Belizean Cuisine. What does that mean? To be honest, when I was invited to taste the foods of Belize in December, I had no idea. A quick internet search told me that Belize had a national beer (Belikin), relied heavily on the habanero and that rice and beans were a signature dish. I found all of these things when I visited Belize, but I also found a diversity in food that complements it's diverse people and landscape.
A change in location meant a different cuisine entirely. As I moved through Belize's landscape from the jungle to the sea and met it's people, I saw a shift in cuisine. (When is the last trip where you visited both a Mennonite village and then danced with Garifuna, a culture descended from Carib, Arawak and West African people, in the same week?) At first glance, the continuity of beans, habaneros and even fry jacks might lead one to belive that meals were uninspired or standarized. But, close to the border I tried Mexican inspired meals and fell in love ceviche, further south I tasted the Mayan influence in dishes centered around corn or in Mayan-style pulled pork . I snacked on sweets made by Mennonite women with recipes passed down from their European ancestors and ate fresh fish for breakfast just like a Garifuna family.
I'll do my best to take you along on my all too brief tasting journey and help you know what to expect, dare I say, seek out, when you decide to visit Belize. Just a mere six days didnt afford me enough time (or stomach room) to try everything. In fact, my "to do" list of foods to try that I made before my trip still has work to be done. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but an attempt to share with you my most memorable meals.
Shrimp Soup at Patty's Bistro
When faced with a laminated menu and things like burgers and nachos on the menu, I froze. I wondered if it would be easy to make a terrible decision. I decided to go with something off of the specials board, a plainly described shrimp soup. It arrived at the table, a warm broth full of carrots, potatoes and shrimp with a tell-tale sign of goodness, spicy chili oil floating on the surface. On the side was a bowl of white rice, which I learned was to be thrown into the mix. Also on the side, cilantro, chopped onion and limes to add. My favorite way to eat food, is to doctor it at the table. Instead of fried seafood or a burger, I wound up with a tasty, spicy flavorful dish and renewed faith in my gut instincts.
Chicken Salpicón at Nahil Mayab
Chicken Salpicón was served as an appetizer one evening. Chunks of chicken, onion, tomato and lime mixed together as a cold salad. Chips served alongside for a change of texture, but made for awkward dipping. Not quite a salsa and not quite a salad. It was good, but for me, I'm not a huge fan of cold chicken.
Shrimp Ceviche at Victor's Inn
Now cold shrimp, on the other hand. Hello, pile it on my plate. We watched the son of the proprietor prepare our meal. He simply poured hot water over the shrimp to cook it, added chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro. He squeezed what looked like to be small oranges overtop, but they turned out to be a variety of lime, called the Jamaican lime. As we lunched, I found myself going back again and again to the ceviche plate. It was spicy, tangy, and fresh. Even after my mouth had long cooled off from the meal, I found myself sneaking bites of the ceviche, only to start the painful process of cooling down all over again. That's why tortilla chips were invented. Those too were excellent. Instead of thin chips that are all crisp and no substance, these were smoky, rustic-style chips that reminded you where they came from.
Hor'och at Nahil Mayab
A typical Mayan dish from the menu at Nahil Mayab. Balls of corn were served in a mix of black beans in a flavorful sauce. The meal was deconstructed and served alongside with stewed chicken and pico de gallo. I soon learned in Belize that meals were often made at your plate, combining elements to your tastes, most importantly by adding some habanero hot sauce. At Nahil Mayab, this hot sauce was a house-made smoked habanero variety that world's apart from a bottled one. Smoking the peppers gave an already spicy condiment an extra kick.
Rice Pudding at Nahil Mayab
Until I encountered this rice pudding, I hadn't tried a dessert in Belize that was worth writing home about. I had little hope for being impressed by this rice pudding, which I usually find underwhelms my palate. I mean, how excited can one get about sweetened rice and milk? This pudding was sweet, but not too sweet and had an understated note of cinnamon that just brightened the whole dish. It was oh so simple, just rice, coconut milk and cinnamon, but the flavors came together perfectly and did what a good dessert should, ended the meal on a high note.
