Belizean Cuisine. What does that mean? To be honest, when I was invited to taste the foods of Belize in December, I had no idea. A quick internet search told me that Belize had a national beer (Belikin), relied heavily on the habanero and that rice and beans were a signature dish. I found all of these things when I visited Belize, but I also found a diversity in food that complements its diverse people and landscape.
A change in location meant a different cuisine entirely. As I moved through Belize's landscape from the jungle to the sea and met its people, I saw a shift in cuisine. (When is the last trip where you visited both a Mennonite village and then danced with Garifuna, a culture descended from Carib, Arawak and West African people, in the same week?) At first glance, the continuity of beans, habaneros and even fry jacks might lead one to belive that meals were uninspired or standarized. But, close to the border I tried Mexican inspired meals and fell in love ceviche, further south I tasted the Mayan influence in dishes centered around corn or in Mayan-style pulled pork . I snacked on sweets made by Mennonite women with recipes passed down from their European ancestors and ate fresh fish for breakfast just like a Garifuna family.
I'll do my best to take you along on my all too brief tasting journey and help you know what to expect, dare I say, seek out, when you decide to visit Belize. Just a mere six days didnt afford me enough time (or stomach room) to try everything. In fact, my "to do" list of foods to try that I made before my trip still has work to be done. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but an attempt to share with you my most memorable meals.
In the shadows of darkness, two young men sit with drums at their feet. They begin to place their flattened palms to the deerskin. Faster and faster. One by one women dressed in long pleated skirts and light gauzy tops emerge from behind them, as if they are floating across the sand. I try to watch their feet to gain some sense of the rhythm. Left, left, right, right? Is that how it goes? My eyes can't keep up. Failing to discern, my gaze returns to the boys hands. What sort of rhythm were they keeping? My thoughts were interrupted by a loud voice calling out from the darkness and the rest of the women respond in song. I give up trying to understand and turn off my brain.
When I left for Belize in early December, I didn't anticipate bringing home anything with me other than a suntan. Instead, by the end of the week, I found myself with a huge crush on the habanero, particularly in the form of hot sauce made by Marie Sharp. Good thing a visit to the factory was on my itinerary.
"When you get a chance, go on Tripadvisor and leave me a review" Charlie, the owner of Las Palmas Hotel asked. "Postive, negative, I don't care. Just leave something." I bristled at his audacity, momentarily, but as Charlie began to tell us about the few reviews he did have on the ubiquitous site, I soon understood. "One person, they complained that we were roaming the property at night. Hell, of course we were, we wanted to make sure you were safe." "And then there's another complaining about the hotel not having any hot water," he said. He then went on to explain how he uses solar tanks to heat the water and while it might not be the warmest, it's certainly not cold. I could hear the exasperation in his voice and immediately recognized a kindred spirit, a fellow American that doesn't get our people. Why is it that when we leave home, we expect, dare say demand, to find the comforts of home elsewhere? How quickly do we forget that we're in another country and that despite what chain hotels have led us to believe, not everywhere is the same.
After just a few minutes in the hot sun, it was easy to understand why the Corozal market was a ghost town. By 8:30am, most of the locals had already done their shopping for the day and were already onto the next errand, breakfast. Instead of wandering the stalls like us tourists, they were huddled around taco stands or eating breakfast in the shade. Being off schedule afforded us the ability to wander through the stalls alone and gawk at the produce. Some of it was unmistakeable, a watermelon and pineapple are easy to spot. But those green citrus fruits, what are they? And how exactly does one tell the difference between a banana and a plantain? Let the wandering commence.