Belize – An Adventure in Cooking
A trip to Belize is not a short jaunt from Canada no matter which side of the country you live on. Despite being just south of Mexico, flight fares are steep and options are few. Or so I thought. That’s because I was only looking at it from one direction – fly from Canada to Belize. Price tag =$1,200 (USD) one way. Ouch. That’s one expensive little ride.
For years I lusted after the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, dreamed of drifting through the atolls off the Belizean coast in a small boat and an adventure that I had seen in the glossy pages of National Geographic. Until one day a well traveled friend suggested looking at this trip from a different direction. Pick up a cheap flight into Cancun and then book a regional flight from Cancun into Belize City (Island Regional flies once daily between Cancun and Belize City). Genius.
Halifax to Cancun = $600 USD (round trip) + Cancun to Belize =$300 USD (round trip). Suddenly there was no justifiable reason not to enjoy the benefits of turquoise water therapy.
While Belize itself was enchantment – lush jungle, magnificent beaches and spectacular reefs – its people were a joyful revelation. English speaking and highly educated it’s easy to connect and pursue deep conversations about life… love… and cooking.
My journey took me to Glover’s Reef National Park and the expedition resort of Island Adventures on the Southwest Caye where I slept in a canvas cabana on the beach and spent hours untangling my hair after days of saltwater and braids.
A Canadian based adventure tour company based out of Vancouver, Island Adventures, were kind enough to allow me access to their kitchen and their Belizean cooks, Phillip Matinez and Amy Migel.
I met Amy as she arrived on the island for her two week shift and was busily sorting the pantry, sweeping the floor and generally getting organized. A whirlwind of force, chatting a mile a minute on the subjects of food, family, guests and what’s on tonight’s menu. I notice a laminated menu on the wall and start reading, she says waives a hand in the general direction of the menu “we cooks as we feels” she says. I expected nothing less in the Caribbean, from a Belizean woman.
Like most working cooks, Amy learned at the knee of her mother and grandmother cooking for her family “there’s nothing I like more” she said, her big eyes earnest, her smile wide “are you going to cook with us?”
Oh God. The pressure. “If it’s ok with you I’ll just learn.” “Yeah, that’s ok too, we’ve got lots to teach you” she replied. I imagined she was right.
Island Cooking Education
My education began the next day with Phillip. A bear of a man in a bright red apron, who loves his mother and her cooking. Phillip smiles with his whole face. Not just the eyes and the mouth – but his entire face. And because of that, he makes me feel instantly comfortable. The kitchen, when he is in it, is calm and orderl, but not quiet.
In the heat of the afternoon, with the radio blaring island music they indulge me with recipes representative of Belizean Cuisine and tales from their Garifuna heritage.
Johnny Cakes and pineapple jam, plantain, dukunu (Belize style tamale), the difference between rice & beans and beans & rice and the wonders of coconut, which are plentiful and fresh, knocked from the tree, shucked and ground fresh, on-the-spot with a torturous looking device bolted to a picnic table and a handheld grater that made me fear for fingers.
“We use a lot of coconut” says Phillip “it tastes good”.
That’s for sure. Coconut milk, coconut cream, grated coconut, sweetened coconut, coconut oil. It is in everything.
When we say “expedition kitchen”, we mean expedition kitchen.
The kitchen is wooden box on stilts above the beach, about 20 x 12, with side shutters that open to the breeze, a four burner stove, one oven, and four additional open burners on the counter, a prep sink, prep boards and a large pantry. Despite the fans, on a hot day, it’s a very hot kitchen.
Thankfully there is a prep area outside, where dishes are washed and juices is squeezed and on the occasion when the cooks find the rice is not to their liking, it’s rice is sorted (by hand) in the shade. It’s a gathering place for staff and the best place to jot down a recipe.
By its nature, it’s a rustic style of cooking, and because of its remote location it requires a great deal of planning. The nearest ‘corner store’ is in Dangriga which is 40 miles away, by boat. No refrigeration means meats are frozen, then kept on ice, fish caught fresh and milk comes in a can. Or a coconut.
Yet every day, three times a day, amazing meals emerged, conch stew, butter basted chicken, Creole shrimp, fresh barracuda with lime, and treats! Among them, a traditional dessert so comforting and perfectly spiced it made us all want the recipe.
Sweet Potato Pudding (known in Belize as “Pone”). This is recipe comes from Phillip’s mother and her mother before that; refined (just slightly) by the addition of nutmeg to make it spicier, it is a rich, creamy smooth custard with a firm, sweet top. Made with sweet potatoes, which are loaded with nutrients and super high in potassium, I could make a case for Sweet Potato Pone being good for you.
The next day, out the back door of the kitchen, I discovered that it is even better served cold. Firmer, richer. The spices set and steeped. The spicing is reminiscent of carrot cake or a Christmas pudding but the texture is creamy, more akin to a dense flan. To hungry travelers after a day of sea kayaking and snorkeling it was pure, sweet ambrosia.
A taste of Belize from Phillip’s kitchen, Belizean Sweet Potato Pudding under Food Gypsy recipes.
By now you’re asking yourself; what is the difference between rice & beans and beans & rice? Rice & beans is a traditional staple in Belize – white rice (often cooked with coconut) and red beans. It’s a colorful side dish to pretty much anything. Beans & rice however are completely different; the beans are cooked separately and spooned over rice in their own gravy. (And you thought I was joking.)
Adventures in eating. Enjoy.
Special thanks to… Amy Migel & Phillip Matinez for their hospitality in the kitchen and Mike Lesley, Jaime Sharp, Bernaldo Viafranco, Denver Willson-Rymer from Island Expeditions for the adventure of a lifetime. Really.
Note from Gypsy: This is a little video I had some fun with, to tell the tale a different way. It really did, get my body in motion!