“What would be the last thing you eat before you die?”
My mom asked me this question a few years back and I was pretty stumped at first. As a massive foodie & fat ass, this would be a difficult decision for me. After some careful consideration, my choice became clear: my Nanie’s Guyanese chicken curry. Yeah yeahh I get it, the dude picked his family’s curry as his last meal. Hold up though…this is not your ordinary chicken curry! I said Guyanese style curry. My last meal would consist of a generous helping of this amazing curry along with a side of dal puri and fried okra. Man, I’m hungry now just thinking about it.
Guyana is a small Caribbean country at the top of South America, a fusion of cultures shaped by British colonialism. In the early 1800s, indentured laborers went sent from East India to then British Guyana in order to develop the colony’s growing sugar industry. These immigrants, originally known as the “Gladstone Coolies”, were allowed to hold on to some of their cultural traditions from back home. Year after year, more contracted laborers arrived from India, establishing the Indo-Guyanese community that we recognize today. My great-grandparents were born in Georgetown, Guyana, hard workers in the sugar plantations just as their ancestors had done.
Alright, back to the curry. It’s a bit unique: this dish is less creamy and a tad oilier than a typical North Indian chicken curry you might find at a restaurant. Plus, there are no tomatoes which really makes the dish a bit more punchy and gets you sweatin’ with every bite. The key to the dish is the wiri wiri pepper, a cherry-like Guyanese specialty that is a little bit hotter than a jalapeño. My Nanie (Daadee) always throws a few of these into her curry to provide the heat for the dish. The end result is a smooth, translucent brown mixture with tons of boiled chicken and potatoes.
My Nanie has made this curry thousands of times over the course of her life. Although it’s one of my favorite meals, it’s incredibly simple and cheap to make (aside from finding those rare wiri wiri peppers that I can never track down anywhere). This curry is a cornerstone of our family’s culture and one of my Nanie’s signature dishes. When she learned that her curry would be the dish I would eat for my last meal, she was ecstatic. At her house in Florida, she taught me all the steps as I scrambled to jot down her every move. I wanted to make sure that I could cook chicken curry for future generations (although mine doesn’t taste nearly as good as hers). At the end of the day, this meal is about simplicity more than anything else. It is a reflection of how my family created amazing flavors using only a few low-cost ingredients that were available to them. Even though I’ve never been to Guyana, eating this dish makes me feel a bit closer to some of the family I’ve never had the chance to meet.
If you’re interested in tasting Guyanese cuisine, I’d highly recommend checking out the Richmond Hill neighborhood in New York if you’re on the east coast! There’s a “Little Guyana” neighborhood there, featuring my favorite Kaieteur restaurant along with some roti shops where you can take some fresh breads to-go. I hope one day you will have the chance to taste the unique blend of flavors that are featured in Indo-Guyanese food.