International Women’s Day was marked on March 8th, and in service of that here is a conversation with Kawartha Spice Founder, Debra Ragbar which centers around the idea of legacy, not only around female-led entrepreneurship but also around the company’s signature blend, Guyanese Curry Powder. In her own kitchen, one of Debra’s guiding culinary philosophies is the “preservation of history through food.” We can easily take for granted the meal in front of us, but each dish can unlock a series of more probing questions: why are particular ingredients used? Why are particular foods eaten on certain occasions? How did the traditional methods and tools come to be? Those everyday kitchen tools that sit on the periphery of memories—memories of our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, maids, cooks, caretakers—can play a significant part of a larger story. That history comes alive in the present day in our modern kitchens, and the scents wafting out of those pots lead out the door, straight into the future.
What childhood memories do you have of making curry powder?
I used to help my mother. First we used to wash the whole spices and put them out to dry in the sun.
What spices exactly?
Cumin, fenugreek, coriander, cinnamon sticks, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, fennel. Once the seeds were dried she would roast them and we had a small hand mill, so she would grind them, turning the crank. We also had a masala brick and my mother would use the brick to grind onion and garlic and pepper, and then she would add the garam masala—those freshly ground spices—to make a paste, adding turmeric when cooking.
The masala brick was a heavy stone slab with a cylindrical stone, the lorha, used for grinding. Often passed down in families, it was a staple in the Indo-Caribbean kitchen. But I saw on a documentary about the history of the slave trade [“Enslaved,” CBC Gem (2020)], the same brick and cylindrical stone used by the Yoruba who were enslaved prior to Indenture. In Nigeria it is called an olo ilota.
Did these spices grow in Guyana prior to Indenture?
No, we had to buy them.
How did curry come to Guyana?
It was brought by our ancestors from India who were brought by the British as indentured labourers between 1838 and 1917. The Guyanese curry is very distinct—different from curry made in Trinidad, Jamaica, Thailand, and even India. I would want to think it evolved based on environment, the availability of spices. You could assume the British were bringing in spices, the spice trade was a profitable business—they weren’t being grown locally.
The Kawartha Spice signature blend goes back to the history of my ancestors. This is a recipe that’s 200 years old, that’s handed down from generation to generation—from the past, to present, and on to the future. By having Guyanese Curry Powder as a signature blend we are fulfilling their legacy and walking in their footsteps.
What is the legacy that you are carrying forward?
From my ancestors, the entrepreneurial spirit from generation to generation. On my maternal side, my grandmother had rental properties that she managed after her husband died. He came to Guyana in 1917; the last boat. The practice of indenture ended five years after. He was in lumber. He died in 1942. My grandmother didn’t carry on that business, but managed the real estate—the rentals. My maternal aunt, she was living in Essequibo and divorced her husband (back then!) and came back to Demerara and started her own business in a remote area in the interior where there was a lumber industry. She had a business where she used to cook for the workers and had a store selling cigarettes, and such, like a convenience store. She did it all independently; travelling back and forth for supplies, working and living in the interior; the rainforest.
What is the legacy that you hope to leave behind?
I would hope to also leave behind the entrepreneurial spirit because I find it to be very progressive and independent: create your own opportunities where you follow your heart and forge a life of your own making. When we follow in the ancestor’s footsteps, carving a path for the next generation to move beyond, inspiring the next generation to move beyond what we’ve created—that is the legacy we leave.
What does it mean to empower others?
We are more powerful when we support each other—sharing, listening, using our voices. When you support an independent business and you have a good experience and you tell a friend, and that person has the same experience and now the two of you have a shared experience, that’s the way a business will grow and create community. And this sharing and communication builds success.
interview by Nadia Ragbar