By Leon Suseran
How preparing and enjoying a meal of cook- up rice became associated with the last night of the year may not be as important as savouring one of Guyana’s most beloved traditional foods. But the tradition of eating cook-up on Old Year’s Night has grown over the years and has become one of our cultural identifiers, something that makes us truly Guyanese.
Cook-up rice is considered a peasant dish. It was traditionally created and made to be eaten at the end of the week, by which time, rations would have depleted. So, the ends and bits of meat left over would be cooked with rice and peas or beans readily available. As with most peasant dishes, it was well seasoned with the addition of fresh herbs such as thyme, green onions, basil along with onions and tomatoes. Cooking the ingredients with coconut milk added a richness that is highly favoured. Cook-up rice is still, to this day, made to be eaten particularly on Saturdays but it is also cooked and eaten any day of the week.
But why cook- up? Why not curry and roti, or fried rice or even another popular Guyanese dish? Well nobody really knows why cook- up became the dish of choice for Guyanese on Old Year’s Night. But the lore which has been passed down from generation to generation behind having a delicious pot of cook- up rice on their fire-sides or stoves is that one would never go without food in the New Year if one’s pot had enough cook- up to last through the night.
On Old Year’s Night, this dish can be cooked using a variety of meats, including beef, chicken, pork or, as a fulfillment of the name of the meal, a combination of meats. Salted pork, salted beef, tripe, fresh pork, fresh beef, dried shrimp and chicken are all meat ingredients that can be included. Some people make a cook-up rice combo, meaning that they use a combination of meats while others prefer to make their cook-up rice with only one type of meat. For example, you can have a tripe cook-Up, beef cook-up or chicken cook-up.
Or you can choose to cook just a cook- up dish with peas. There is also a variety to choose from. The favourites are black-eye peas, split peas, red beans (not be to confused with kidney beans) and pigeon peas.
So how is this tradition carried out? When does the cooking start? When is the meal eaten? There is a debate about this since some persons prefer to eat before they attend church on the night. Others prefer to eat after they return home.
Since many persons partake in another tradition on this night, going to church and spending the last and first moments of the old and New Year respectively with their God, many churches have been putting on pots of this meal on the slow fire, cooking while the services are going on. Church members routinely check the pot to make sure all is well, preparing and adding ingredients and by the time church is over, cook- up rice is ready for all to eat.
So however you like your cook- up rice on Old Year’s Night, is entirely up to you and your family. Its richness and flavour and the fact that it brings the family together just as how turkey brings the Americans and Canadians together during Thanksgiving is proof that we too have our own special traditions.
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