It was on a hot Sunday morning in Nassau when I tasted my first bowl of boiled fish. I slurped the savory broth and flaky, lime-scented grouper and my life was changed: The heat and flavor of the soup somehow balanced out the humidity of the day around me, and I felt renewed. I sat back in the small diner and wondered how I had visited the Bahamas so many times and never heard of this popular delicacy. But like much of true Bahamian culture, this dish isn’t something you’ll find on the tourist track.
I had traveled to a handful of the Bahamas’ 30 inhabited islands and sampled most of the cuisine I encountered there (including tasty dishes like chicken souse and guava duff), so I was intrigued when a Bahamian friend advised me to have “boil” for breakfast. When I questioned her about the dish, she waved away my inquiries and proclaimed it “the heart of Bahamas food.” That was enough reason for me. I set out early on a Sunday morning, when boiled fish is usually served, to discover what made this an essential meal. My driver took me to three local eateries, but each one was sold out of the boil. The morning was almost over, and my flight home was only hours away. The search started feeling desperate.
The driver rolled up to a small diner across from a cluster of faded houses. The sign read “Nassau Stadium” but the driver, like most locals, called it “Charlie’s Place.” A former boxing stadium that once hosted Muhammad Ali, the restaurant is now known across the city for its boiled fish. The driver explained that the owner, Charlie, caught his fish at 4 a.m. and started selling it by 6 a.m. I looked at the time in a panic: that was almost six hours ago.
When the waiter announced that they were all out, the devastation must have shown on my face, because a gray-haired man at a nearby table leaned over and instructed the waiter to give me the bowl of boiled fish he’d just ordered. I almost cried in gratitude. When the waiter placed the bowl in front of me, accompanied by two johnnycakes, the spicy aroma captured me. One bite of the tender grouper pieces and I immediately understood what my friend meant about the heart of Bahamas food. The freshness of the grouper and the simplicity of the broth combined to create a dish packed with flavor. It was hearty, yet light on the stomach, which explained why it was so hard to find on a Sunday morning—it’s the perfect hangover remedy. Boiled fish was the tastiest and most soothing dish I had ever sampled across the archipelago.
The history of Bahamian boiled fish can be traced to British and American influences. Poaching fish in a thyme and lemon broth is a hallmark of British cuisine, and the Bahamas was under British rule for 325 years, so the cultural crossover was perhaps inevitable. The Bahamian method of submerging fish in water, as opposed to only partially covering it, also borrows from the seafood boils brought by American settlers from Southern states following the American Revolutionary War. While Southern seafood boils typically use shellfish, the Bahamian whitefish boil (using grouper, mahi-mahi, snapper, or hogfish) still employs many of the same spices and vegetables in its mix of lime juice, thyme, bay leaf, clove, allspice, onions, celery, and potatoes. To make it even more of a comfort food, the meal is rounded out with a serving of either johnnycakes, sweet island bread, or grits.
Boiled fish is an authentic Bahamian breakfast dish throughout the year, but especially on Christmas and Easter. If you visit Nassau, drop by local eateries Nassau Stadium, Curly’s Restaurant or The Shoal Bistro to taste the magic. If you can’t wait, here’s the recipe.
Bahamian Boil Fish
Courtesy of Sandy Franks, Island Food Tours
- 2.5 lb. Nassau grouper fillet (can be substituted with other grouper or whitefish)
- 3 limes
- 2 onions, sliced
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 1 Tbsp. whole cloves
- 3 large potatoes, peeled and diced into medium-sized chunks
- 1 Tbsp. bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Bird pepper or goat pepper, for serving (optional)
Season fish with salt, pepper, and lime juice and allow it to marinate for one hour. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to boil and add salt. Add in the onions, butter, cloves, and bay leaves. Boil for a minute or two, then reduce heat slightly and add in potatoes. Continue cooking until potatoes are 80 percent done. (They should be slightly soft when pricked with a fork.) Add the fish and reduce heat to low. Cook on low for 15 minutes until the fish begins to flake. Remove bay leaves.
Season with salt, pepper, and lime juice to serve. Dish it up over yellow grits or alongside johnnycakes.