Good Cookin’: (How I Learned to Eat and Cook Like a Belizean)
Just hearing the words “stew chicken with rice and beans” makes my mouth water and my stomach rumble. When the smell of sweet coconut milk and simmering garlic hits my nostrils, I have no choice but to crack open a cold Belikin beer and wait until lunch is ready. Belizean Creole food goes beyond nourishing the body – it feeds the soul, and Creole cooks always make enough to share.
A plate piled high with tender golden chicken, coconut-scented rice, and red beans spiced with chiles… the national dish of Belize is served. I challenge you to find a single restaurant in Belize that doesn’t offer some version of this traditional Creole recipe.
When I first arrived in Belize, I enjoyed stew chicken as much as the next traveler. I ate it politely, daintily, making sure my meat and rice never touched each other on the plate, finishing the potato salad first so the mayonnaise wouldn’t melt and pool over onto the rice, wrestling with the large piece of juicy chicken and getting my first taste of the succulent meat. Though I didn’t want to be rude, I found myself unable to finish the truck-driver-sized portions on my plate.
After three months of traveling in Belize, my stew chicken addiction was undeniable. I rarely looked at restaurant menus anymore. I wanted, no needed, this comfort food at least three times a week. With the end of my time in Belize fast approaching, I realized I had to learn how to make stew chicken for myself in order to be prepared for the cravings that would inevitably hit when I found myself far from the comforts of a Belizean kitchen.
Fortunately, arranging a cooking lesson was simple. Patricia Ramirez, owner of Splash Dive Shop in Placencia, thought learning to cook would be a fantastic cultural opportunity for me and she knew who to ask, her favorite onboard cook, a Creole woman called Miss Jeanine. Creole women have a warm, inclusive nature, and they love sharing their traditions, especially those related to food. Most native Belizean women have been cooking since childhood, and although their traditional recipes generally aren’t written down, they are straightforward.
Miss Jeanine and I spent a lighthearted afternoon in a modern kitchen above Splash Dive Shop overlooking the Caribbean. She patiently instructed me in the basics: don’t stir the beans too much or they’ll get sticky, recado is what makes the chicken red, store-bought coconut milk is faster than homemade but doesn’t taste as good. When we finished our preparations, Patricia set up a small table on the patio and Miss Jeanine and I shared our homemade meal with several dive shop friends who approvingly oohed and ahhed at my rookie efforts at traditional Creole cuisine.
By this time, I was enjoying my stew chicken like a true Belizean – unselfconsciously indulging in the good food and good company. No longer worrying about the mingling of flavors on the plate, using my fingers to pull the chicken meat off the bone with scarcely a second thought, I finished my serving and asked for more, wanting to prolong the meal and linger in the atmosphere. As my belly filled, my mind contentedly lapsed into reminiscence of all my adventures in Belize. Three months of incredible opportunities to experience nature, dive in the waters off Lighthouse Reef Atoll, immerse in the local culture, cruise through mangrove forests, and bask in tropical beauty. And I realized that something as simple as sharing food with my Belizean hosts ranks right up there with all my other once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences.