Belize Cuisine – Don’t Forget the Coconut!
It’s a cultural smorgasbord! It’s as varied and rich as the varied cultures that together make up Belizean cuisine. Belizean food can be as peppery and fiery as the heat of the tropical sun, or as cool and refreshing as the crystal clear Caribbean waters that wash the Belizean shores. Or it can be as light and bright as the hundreds of birds that sing in Belizean jungles, or as savory and earthy as the dozens of wildlife that roam her acres of primary forest.
With the addition of immigrants from India, mainland China, Nigeria and neighboring Central American countries over the years, Belizean cuisine also now has an added international flavor. And, particularly with the gastronomic rise in tourism in the past five years, European cuisine, as well as American favorites, have become as readily available as the stalwart Kriol (Creole) rice-and-beans, Mestizo chimole, Mayan caldo, Garifuna hudut or East Indian curried favorites – all dishes which, incidentally, can today be considered pan-Belizean.
What may certainly be noticed, regardless of the recipe’s heritage, is that in Belize the coconut is practically a household staple. The versatile coconut should be every ecologist and recycler’s model! Every single part of the coconut has some use: the dried husk for ornamental arts and for getting the fire going in a bar-b-cue; the water as a refreshing beverage or as a mixer with alcoholic drinks; the meat grated for its milk for a plethora of valuable uses, or in other preparations, like the distinctive coconut-flavored taste of Creole bread and bun. The dried grated coconut meat, after mixed with water and squeezed for its milk, provides the basis for many Belizean desserts. Like coconut pie and tarts, coconut crust (the grated coconut is sweetened with sugar and baked in a flour crust folded over like a patty), tablata, which is the grated coconut meat mixed with thin ginger slices, sugar and water, baked and cut into squares; there is also the version called cut-o-brute, which is made of chunks of coconut instead of the grated pieces; and then there is trifle, made with half green grated coconut, milk, flour, sugar, eggs, lemon essence, margarine and baking powder (think of it as coconut cake), and coconut fudge and coconut ice cream to mention just some of the delicious coconut-based dessert.
Beyond its distinctive, yet subtle culinary value, the versatile fruit also has numerous health and beauty benefits – and more are coming to light each year. For example coconut oil is used in commercial frying and as a component in many packaged goods such as candies, margarines, soap and cosmetics. Coconut oil, one of the few non-animal saturated fats, is used widely in the manufacture of baked goods such as commercial cookies. Certain major manufacturers have replaced it with the more expensive unsaturated fats with an eye toward cholesterol consciousness. The coconut palm’s hard shells can be used for bowls, the fiber for ropes and nets, the wood for building, the roots for fuel and the leaves for baskets, hats, mats and thatching. The flesh of unripe coconut (usually not exported) has a jellylike consistency and can be eaten from the shell with a spoon. Upon ripening, the flesh becomes white and firm. Fresh coconuts are available year-round, with the peak season being October through December.
What’s more, approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid, with the additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human or animal body. That’s a technical word for a “WOW!” of a super-hero to the human body: anti-viral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human or animal to destroy lipid coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria including listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia.
So, go ahead, enjoy the shade of that palm tree and when its fruit knocks you on the head, thank your lucky stars!