Although our recent weather has made us feel as if summer were here, it is actually still spring. And next week is Spring Break for those in local public schools.
For some, it will mean staying home, relaxing and perhaps getting together with friends. For others, next week means an adventure out of town. My wife, Susanne, and I generally stay home. There is so much to do here and besides, the airports are busy. But if were to go soemwhere I know where I would like to go.
About four years ago, my wife and I decided to take a holiday during Spring Break. The destination was Belize, in Central America. It is a nation that doesn't always get lots of publicity and if people have been there it was on a one-day stop for cruise ships. But after reading about the destination, there seemed to be much more in Belize than we imagined. Susanne always says that she "should have been born under a palm tree." Well, there are certainly lots of those in Belize -- and we found out that there is a lot more.
International visitors flying into the Central American nation generally land at the international airport outside of Belize City, the capital. The ride from the airport to the capital is at first a pretty one, with views of lots of greenery and water. The capital itself is nothing to scream 'hurray' for, since many of the buildings are a bit run-down and there are sometimes interesting characters wandering the streets. The real charm of Belize is outside of the capital. For that reason, Susanne and I chose to include a stay in the island of Ambergris during our last visit to Belize.
Only a 20 minutes ride in a small plane from the local airport to the island, it seemed like another world. Yes, we were still in the tropics. But here was an island where people were walking up and down the main street in sandals looking in shops or stopping in any number of bars or restaurants for tasty, tropical fare. Cars are not allowed there so people get around in golf carts. Our golf cart ride to our hotel took us past plenty of hotels -- big and small, simple and luxurious. There were some signs referring to the island as 'la isla bonita' - a name given the island by Madonna in a song she wrote years ago about Ambergris and the only town there, San Pedro (anyone remember "last night I dreamt of San Pedro?") After arriving in our small hotel, we decided to take advantage of the view of the sea and sit outside for a while.
A few hours later, Susanne and I decided to take a walk and buy some things to eat and drink since we had a kitchen in our room. One might imagine that an island with about 9,000 Belizeans and perhaps 900-1000 foreign residents might not have lots to choose from. But we quickly found shops, bakeries and even a wine store that had some of the best selections we had seen in the country.
The population of Belize is made up of an interesting mixture of ethnic groups including Creole and Garifuna (African origins), Mestizo (mixture of Spanish and indigenous groups), Chinese, East Indians, Arab and Europeans. So, there were foods reflecting the many diverse groups that make up the nation. We found all sorts of tropical fruits, potatoes, rice, beans, peppers (both sweet and hot), greens, pumpkin, cassava, cornmeal, breadfruit, etc. There were also all sorts of neat spices such as curry powder, cinnamon, thyme and an interesting one the local people call 'ricardo'. It is actually a spice paste that has Mayan origins and that can be found in bordering areas of Mexico as well.
My wife and I did cook a little while we were there, but the point of being in San Pedro was to enjoy some time to relax and discover new things. We did venture out in the evenings, walking to find neat places to have a drink of the local Belikin beer or perhaps some tropical drink made with One Barrel rum.
One night, Susanne and I stopped in a cute bar actually perched on stilts in the water. I ordered fish tacos and a beer. The fish was tilapia and was fried in strips and served in warm, corn tortillas with chopped lettuce, tomatoes and a creamy sauce. They were delicious!
The next evening, we ventured a bit further to a fancier place to try something local. Well that was our intent. Much to my surprise, my wife ordered a hamburger. My choice for the evening was the chicken in mango sauce served with rice. It was delicious. I asked for the recipe as I always do when I find something I like.
Our stay in the island of Ambergris was rather short -- only three days. But we had a wonderful time walking all over the island, getting to know all sorts of neat people in our hotel and in the bars and restaurants we visited (including an inspiring woman from California who had retired there). It was a real vacation full of fun and discovery. If you are venturing somewhere next week, have a wonderful and safe time. If not, why not prepare an exotic meal one night? That's what we are planning to do.
Greg Lopez is a Midlander who loves travel and food. He combines those two passions in a monthly column for the Daily News.
Chicken In Mango Sauce
1 pound boneless chicken, cut into big strips
Salt, pepper and paprika - to rub on the chicken
1 cup chicken broth
2 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons orange peel, cut into fine strips
2 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup frozen mixture of green and red peppers and onions
2 tablespoons rum
2 mangoes, peel and pit removed and flesh diced into small pieces
Place the chicken in a large plastic bag. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika. Close the bag and rub the spices all over the chicken. Allow to 'marinate' about 20-30 minutes. Place the chicken broth, lemon juice, orange peel, brown sugar, curry powder and cornstarch in a bowl and mix well. Set aside. Sauté the chicken in the oil over medium to high heat. Turn over from time to time. This will take about 8-10 minutes until the chicken in completely cooked and the pieces of chicken are nicely browned. Remove chicken from pan and place on a dish. Sauté the garlic and bell pepper and onion mixture in the pan. Stir from time to time to make sure the mixture doesn't burn. When the onions are soft and transparent add the fried chicken and rum to the pan. Continue cooking 2 more minutes and then add the liquid mixture all at once. Stir as the liquid begins to thicken. This may take a few minutes. When the liquid is thick add the mango pieces and cook a minute or so longer. Serve immediately with rice. Note: It is best to use organic oranges since you are using the peel.