Poc Chuc at Victor's Inn
I found myself time and time again finding satisfaction in the simplest of meals. Here, yet another Mayan dish, poc chuc highlighted a perfectly grilled cut of pork. Served with refried beans, salad, and onions, it has an understated appearance. But when done well (as it was here) it's a savory and satisfying meal. Served family style with a group of friends, like it is at Victor's Inn, I dare say is perfection.
Cochinita Pibil at Victor's Inn
Grilled pork is great, but I have a soft spot in my heart for barbecue. So when I spied a bowl of what looked to be pulled pork from across the table, I not-so-patiently awaited my turn for the bowl. Cochinita Pibil proved to be my Belizean fix for my long missed Carolina-style BBQ. It is a slow cooked pork dish, cooked underground with logwood (the wood from which indigo is made.) Moist, tender and flavor distinctly of the region. Pibil is typically made with sour oranges and a spice mixture that including the slightly peppery seed, annatto. It was perfect with some tortillas and a bit of salsa.
Fish Fingers at Pelican Beach Resort
Hello fried seafood. Do not mistake this for a fish stick. In theory, it is fried and is in the shape of a stick, but this dish is nothing like what you may have grown up eating as a child. Fresh red snapper, lightly fried, made for a perfect lunch after a morning of snorkeling. It didn't matter what else was on the plate, fish sticks don't get better than this.
Coconut Shrimp at Nahil Mayab
Coconut shrimp has been abused by American chain restaurants for years. While these may look like your standard fare at TGI Flavorless, please forget that you've ever eaten something called coconut shrimp. Instead of getting just a taste of coconut, the flavor and aroma permeated the dish. Forget all the sins of your past and go ahead and order a plate of fried seafood. I guarantee you it won't taste like it did back home.
Hudut at Pelican Beach Resort
In the coastal town of Dangriga, I ate a lot of fish. Fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, but strangely not for dinner. While being served a whole fish for breakfast was probably the most memorable meal of my trip, this version of grilled red snapper in coconut broth with hudut or balls of green plantains tasted much better. Served cold (or room temperature) the tangy plantain contrasted with the sweet coconut broth and the fish flaked off perfectly.
Snacks and Tea in a Mennonite Home
After a horse and buggy ride through town, the Mennonite family that I visited kindly invited us into their home for a snack. A bounty of desserts awaited us alongside hot tea and instant coffee. I was partial to the coconut dusted pink cookies, but the creamy pie with raisins was excellent, as well. Also on the table were twisted cookies that were commonly served at weddings, as well as fresh bread and homemade preserves.
On a hot day in December, there are few things better than a cold glass of juice, at least in Belize. I sampled a variety of juices including a tart lime juice and a sweet hibiscus juice. They aren't overly sweet, but a diluted concoction of water and juice that make a satisfying addition to any meal.
Like all spots in the Caribbean, there's plenty of locally made rum to be found. In Belize, it's Traveller's Rum (which has a retail outpost in Belize City, where you can taste and procure a few bottles to take home with you, by the way.) You'll see plenty of rum-based drinks on every menu, including the laughter inducing one called the "panty ripper." I couldn't bring myself to order one (I hate drinks with slutty names or I'm just a light packer and couldn't afford to spare a pair,) but it's made of coconut rum and pineapple juice. Instead, I opted to imbibe my rum in frozen concoctions, like the rumarita above.
Finally, I did my part to taste every beer made by the Belizean brewer, Belikin. There's regular old Belikin, Belikin Premium, Lighthouse, and even a stout. I liked that the bottles had some heft to them, like an old coke bottle. The Lighthouse was my least favorite, it reminded me of a Stella or Pillsner Urquell. My favorite, by far, was the Beilkin Premium, an ale made of barley malt; it definitely had the most flavor of the lot. And, well a regular old Belikin is best drank as the sunlight wanes and pelicans dive into the ocean.
As you can see, Belizean cuisine is varied. From fish, to pork, to ceviche (and let's not forget breakfast) anyone can find something that they'll love. The bottom line, learn to like hot sauce because it's not a Belizean meal without it.