A 60-second intro to Belizean food

Illustration for article titled A 60-second intro to Belizean food
Photo: alexander ruiz, Annika12, jaboticaba, LRArmstrong (iStock)

I’m holding an oar-sized wooden pestle called a hana and doing my best to pound a pile of starchy green plantain into submission, and Dian Martinez, cook at the Queen Bean Restaurant & Bar in Hopkins, Belize, is teasing me. Work harder, she says, work faster! Ideally the plantain should be a smooth, sticky paste, but the chalky lumps inside the mortar (called a hanoudua) reveal that I’m pretty much doing a crap job. My arms aching, I hand the hana back to Martinez in resignation, and with a look of practiced exasperation she gets to work expertly blitzing the plantain.

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The dish Martinez is making is hudutu baruru, a coconut fish stew served with mashed plantains that’s one of the most widely enjoyed foods in Belize. Hudutu (which is pronounced “hood-ut,” with the final U being silent) is both Honduran and Belizean, and is one of only a few dishes that can be considered “pan-Belizean.” That’s unusual, says Dr. Lyra Spang, a Belizean cultural anthropologist who wrote the book Bite Yu Finga!: Innovating Belizean Cuisine. Belize is a small country (about the size of New Jersey, with fewer than 400,000 total residents), and it doesn’t really have a national cuisine. Instead, the country’s many cultural and ethnic groups maintain their own specific food cultures.

Hudutu is a dish with many influences, though. It was introduced to Belize by the Garifuna (who are also known as the Garinagu in other countries), a people originally from the island of St. Vincent and descended from indigenous Carib islanders who blended with escaped west African enslaved people. The plantain in hudutu takes its cue from the African dish fufu (also sometimes spelled foo foo), while the stew itself is more immediately Caribbean and is made from fragrant, freshly pressed coconut milk (no canned stuff here), coconut oil, fresh oregano and basil, chopped or crushed fresh garlic, and salt and black pepper.

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Some cooks like Martinez like to add habanero and whole blanched okra to their hudutu. Rosita Alvarez, a Belizean Garifuna cultural leader in Brooklyn, New York, says she includes tender, fatty salted pig tail, which is a Belizean delicacy. But the primary protein in hudutu is fish—either poached in the broth itself or pan-fried before it’s added to the pot—and the final touch is the mashed plantain, made from a combination of both green and ripe plantains that are boiled, pounded, rolled into balls, and dipped into the sweet-savory broth.

“Hudutu is meaningful in that it represents the culture,” says Dr. Kristina Baines, an assistant professor of anthropology at CUNY’s Guttman Community College. Baines researches Maya and Garifuna communities in both Belize and Brooklyn and runs the blog Cool Anthropology with her co-founder/co-director and wife Victoria Costa. She believes hudutu is special in part because it’s so time- and labor-intensive, which gives people an opportunity to gather. While part of the draw is that it’s delicious, she says,“It’s not so much about the food, it’s about coming together and speaking Garifuna and coalescing around Garifuna culture in the time that it takes to prepare all the elements of hudutu.”

Belize sits on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Central America and was colonized by the British, who named the country “British Honduras” (a moniker shed in 1973) and brought in people from Africa as slaves and from India as indentured servants. Belize shares borders with Guatemala to the west, Mexico to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and Honduras to the south. Coastal Belize is postcard perfect, with swaying palm trees, beachside huts, and iconic underwater spots like The Great Blue Hole. The interior of the country is dense jungle studded with massive Maya ruins and pyramids.

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Unlike in the Caribbean islands, where the production of agricultural crops like sugarcane was often a focus, Spang says that the emphasis in Belize was on logging and that “the British actively discouraged agriculture.” There are some exceptions—it’s theorized the British introduced rice to Belize—but when slavery was abolished the colonialists made it difficult for native Belizean people to obtain titles for land. As a result, most farming was subsistence-based and took place on very small plots of land owned by individual families.

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These days agriculture in Belize includes cash crops such as coffee and cacao, and also often involves ground food, which Baines says has a very specific connotation in Belize. “Typically it means anything in the banana family, like plantains. In addition to that it means what you might think of as ground food, like tubers which grow under the ground.” That includes yams, sweet potatoes, and cassava (also known as yuca or manioc in other countries).

Rosita Alvarez says that three key Garifuna dishes that include ground food ingredients are barasa, a type of steamed dumpling similar to a tamale made from green plantains that are peeled, grated, seasoned with black pepper and salt, and sometimes mixed with ingredients like fresh onion and green bell pepper (which is Alvarez’s own preference). That mash is then mixed with oil, formed into a shape like a tamale, steamed in foil, and served with stewed fish, chicken, pork, or pig tail. She also mentions ereba, a type of thin, fibrous bread made from cassava flour, and frita, a type of thin fritter made from grated and seasoned green plantain.

