15 Jul 2008

The fifteenth century was drawing to a close when Europeans reached South America for the first time and triggered a craze for conquest. The first to arrive were the Spanish, followed by the Portuguese. They penetrated everywhere, though some areas managed to free themselves from the invaders, albeit for limited periods of time. This was the case of the area that stretches from the Orinoco to the Amazon, which was named Costa Brava, or Wild Coast, on account of its inextricable mangroves, insalubrious swamps and wild native tribes.

This is the territory of the Guianas, in which the void left by the Spanish and Portuguese was soon occupied by the English, French and Dutch, a region isolated from the rest of South America, but belonging neither to Latin America nor to the Caribbean. The three small countries that combine to form the region entertain relations almost exclusively with each other and with the West Indies.
I traveled to Surinam, a former Dutch colony, to find out more about the place through its gastronomic heritage. The journey was fascinating; the fact is that the way every society uses to produce, prepare and consume food generate elements of identity that are an expression of its natural environment, history and culture.

My destination thus lay in South America, between Guyana, the former British Guiana, and Cayenne, the former French Guiana, in a country that looks onto the Caribbean to the north and borders with Brazil to the south. The most populous area is the coastal strip, which is less wild than the interior, a plain dotted with dunes where some of the swampland has been reclaimed and converted into arable land and the surviving natives fight no longer. Inland, the swamps give way to the savannah, but further south the humidity rises again, the vegetation grows thicker and mountains begin to appear. On the far side of them, the rain forest marks the extreme rim of Amazonia.

To understand a society’s gastronomic heritage, it is indispensable to know how that society is made up. The ethnic map of Surinam is one of many colors. The most important ethnic groups are of Indian and Afro-Creole origin, while third in order of importance are the Javanese, followed by the Cimarrones, the descendents of slaves who fled from captivity, and the Amerindians, the Chinese and the Europeans. Each of these groups has its own language, religion and political party, hence the existence of entities which, albeit interacting, have never intermixed to give life to something that might be defined as ‘Surinamese’. Each community has thus stayed loyal to its roots and has drawn from the country all that it needs to support itself, thus generating forms of mestizo culture.

The same dynamic can be found in the kitchen since the cooks who came here adapted to the new environment and shaped it to their own values. In Surinam ‘frontier’ gastronomic cultures have developed in an environment that was not theirs originally. Hence the importance of concepts such as belonging and descent. Here hybrid cultures bind the imaginary (evoked?) spaces of a world left behind with other totally real ones, such as that of the land itself, giving life to the ‘intermediary’ realities that dominate the scene in Surinam. So, albeit possessing the distinctive characteristics that have their roots in the country, each community retains its specific food culture. A glaring example of this is petjil, a simple local variation of Indonesian gado gado, a mixture of boiled local greens flavored with peanut sauce.

The food cultures of the various lands of origin are reproduced everywhere, and my senses were teased by the aromas of myriad spices, salt meat, soy sauce and other indecipherable ingredients. Particularly suggestive were the smells that issued from the toko, typical Indonesian shops that sell everything you can imagine and that are a veritable medicine for Javanese immigrants whose nostalgia for their homeland still lingers five generations on.

In order to pinpoint the bonds between society and gastronomic heritage, I shall, for simplicity’s sake, describe only the salient elements of the latter. A visit to the central market of Paramaribo offers a compendium of the ‘national pantry’.
In the fruit and vegetable section I spoke to a vendor wearing an apron that dropped down below her knees. She sold roots of taro and manioca, or yuca, piled up in enormous baskets laid out beside an infinite variety of chilis. Then came characteristically heart-shaped taro and bamboo leaves, very long green beans (kouseband), Chinese spinach, bananas, cabbage and so on.

