Is choka the key to a healthy diet? – by Ron Persaud

Is choka the key to a healthy diet?

By Ron Persaud


It is a “New Year”.  As if you did not know!

And with it come New Year resolutions. You have heard of them!

And among those, there is sure to be at least one concerned with weight loss and / or dieting… and I have been thinking about this!

Here are my thoughts:

For the first 40 years of my life, I followed a typical Guyanese diet and had very few health problems. I was lean and mean, rather like my nanee (my mother’s mother); and quite active.

Well, there was this one problem. Whenever I asked my doctor, “What can I do to put on an extra ten pounds?”

Dr. Brahmam would reply, “It is better to be under-weight than over-weight.”  And that was good enough for me.   

  Here in the USA, I have endeavored to follow the same diet for the all these years…  but!

“Colonel Sanders”, “Papa John” and the “Golden Arches” were enticing distractions.  And now my doctor is advising a more ascetic diet… although I am still ‘underweight’.

So my New Year resolution is to really, really, follow that traditional Guyanese diet of my younger days.

In Guyana the most popular meal was “dhall and rice; and a-loo choka”.

Dhall was yellow split peas – a grain which provided some vegetable protein. The rice was parboiled and “dried down”  in the preparation. It was the bulkiest part of the meal and provided starch. My grand parents’ generation used to strain rice but thanks to “Carnegie School of Home Economics”, my mother’s generation learned the benefits of drying down rice.

Choka was a heavily spiced preparation of vegetables and/or fish.  There was never a beef, pork, or chicken choka. Smoke herring, Surinam mullet, salt fish, shrimp, coconut, bi-gan (egg-plant) etc. were the mouth-watering chokas. It was the smallest portion of the meal but such was its deliciousness that it could give taste to all the rice if there were no dhall.

The more I think about choka, the more I want to credit it as an article of diet. I am beginning to think of the “Guyanese” diet in a similar way that many think of the “Mediterranean” diet.

  I remember going to the market twice daily.

The first trip was for lunch; the second was for dinner.

The first trip was for greens, and maybe shrimps. If the fish vendors had fresh gill-backer or pakuma, then those will take precedence. Banga Mary was always an option.

But the real take away was the seasoning. Four cents tomato,  penny shallot!

And here’s the kicker! The penny shallot included a sprig of fine leaf thyme.

What was the significance of that? And how did they find out?  I am reminded of bitter cassava which contains a toxic element. How did the Amerindians discover that cooking the root destroyed the toxin?

Finally, I must acknowledge Bill Rogers’ “Weed Woman” and ‘B G bhajee’ – perennial favorites which still titillate our curiosity.

Here is the source.

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  • de castro  On January 17, 2014 at 7:04 am

    Bill Rogers song always brings a smile to my face.
    My favourite verse ….man piaba woman piaba …etc etc
    Why !
    My suspicion is in its innuendo…man Viagra woman Viagra
    can easily be substituted for “piaba”….maybe viagra s origins
    stem from piaba…
    Enjoyed your comments as well…
    Scientists today are solving many medical problems by their
    research into the “brains” of humans/animals.
    My story on the issue of diet is simple…
    Eat when hungry but not “indulge” …variety the spice of life enjoy both
    food and life itself and be happy.

  • Ron. Persaud  On January 17, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    I thought that “Piaba” was a contraction of “Pee -a -bed” or bed wetting. I inferred this from the manner in which the elders lowered the volume of their conversation whenever they discussed this particular item in the calypso.
    But it could have been the aphrodisiac connection (if you will please pardon the pun).
    The calypso itself was extremely popular.
    I wish that I had paid better attention (batted my ears) because I am convinced that every single “weed” afforded relief from some human ailment.
    Many years later I got to know of an “o’lady’ who lived at Industry on the East Coast. She collected and sold “bush”. Unfortunately, she was very cagey and we could not communicate.

  • Ron. Persaud  On January 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I meant to include this quote in my previous comment.

    “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    • de castro  On January 18, 2014 at 8:22 am

      Ron I think pia a could have been a bush to use if you were
      a “pee a bed” stop u wetting bed…Dimitri may know !
      “Weed” in my parts of the woods south London was “ganja”
      also known as “cannabis”…grown commercially now in
      Holland for prescriptional use age.Legalised in some states in USA.
      He grew a few plants for his own consumption in southern Spain
      near my farm in the wild….it is illegal to grow cannabis in Spain
      and rigorously enforced by Guardia Civil (Spanish Gestapo ex-franco
      era…) who would accept a “bribe” for a “mis-demena” offence.
      Corruption is endemic in spain….and most of southern med countries.
      Illegals (people and drug) is trafficed via Morocco and north Africa
      on a day to day basis. I personally witnessed it 3 years ago as I visited
      an island peninsula by ferry from Almeria….you walk across border
      to island (morroccan side) where everything is “legal”…
      in our travels we witness some strange behaviour/attitudes.

      Will certainly be on look out for “bush” remedies on my travels into
      amazonia this year….spirit of adventure …call of the wild !
      Will certainly try that “piaba” for my bed wetting ! ha ha !


