One of my first happy discoveries about Belize was how wonderful and varied the food is. Generally inexpensive, dining in Belize is a treat. There’s great variety, ingredients are fresh, and hygiene is never a worry. I’ve dined with gusto from excellent resort kitchens to beach shacks and the humblest of street side vendors, and never had a rumble of tummy discontent. It’s usually real food made by real folks with a certain amount of Belize’s national ingredient – pride.
Any selection of the Belizean culinary arts is by nature a multicultural melange, and here are my top favourites.
Rice and Beans
The national dish of Belize should be at the top of any epicure’s list. Rice mixed with red beans comes in many variations, from richer to leaner bean ratios, wetter or dryer texture, tasting of coconut or cohune palm, heavy on the onions or hardly any at all. But no matter how it’s served, usually alongside chicken, pork, beef, fish or game meat such as deer or the delectable gibnut, there’s a certain je ne sais pas about rice and beans that I can’t quite put my finger on, but like the rest of the country, cannot resist. Usually there’s Belizean style potato salad and a strip of fried plantain served as well, and it is truly a combination made in heaven
Fry Jacks, Johnny Cakes and Tortillas
I can’t imagine a day in Belize without one of these little beauties. Back when supplies arrived sporadically by boat and staples sometimes became scarce, Belizeans pooled their various heritages to come up with some creative, delicious ways to use flour. One explanation of Johnny Cakes is that they were originally called journey cakes, and made to be carried while travelling, specially while hunting or tapping chicle trees. They’re simple little unsweetened cakes often baked on a stovetop and are wonderful split with butter or jam when warm, and equally satisfying with cheese, meats or even peanut butter when cold.
Except near the borders, Belizean tortillas are made from flour and thicker and larger than the Mexican corn versions. Sometimes they’ll have a distinct coconut influence, which is heavenly. As an accompaniment to breakfast, lunch or dinner they are versatile and always welcome, especially when warm. Fry jacks are basically tortillas cut into shapes, slit and fried. Served with beans, eggs and ham or bacon they are considered breakfast essentials at least once a week and highly addictive.
Another item with many variations, but always a treat. I consider tamales to be the pinnacle of market food, but they also shine in restaurants and especially at parties and celebrations. Meat and chicken in sauce and different additions are encased in corn meal, wrapped in corn husk and steamed, preferably over an open fire. One of my all-time favourite cheap eats.
Panades Garnaches and Salbutes
Speaking of cheap eats, do not leave Belize without trying panades. Small flat rounds of corn tortillas are spread with various mixtures such as beans, fish, cheese or meats, folded over, pinched together and fried. Topped with chopped cabbage, onion and chilli mixture, they seem to have been invented with cold beer in mind.
Next in the finger food stakes come garnaches and salbutes. If instead of filling and folding the panades you just fried them, put any of a number of toppings on and lay on the cabbage onion mixture, you’d be serving garnaches. My favourites are bean and cheese with lots of chilli. Salbutes are a bit more involved, puffy, soft and more delicate. These regional delicacies should not be missed.
Almost anywhere you find rice and beans you’ll find stew chicken, another ubiquitous dish with endless variations. Often flavoured and coloured with recado, an annatto and corn meal flavouring, it is one of those examples of peasant food reaching prodigious heights. Filling and delicious, as is the stew beef and pork.
I just have to give this yummy forest dwelling rodent its own place of honour. Yes, rodent. It is said that when Queen Elizabeth was served some on a visit to her little colony, she remarked how delicious it was and since then has been nicknamed the royal rat. Looks nothing like a rat, big, plump and round nosed, it and its cousins are consumed with gusto throughout Central and South America, and it is absolutely, positively wonderful.
Seafood and Ceviche
Ahh, what can you say about fresh Caribbean seafood? OK, the lobster is crayfish, really, but who cares when it’s so plentiful and delicious. Grouper, snapper, and all sorts of fish are in good supply, and when in season conch is a must. Conch steak is great, and conch fritters… oh, conch fritters…
Belizean ceviche can be made from fish, conch, lobster or what have you. The seafood is “cooked” by marinating in citrus and/or vinegar with thinly sliced onions and garlic, and may have combinations of tomato, onion, cilantro, habanero peppers or other additions. Sheer dining bliss.
The Maya have been cooking this for thousands of years, and they definitely have it down. Pork is marinated in sour orange, local allspice, recado, garlic and other flavourings, wrapped in plantain leaf and very slowly cooked underground or under coals or in a clay oven until it is fall-apart tender. If you see it, order it. One bite and you’ll understand why it’s still so popular after all these centuries…
Another gift to the world from the Maya (in addition, of course, to chocolate) is escabeche. The Spanish influence is also apparent in the seasoning of this exotic chicken soup. The chicken is roasted before being added to vinegar or sour orange stock containing plenty of black pepper, onions and allspice. Usually served with hot corn tortillas, it is a traditional cure after a big night out and will pep you up anytime.
Garifuna food is unique, wonderful and deserves a chapter of its own, and don’t miss things like hudut or cassava bread if you get a chance. In addition to the above, the travelling gourmet will also find at least one Chinese restaurant in any town, and other cultures are well represented with Lebanese and even German dishes served in Mennonite communities like Spanish Lookout. Burgers can be found virtually anywhere, and pizza has made inroads in recent years. Trust me, even the pickiest eater won’t starve in Belize.
Drinks? Belikin Beer and stout are the national beverages, and they are actually very good. Rum with all possible additions but especially Coke is the national tipple. Try cashew wine or craboo for something different, and rum bitters, for the more adventuresome, is a traditional tonic. We’re still on planet earth so Coke is everywhere, but do go for the local fresh fruit juices, especially the cold lime juice. Seaweed shake is another traditional favourite sold homemade in beer bottles.
Don’t be afraid to be adventurous – for me, food is just another of Belize’s great experiences, and as with most things Belizean, I doubt you’ll disappointed.