The variety of fruit is no less mindboggling, and the colors of the mangos, papayas, guavas, carambolas and lychees contrast with the green of the vegetables and the brown of the tubers. Surinam being a tropical country, it comes as no surprise to discover that rice as one of the staple foods, and different varieties and qualities abound. In the fish section of the market, the eyes of a sliced cat fish stare at passersby, while the aroma of smoked fish and shrimps reveals the existence of an Amerindian and Oriental heritage.

The adjacent section of the market is full of piles of pigs’ trotters and salt pork. Though modern refrigeration techniques make salting superfluous for preservation purposes, no Surinamese would ever be prepared to give up the pleasures of salt meat, and the replacement of the latter with fresh meat would eliminate the local touch. Further along, I come to shops selling spices, indispensable ingredients for Surinamese cooking, a bridge between the real world of everyday life and the world evoked by the various lands of origin. The customers who come to these shops in search of cardamom, curcuma, ginger, laos (greater galangale) and other aromas still, are living proof of how the country’s various cuisines will always be dominated by spices.

The wooden cart of a granita vendor proves to me that it is possible to fight the heat. The man fills me a plastic cup with ice, scraping the shards from a huge block, and asks me to choose the flavor I prefer from an endless row of bottles. I choose mango and he carefully pours the syrup over the ice, turning it yellow.

‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘significant’ are the adjectives that best describe the gastronomic heritage of Surinam. Here the contents of pans evoke Amazonia, India, Java, China and Africa. To travel round the country is to come into contact with a number of food codes and values, entering and exiting different yet parallel worlds. I ultimately felt much richer, partly because my efforts to find out more about the country’s food led me to meet the variegated humanity that forms Surinamese society.

Despite the variety of culinary traditions, some products—fresh vegetables, rice and chicken—are common to all. Also important are salt meat, dried fish and shrimps. Worthy of a chapter apart are spices and chilis, which local cooks use liberally, but without going over the top and turning tasty dishes into a torture for the palate. The chili pepper is a local contribution that all the country’s food cultures draw on, indeed, they would no longer recognize themselves without a touch of fire in their dishes. Chilis are eaten marinated, processed into pimienta de fonfon (sun-dried salted chili paste), or added to most recipes to add fragrance and piquancy.

Other fundamental ingredients are vegetables, especially cabbage, kouseband beans and Chinese spinach, which are used both as a garnish and as a principal ingredient in dishes. They are boiled in a little water and flavored with stock cubes, dried shrimps, galangale or coconut milk to add extra characteristic flavor.

It is hard to define the cuisines that live side by side in Surinam in just a few lines, but let me try to convey to the reader something of my experiences during the journey.

First, Afro-Creole cuisine is an exception to the rule whereby the gastronomic cultures of Surinam avoid hybridization. This type of cooking is in fact a ‘melting pot’ of African, Amerindian, Asian and European influences and compares well with the others from which it differs in its generous use of manioca, taro, banana and salt pork and a more limited use of spices. Popular dishes are peanut soup and the typical feast day dish pom, a stew of grated taro and chicken. One of the most typical sweets is bojo, a cake of manioca and coconut.

Moving on to different aromas, to appreciate Surinam-style Javanese flavor it is well worth visiting a warung, a typical Indonesia restaurant. The dishes that tickled my fancy most were: nasi goreng (sautéed vegetables with chicken, rice and gerkins) and loempia (very fine pastry rolls stuffed with chicken, soya bean sprouts and white cabbage flavored with soy sauce and chili).

The best way to get to know a given ethnic group’s foodways is to go to its parties, noisy affairs where eating plays a star role. In March the Hindu community celebrates the triumph of good over evil and on this occasion whole families and their friends prepare banquets invariably featuring roti, thin taco–like wheat pancakes, and accompanying savories such as chicken masala, green beans and hard-boiled eggs. Puddings include treats such as jilebi, corkscrew-shaped fritters made with flour and banana pastry dipped in syrup.

Jorge A. Garufi is a Spanish writer and researcher specializing in gastronomic culture and history

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