The community’s favorite Scarborough spot provides baked goods, curry goats, and a bowl of peppers
Growing up, there was always Guyanese bread on the counter. Visitors may point out how it looks different from an average white or whole wheat loaf. Guiana bread, which my family used to eat with tennis rolls and butter wraps from immigrant establishments like Norman Sue or Narain’s bakeries, is longer, wider, and thinner. The dough looks braided, which is why it is also referred to as braid bread.
Scarborough has no shortage of food places in the Caribbean. But finding authentic Guyanese food, and more specifically, Guyanese baked goods like cassava bun, pine fritters, and pigtail loaves, wasn’t as easy as getting your hands on a hot plate of jerk chicken or oxtail.
Shereen Bakery (1063 Midland, shereensbakery), with its wide range of Caribbean dishes, is changing that.
On the weekends, Shereen serves up breakfast specials such as fish cakes, cassava balls, baked goods, salt fish and something Guyanese call chard and fry, a mixture of plantain, sweet potatoes and dumplings – plus all the baked goods Anna and many other products. Guyana children grew up.
Any day of the week, the takeaway lunch menu is piled high with fish gravy, goat curry, bhaji, chicken, and the great chow mein that gives my grandmother a run for her cash. But if this is actually a restaurant, why is it called a bakery?
“We started as a bakery,” explains Sherine. She moved to a fast food restaurant at the request of her loyal and appreciative customers, a group of people who say that she simply cannot refuse.
“At first I had a small hot table and put a few items outside every day. Then, as time went on, it just kept growing. We started cooking, but we never announced it. People who knew we cooked would call ahead and order and we’d be ready for them.”
A few weeks ago, I entered Shireen’s bakery for the first time. I’ve been following the bakery’s social media account for at least a year and had an embarrassing time scrolling through exciting videos and photos of hot, home-cooked food.
Keep it social and indoor
It’s rare for Guyana bakeries to be on social media, which was one of the first things I noticed. Caribbean bakeries have long been strictly on word of mouth. There was absolutely no need for paid ads, vulgar commercials or even an Instagram page. Bakery owners can trust their customers to spread the word. For decades, this was enough to keep these companies going. In many cases still.
But with Shireen’s children highly involved in running the bakery, they realized that being on social media was important and they made sure that the Instagram page was active and maintained and customer inquiries were handled.
Sherine explained, “Every day we would receive inquiries about what we had on the menu for the day.” “So now we’re making a video of our hot table and listing the items for all to see.”
When I asked Sherine what made her start, she shared the sentiments of many immigrant entrepreneurs – who want the best for her family.
“I didn’t want my mother to work in a factory,” she said frankly. “I knew I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and run my own business. So when the company I worked for was laying off workers, I begged them to let me go. After a while, they did. I took some time to just enjoy my kids and de-stress.”
But when Shireen started planning her next move, there were obstacles ahead. It was not easy to become an entrepreneur. She sold her house, considered the franchise idea, paid someone for a small table in a bigger store and made some financial mistakes along the way until she felt the universe was forcing her to do something bigger and find her purpose.
Sixteen years ago, I set up shop in a square in Midland between Eglinton and Lawrence.
“I chose Scarborough because of the community,” she said. “I wanted to be in Pickering but the rent was too expensive. When the landlord told me the price, I said ‘You don’t get that much money from this immigrant!”
Shireen takes pride in her shop being a place that brings people home, even if only for a moment.
The bakery welcomes students from St. Joan of Arc Catholic Academy High School nearby at lunchtime. “It is great to see all the children of Guyana come with their girlfriends or friends and buy snacks to teach their partners about their culture. It brings me so much joy when people come in here and tell me that they feel like they are back in Guyana.”
Food, culture and society
It makes sense that their customers would feel this way. For many immigrant communities, food is a gateway to their native land. The memories and nostalgia associated with the dishes and snacks, even just their smell, are unparalleled. And for societies where many dishes are rooted in tradition – such as the pepper pot, Guyana’s national dish – it can unlock many memories.
Pepper pot is a slow-cooked soup that is a Christmas staple, served alongside fresh Guyanese bread. Almost every Guyanese family I know has a very large Guyanese bowl. Come December, it’s packed with meats like beef, beef heels, pig’s tail, cockerels, and a slew of other ingredients that make up the signature pepper pot taste. My dad would stay up all night on Christmas Eve, checking the bowl every few hours for the tenderness of the meat. Christmas morning gifts and pepper pots are childhood memories comfortably braided like pigtail bread.
Shereen described an example last Christmas in which a client came in and explained that her mother-in-law had passed away, and since her death her husband had been unable to enjoy a bowl of sweet and sentimental peppers. Then I asked if Shireen would offer him something, and she agreed. But this wasn’t just a pot of pepper – it had to be vegan.
For such a meat-based dish, Shireen had a challenge ahead. But she managed to create a wonderful combination of tofu and beans and made it as close as possible to the taste and appearance of a traditional meat dish. When the customer came, I asked him to give it a try right then and there.
“He had a spoonful of it and you can see in his eyes how grateful he was to be able to try it again,” she recalls.
Hearing this story made my heart happy. I often think about what my siblings and I will do once my dad is no longer around to make the famous Christmas dish. It talks about the importance of preserving cultures, something the Scarborough location allows her to do as well.
At first, Shireen wanted to open a European bakery. “That’s what I was drawn to,” she says. “But every time I go out, I realize there aren’t enough Guyana bakeries out there. Finally, I told my family, ‘We’re keeping this whole Guyanese. I don’t care.'”