Good Bread: Guyanese Bakeries in Brooklyn
In the Guyanese bakeries of Brooklyn, every bread is linked with a specific food. At Tota's Bakery in Crown Heights, the platt or plait bread is a big, braided white loaf that looks like challah without the eggs. It's meant to be pulled apart and dipped into Guyanese pepperpot, a remarkable stew made from oxtail, cow foot, beef, brown sugar, casareep (a kind of molasses made from cassava juice), cinnamon, cloves, thyme, onions, and hot peppers.
Pepperpot is cooked for hours or even days, and when done, the black and unctuous stew tastes like a spicy, savory version of classic English plum pudding. You dunk the fluffy platt bread into the oily broth and use it to wipe every last morsel from your bowl.
A bakery like Tota's is a perfect place to explore the polyglot nature of Guyanese cuisine, which mixes African, South Asian, Dutch, English, Native American, American, Chinese, and a bevy of other regional influences. Tota's was founded about 25 years ago by the late Tottarom Jainarine, who learned the trade down in Guyana.
You see his South Asian ancestry in the bakery's rotis and snack foods like poulourie (or phulourie). These are little fried dough balls, reminiscent of hush puppies, made with split peas, flour, and spices. They're best hot from the fryer and doused in "sour," a sauce made from tamarind, vinegar, and tiny, biting, wirri-wirri peppers. Like Indian chaat, they're good as a quick snack or to wash down with cold beer.
I'm guessing there's an English influence in the tennis rolls, which are shaped like puffy tennis balls. Split one open and you'll smell yeast and surprisingly, lemon. They're slightly sweet, and Guyanese like to eat them for breakfast with Guyanese cheese (like a mild cheddar) and a cup of coffee.
Down on Church Avenue in Flatbush, Sybil's is the Brooklyn branch of the Guyanese bakery mini-empire founded back in 1976 by Sybil Bernard. Like Tota's, they serve a wide range of breads, pastries, rotis, and prepared foods.
A good place to start exploring the Sybil's menu is with a "bake." This is a chewy, flying-saucer shaped roll that's actually not baked but fried in hot fat. Then they slice it in half and stuff the inside with a tasty filling like stewed saltfish, whose flavor stands up to the greasy bread. The Guyanese sandwich is more to be admired from afar: they take a flat roll of white "butterflap" bread, slice it in half and stuff with a Jamaican-style patty. Bread stuffed with fried bread with a thin layer of meat in the middle—it does fill the stomach. Maybe fried fish filet would be a better choice with the butterflap.
Beyond the breads, these eateries have a huge range of other baked goods to try, including black cake, coconut sweet bread, pineapple tart, and a little round bun decorated with a red dot. Open one up, and the flaky crust reveals a filling of sweet black bean paste. A Chinese tea pastry in a Guyanese bakery—polyglot indeed.