When people think of Belize, the first things that usually come to mind are the world class dive sites, the pristine rainforests, the remnants of the vast Maya Empire dotting the landscape, and the warm friendly smiles of the Belizeans.
Let’s not forget another major attraction – Belizean food.
Belizean cuisine reflects the little country’s multicultural populace and colourful history. Add all the varied ingredients starting from early Maya settlement through to the pirate past, the British settlers, the vibrant African influences, the attempted Spanish conquest, the Mennonite farming communities and the more recent influx of many other cultures and you have a recipe for something very special indeed.
Meals that originated thousands of years ago are still served every day in Belize. Tamales, for example, have their origin in the earliest Maya cuisine, as does the savoury pibil style of cooking meats. Barbeques got their start with the Buccaneers, whose name comes from buccan, an Arawak word for smoking meat, an occupation pirates busied themselves with while on shore or traded to keep a supply of meat aboard their vessels. Our Belizean barbeques are a throwback to the days of pirates standing around the cooking meat drinking ale or rum and swapping stories.
Not much has changed, has it?
Arawak cooking, combined with African influences, also survives today in Garifuna cooking. And meals such as sere, cassava bread and hudut hold their own place in the Belizean culinary honour roll.
The Spanish influences are apparent in much of the spices, and from the British palate we have a taste for bread, the styles of beer (we’re thinking Belikin beer and stout here), cheeses and other staples.
The list of influences is far too long to list here, but you get the idea. The term “melting pot” extends to the kitchen as well as the populace.
In the coming weeks we’ll be posting our favourite Belizean recipes, and to begin, here is a primer of Belizean cuisine. Again, a complete list would be far too large to post here, so I’ll begin with my personal top favourite meals and snacks that are readily available when you’re feeling peckish in the Jewel.
Rice and Beans
This Belizean staple is without a doubt the most ubiquitous meal in Belize. From north to south, east to west and out on the cayes, you won’t go anywhere without coming across rice and beans. Every location, indeed, every family has its own variation, but all start with the basics – rice and RKs, or red kidney beans. Cooks will then add more or less recados (an achiote based flavouring and colouring agent) and other spices, some coconut milk or none, and they can be moist or drier. However prepared, a meal without rice and beans is truly like a Belizean day without sunshine.
The perfect platemate to rice and beans, stew chicken is another ever-present dish that arrives on the table in any number of subtle variations. At its best, it is a sublime mix of spices and melt-in-the-mouth tender chicken, and at its worse it’s not bad at all. Served with the rice and beans and a scoop of Belizean potato salad, stew chicken (and its cousins pork and beef) makes for a filling and tasty meal any time of day.
Dating back well before the time of Christ, this Maya staple also comes in many guises, from straight out of the pot to wood smoked and are delicious hot or cold. A variety of fillings, often with chicken or pork, make up the centre of a cornmeal roll which is wrapped in corn husks and steamed or boiled into something magical. While many people may be familiar with the Mexican version served in restaurants north of the border, the Belizean tamales are the real deal; virtually unchanged for thousands of years and just as delicious today as they were when gracing the tables of both the Maya royalty and the most humblest of homes.
This is another dish that goes back a long, long way, and while most coastal and island cultures have variations on seafood “cooked” with citrus juices (Tahiti’s exquisite poisson cru comes to mind, as does Fiji’s delectable Kokoda) Belizean ceviche is in a class of its own. Simply, the seafood is marinated in lime juice with onions, garlic, habanero peppers and other ingredients and allowed to sit for a while. The complexity comes with the individual touch of each cook, and that can make a huge difference. With the Caribbean and Belize Great Barrier Reef attracting a huge variety of fish and home to a wide assortment of shellfish, ordering ceviche in Belize is always a good bet.
Salbutes and Garnaches
These delectable little appetizers are also a quick lunch for many people, and are often used as a pep-me-up when ordered from a cart during a night of clubbing. Common throughout Yucatan and other parts of Mexico and Guatemala, I’m partial to the Belizean versions. Basically, garnaches are little tortillas fried and topped with beans, shredded onion and cabbage and cheese. Salbutes are a bit more complex, with more care going into the base, which will often have recados and other spices and is usually softer in texture. Once again, it’s the little nuances that set them apart, and great garnaches or salbutes are simply delicious.
Another culinary gift to the world from the Maya, pibil is pork at its best – marinated and very slow roasted to a fall-apart tender deliciousness. Not much has changed with this dish since its earliest incarnations thousands of years ago, when whole suckling pigs were marinated, wrapped in leaves and buried in hot pits and covered with stones and a fire to slowly cook to perfection. These days it’s more likely to be various cuts of pork, and sometimes aluminium foil and ovens are employed, but the ingredients remain the same, and that, combined with the slow cooking, is what makes this dish so special. Wrapped in tortillas, pibil brings finger lickin’ good to a whole new level. If you have a chance to try pibil, jump at it!
There you go. People have their own favourites, but I don’t think there will be much argument that these are six of the best that Belize has to offer. In the coming weeks we’ll be posting some more dishes and actual recipes, so that wherever you are in this world, you can enjoy the best of Belize at home.
So stay tuned and happy dining.