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In addition to discouraging agriculture, the British also prioritized their own culture over that of the indigenous peoples of Belize. As a result, foods eaten by the British came to carry certain class associations. “They told everyone that what they had locally was crap and that everything British and European was far superior to anything native and local,” says Spang. Belizean families in the middle or upper class subsequently ate as many imported or British foods as possible, which primarily meant food out of cans or barrels.

Tea also became an important commodity in Belize, and while younger Belizeans prefer coffee (which, unlike tea, can be grown in the region), older Belizeans still prefer black tea. To this day amongst Kriol people breakfast is sometimes still called tea da morning, lunch is called dinna, and the evening meal (dinner) is called tea da evening.

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Tanya McNab, the founder and creative director of the Belizean design firm McNab Visual Strategies, was also the founder of Belize’s only food magazine, Flavors of Belize. She and her family are Kriol, a group of people descended from Europeans and the African people they brought to Belize to work as enslaved loggers. McNab says that the influence of the British is particularly evident in Kriol food and that popular dishes are fry jacks, a light, deep-fried puffy bread typically eaten at breakfast, and johnnycakes (originally known as journeycakes), a dense, flat bread descended from the hardtack eaten by the British on long sea voyages. Flaky meat pies filled with ground beef are another dish descended from the British, and the Kriol platter known as Sunday dinna—a plate of rice and beans, stewed chicken with plantain, and potato salad—is said to be Belize’s unofficial national dish.

An unusual artifact of British colonialism is that Belize became a safe haven for Southern plantation owners during and after the American Civil War. Prior to the end of British slavery in 1833 steamship routes were established between Belize and coastal southern states such as Louisiana. When the war began to turn in favor of the North, some Confederates fled to Belize, hoping to reestablish the sugarcane plantations that had brought them great wealth.

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The problem for the newly arrived Confederates was that they carried their attitudes with them, and they were not welcomed by the native Belizeans. Stripped of the ability to own slaves and lacking manpower, the Confederates turned to the British colonialists, who responded by providing indentured servants from India. Those people—some of whom were also employed by the colonial government—were referred to as East Indians and introduced ingredients such as turmeric, cardamom, and curry. Spang says that while the Confederates did not leave a recognizable cultural food legacy, the spices and flavors introduced by the East Indians remain prominent.

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In addition to the Garifuna, Kriol, and East Indians, Belize is home to the Maya, who also live in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and a sliver of El Salvador; and the Mestizo, a group whose heritage is a mix of indigenous peoples and those with Spanish ancestry.

“In the north you can expect the food to be very Yucatán inspired,” says Tanya McNab. “You see a lot of corn-based foods, but that have sort of been transformed. Not exactly how you’d see it in Mexico, as those Mexican influences have been fused with Maya and Belize.” An example are tamales, another pan-Belizean dish made from corn masa dough filled with either chicken or pork and then steamed. Tamalitos and dukunu (tamales made from young green corn) are steamed in corn husks, while tamales made from mature corn are wrapped in waha leaf.

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Maya and Mestizo cuisine makes frequent use of annatto, a vibrantly colored orange-red seasoning often associated with southern Mexico that is made from the dried seeds of the fruit of the achiote tree. Annatto is the defining ingredient in recado, a paste made from annatto ground with onion, garlic, black pepper, allspice seeds or cloves, salt, and vinegar.

Recado can be purchased in any market and can be found in two colors: red (described above) and black, which takes its color from the addition of carbonized, ground up corn tortillas. Red recado is used to make foods like the Maya dish caldo, a chicken soup with a clear, red-tinted broth, and escabeche, an onion soup made with chicken and vinegar, both of which are eaten with handmade corn tortillas. Black recado is used to make dishes like chimole (aka “black dinner”), a black-tinted soup that includes grilled or roasted chicken and hard boiled eggs.

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There’s also one particular food item that seems to appeal to seemingly all people in Belize: Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. Made from a base of habanero peppers and carrots, the orange hue of Marie Sharp’s original flavor is immediately recognizable and completely iconic in Belize. “Marie Sharp, besides the Blue Hole, is the next name that’s synonymous with Belize,” says McNab. “It is everything that it appears to be. It is on every table, in every restaurant. A lot of people make their own homemade habanero hot sauce, but it’s an iconic local product.”

More recent arrivals to Belize include a relatively small community of Chinese immigrants, Spanish-speaking people from other parts of Central America, and Mennonites, who generally don’t blend with the Belizean people but have become major players in the country’s industrial agriculture industry. It’s a large, mixed group of cultures and people, all of whom have maintained a grip on their identities. This helps to make Belizean food complicated, unique, and worth seeking out.

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Jacob Dean is a food and travel writer and psychologist based in New York. He likes beer, less traveled airports, and is allergic to grasshoppers (the insect, not the mixed drink.)

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DISCUSSION

Tap-Dancin- Vaudeville Penguin

Very fine writing here!

What does plantain taste like? It doesn’t taste banana-ish, does it?