  • Dmitri Allicock  On January 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I love the ambience of saltfish choka, fry bake and coffee Sunday morning when I sleep in a little. Dhall and rice with choka or fry fish is a nice change for me; I am getting hungry just thinking of it.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On January 17, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Loved your article, Ron. That little detail about the penny shallot and the sprig of fine leaf thyme was a telling recollection. We used a lot of thyme leaf to season our food. The dried thyme that I buy here in Los Angeles lacks the rich original taste.

  • anna Boston  On January 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Yes, I loved choka , and I am now growing fine leaf thyme in my yard.We thought our diet was poor but it was the best.

  • Towa Towa  On January 17, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    Saltfish, Smokeherring, Aloo, Coconut, Bigan,Tomato, 🙂 Good stuff with Dhall & Rice & wiri wiri or bird pepper.

  • Ron. Persaud  On January 18, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Rosaliene, I am always fascinated about how some things and vignettes are on instant recall – given that ‘just right’ stimulus. For example, my wife cooks curry a lot but occasionally, the right mix of spices and my state of mind (receptive, I guess) causes the ‘chonkay’ to take me back to a kitchen in Leguan, auntie Data at the cow mouth, her two young children playing on the floor, me in a hammock, worrying a little that this idyllic August month will soon end and I will have to return to Georgetown and school.
    Towa Towa, I had forgotten about the wiri wiri pepper. Now that you have mentioned it, I recall Ms. Hillary Clinton saying that the 2008 campaign had taxed her physical stamina and, inthe end, increased her tolerance for hot pepper.
    Could there be a connection?

  • gigi  On January 18, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Great post! Got me reminiscing…

    You know, I never thought of it as fish choka, but come to think of it, it was, except that I don’t remember how it was prepared. Several months ago I made coconut choca for the first time since leaving Guyana. The taste was familiar but the texture too coarse because I had to use a food processor since I don’t have the grinding stone. I do have a rice cooker. It is a life savior and everyone uses it, almost daily. We love our rice! It’s good for steaming too – especially stale dahl puri and roti.

    I do have a kitchen garden and plant a wide variety of herbs plus tomatoes and peppers – got into the habit of having one for the past several years. Yesterday, it was a nice enough day so I expanded my planting area and did some prepping to the soil in preparation for planting season.

    I have a part Singaporean and part Indonesian friend who introduced me to cooking with lots of garlic, ginger (never cooked with this before), red onions, cilantro, yogurt and coconut milk (these two in curries and stews) and my food now has real flavor, and I know it is healthier. I can actually get my family to eat korelia(?)/bitter squash because the pieces are cut small and melt into the dish and the bitterness gets lost in the flavor. I do the same with eggplant because they don’t like the texture except when it’s prepared bighani(?) style but with breadcrumbs instead of a flour batter.

    Now I’m going to have to look into making fish choka. The saltfish here is too salty and ruins the taste of saltfish with bake.

    • Sati Singh, Farmington Hills, Michigan US  On January 21, 2014 at 4:37 am

      I attended Commercial class at GOC, late 60’s,

      Use your coffee grinder to make Coconut Choka – it works great. Also, whenever I make saltfish and bake, I usually soak the saltfish overnight, boil it the next day, crush it and wash it. My husband laughs at me, he thinks that I am the only person who cooks salt-less saltfish.

      • de castro  On January 21, 2014 at 8:39 am

        Sati….in mediterrean north Africa and some Latin countries…
        “Salt fish” is also known as “bacalau” with some wonderful
        songs and rhythms words music in praise of the culinary benefits
        of salt fish….a famous song by Julio Inglaisia comes to mind….
        who romtacises the “bacalau” salted cod for its afrdisical benefits…
        I have had salt fish (soaked overnight to remove salt) in many dishes
        but may have to cook my own “self fish curry” if I am to experience
        the oriental dish. Cooking is an art ….not unlike a good wine…
        to be accompanied with a delicious meal.

        If food and music be the food of love play on.


  • Ron Saywack  On January 20, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    You all got me reminiscing, nostalgically, on my youth, growing up in beautiful Guyana!

    All those food names Mr. Persaud so wonderfully recites bring back fond memories of my childhood growing up in Guyana and Maa’s cooking! In a way, I feel a bit sad that I have spent most of my life away from Guyana and missed out on so much and having to survive one bitterly cold Canadian winter after another when my siblings are enjoying the warmth, love and culinary deliciousness of our great Guyanese culture!

  • Ron. Persaud  On January 21, 2014 at 11:35 am

    All this talk about salt fish makes me remember this:

    For adult listening.

  • de castro  On January 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Sparrow was/is king rapper ….with humour.
    His songs will always bring a smile to my ugly face.
    First time I heard this one….he is fighting for his life….but the King will
    remain in the minds and hearts of all his fans forever. His music/songs
    will live forever.
    Viva sparrow

    Kamptan PS he may have chosen the name “sparrow” after the bird.

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