Often, eating during round the world travel is purely about survival, and you might never know where or when your next meal is going to be – or whether it will even be safe. Indeed, you can go an entire day on nothing more than a pack of salty nuts and a Fanta, so rare might be the opportunity to chow down.
However, other times, food can be the Epicurean delight I love it to be. In Belize, for instance, despite being there for a mere 10 days, I was amazed by the variety and quality of the simple but tasty fare on offer.
Reliant on seasonality and availability, cooks prepare food that is by and large genuinely local and fresh. Let’s be clear – we’re not talking about meals of startling compexity, but the reality is they don’t need to be. Fruit and vegetables taste like they’re supposed to – not the hormone-pumped, artificially-ripened and preserved excuses for produce we suffer routinely in the East Dulwich Sainsburys.
Belizean food has three key influences – Caribbean, Latin American, and Creole. What could be better? Of course, you can sprinkle in a little French, American, Chinese and so on – you can literally taste the multi-ethnic cultural flavour of this hot, humid and wonderful land in its genuinely varied recipes.
Anyway, I’m bound to discover more delicacies along the way, and I’ll blog about ones that I think you might find interesting. Now, however, as I sit here in a darkened Nicaraguan hotel room wondering what my food experience I this poetic country will be like, I’m hustling together a quick list of the top five Belizean foods you must try before you can say ‘ready, steady, cook’.
1. Best street snack: Pupusas
These corn meal pancakes are stuffed with meat, cheese and beans. Originating from El Salvador, pupusas are soulful folk food snacks usually served on street stalls at night – and they’re insanely good. Anyone I have asked about them from from Belize, Honduras, or Nicaragua goes all misty-eyed on the subject. My favourites were in San Pedro, the scene of “the great pupusa war“. A young upstart faced off against an older mama in the classic youth versus experience food fight. Rather than take sides, I sampled both. Each was excellent.
2. Best breakfast treat: Fry Jack.
Of course, I should have put in some healthy fruit fare here, given the sheer quality and delicious flavour of the Belizean produce. That’d be to easy, however, so let’s stick with the unhealthy stuff. This breakfast favourite, fry jack, is a puffed-up pastr. Flavourwise, it seems halfway between a brioche and a Yorkshire pud – with the flavour of the former and consistency of the latter, only a bit lighter. Have it savoury or sweet, though my favourite is served cashew fruit jam and cashew syrup. The best one so far is Stephanie’s at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree.
3. Best tastes-like-home dish: Mennonite steak
When it comes to meat, chicken rules the culinary roost (I have no shame) in Belize. No matter how many different ways you eat it, you will get bored of out of your clucking mind with the white meat. However, when you just gotta have some red flesh, decent steak is hard to find. That’s where French cook Valerie, at Chez Didi in Sarteneja, comes in handier than an horloge for timing a boiled oeuf.
This intense woman, who dropped out of rat race to live simply by the sea and cherish every moment of her life with her two men – husband and son – is a stickler for simple classics using using good quality ingredients. So where does she get them? It would be easier to stop Gordon Brown insulting his target voters than prise Valerie’s supplier details from her. She did tell us however, that she bought her steak and dairy from Mennonite farmers, two hours drive away acoss croc-infested rivers and past steaming jungles in West Belize.
The Mennonites live life as if they’re in the Little House on the Prairie, stuck in time living as they did so many years ago. Shunning technology in favour of traditional methods, they may look weird in their blue dungarees and stetsons, but man, they produce the goods like they’re the Jedi knights of farming. And their steak – which Valerie, unusually for a French cook, actually showed to the grill – was delicious. Who needs progress when the past tastes this good?
4. Best regional classic: Rice and beans
With so much of the country situated in the Caribbean, how could rice and beans not feature in Belizean menus? There’s no doubt about who makes the best version – anyone who is a woman and over 40, a long-suffering wife and mum with a bottomless resevoir of love for her kith and kin. Experienced mum-food is often characterised by a small but tight repertoire of around 10 dishes, cooked countless times until highly personal and perfected. So it goes with rice and beans.
It sounds so simple, yet it can be so tasty. I remember when I simply had to get a recipe, but shunned the regular cookbooks (pointless reference sources for this kind of dish). In a market in Caribbean Grenada, I practically accosted this lovely old lady and quizzed her about her recipe. Pigeon peas were her secret ingredient but even those little beauties couldn’t rescue my sorry gruel.
No, the perfect rice and beans is all about a ruthlessly-protected secret recipe made over and over again until you feel that it’s all you have lived to do. So my favourite version was from a random street stall in San Ignacio, deep in the West Belize jungle (where we saw our first Mennoinite farmers, coincidentally). Naturally, it was made by a glorious mama, who had clearly been serving it up to her brood for years. Sorry Ainsley Harriot, but your recipe is shite.
5. Best side dish: Squash and onions
Ah Stephanie, your warmth would see us through a Russian winter, but it’s your food I’m honouring here once more. And this particular side dish is a breakfast speciality of Stephanie’s, who happens to be one of the most charismatic and loving cooks I have ever met.
It’s not an easy dish to get your head around at 7am, when your brain thinks it should be eating cereal or something equally uninspiring. However, I was mentally prepared. Previously, the most confusing breakfast I had was in Vegas. It was a salad that cost about $15. The most perplexing element was actually eating salad for breakfast. However, it was a buffet and I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in a week in America – and my body was literally promising me amazing things in return for a mere leaf or two. It really threw my tastebuds though, they just weren’t expecting it – indeed, they later compared it to coming out of a coma (until I countered that they had no refernce point for such a claim). And, my body kept its promise to go the extra mile; ever since, I have occasionally eaten some suspect food in seriously unhygenic places in the past 10 weeks – and haven’t heard so much as a whisper of protest from my guts.
Creating a new food dawn, at least for breakfast, really paves the way for future surprises, so powerful is its trick on the mind. And it certainly helped me to enjoy Stephanie’s spiced squash and onion as a tasty brekkie side dish in Crooked Tree. Sure, spiced pumpkin in the UK feels like quite a warming lunch or dinner side dish in late Autumn. Yet here, squash is ubiqitous, during breakfast, lunch and dinner, and quite rightly so – it tastes amazing.
Indeed, the way Stephanie cooked it, mincing the squash, shredding the onions, adding her special Belize spice mix, and adding in some garlic powder (fresh would create too harsh a flavour) was pure heaven. And incredibly healthy too – so much so that it gave me license to down a case of beer before lunch. Kidding. Only a quarter of a case.