the pepperpot.

I like a cook up that has vibrancy and since we eat with our eyes my cook up should be a rich chocolate coloured. Not too dark and definitely not too light.

Back to the pot, we’re adding the beans, chopped up veggies now and ‘frying up’ until we are satisfied- which is usually about 10 minutes. In goes the browned meat, and we frying up some mo!

Nah fuhget the salt, please.

We bringing out the coconut milk and it better be freshly squeezed and nah nothing from a packet or can. The fire should be medium heat, a steady simmer after you add that coconut milk is all you need. The meat is half cooked, the beans almost cooked and we only got to cook that rice and allow those flavours to marry in the pot. So the amount of coconut milk should be just enough to do that. Remember we are making cook-up rice and not soup!

Heat should be steady and not too low. If we’re cooking with gas, then we’re making sure there is enough in the tank for a good cook. If you like the good ole fireside, like me, then mek sure yuh get plenty firewood or yuh might have to pull out the paling staves halfway through cooking.

Oh, and if yuh think yuh gonna cook that cook-up in a pressure pot then just don’t. Just don’t! Yuh better off buying some from Compton.

After we taste enough for seasoning and made sure that our rice is cooked, we taking it off the fire. Make sure you take it off before all the liquid dries out because we have to remember that it thickens as it cools down.

Serve up and enjoy before you get all festive ringing in the New Year.

RECIPE

Ingredients

Chicken or meat combination
2 cups rice
Black eye peas
Red beans
Coconut milk, freshly squeezed
3 stems celery
Wiri-wiri pepper
1 onion
3 stems approx. marrid man poke
6 stems scallions
broad thyme
fine thyme
cassava cassareep
salt to taste
Chopped veggies – carrot, cabbage, sweet pepper, spinach

Method

Cut up, wash and season meat with salt, chicken seasoning, black pepper, blended garlic, fine thyme, half of the onion and some cassava casareep. Mix well, set aside. Chop the rest of seasonings, leave the pepper whole. Wash and season rice with chopped seasonings, salt, cassareep.

In a pot heat some vegetable oil and add seasoned chicken and cooked for about 15-20 minutes. Remove from pan and seasoned rice and beans. Sauté for about 6-8 minutes. Add coconut milk and simmer until rice is fully cooked. (Republished from Sunday Times Magazine)