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Weh gaan ahn and welcome to Belize. Towards the end of last year we took a trip down memory lane and re-visited this special Central American nation. Two years previously we were fortunate enough to celebrate our wedding nuptials in beautiful Ambergris Caye on the Caribbean coastline. Different nationalities and loved ones spread near and far (plus a host of other great reasons) played into our hands and made for an unforgettable experience. So any opportunity to rehash those memories was gladly accepted...even if it was just from the confines of our humble kitchen.
As we and our thirty friends and family quickly discovered, the food is something else. You'd think that crystal clear water, stunning coral, plethora of wildlife, Mayan ruins and never-ending sunshine would each be a calling card in themselves, right? Throw in good food and suddenly a one-way ticket never appealed so much. Perhaps it's the difference in cuisine to our Western fare or the exuberance of being on holiday, but it sure captured our taste buds. So what makes Belizean cuisine different? To answer that, it's worth taking a step back and hearing a little more about the country's multiethnic population and rich history.
Over the course of the last thousand years, and some more, Belize has been ruled by the Mayans, Spanish and British. Many of the food and cooking techniques were adapted from the early settlers and then combined with the vibrant African and Caribbean influences that emerged post slavery. In more recent times, immigrant groups from the likes of China, Lebanon, India and neighbouring countries (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) have added variations to the everyday cuisine. As a result of this, Belize showcases a heady mixture of many regional traditions and habits but with a unique spin. For most visitors, it is the similarity to Mexican cuisine that draws most of the comparisons.
Rice and beans is undoubtedly the staple in Belize, as it is for most countries in that area of the world. Often cooked in coconut milk, the dish is served alongside your choice of pork, beef, chicken, lobster, shrimp or game meat, such as the prized gibnut. The latter is a giant rodent, also called the 'royal rat' because it was served to Queen Elizabeth at a state dinner when she visited Belize. These meat portions are typically grilled, fried or stewed and accompanied by the national sauce of choice, Marie Sharp habanero pepper sauce. Our Norwegian friend, Viktoria, learned very quickly how hot it really is after taking a shot of it during our rehearsal dinner! The sauce also doubles as one of the best gifts in the souvenir shop, provided you can get it past customs back home. One of the standout features for us was the fresh and relatively inexpensive seafood. The lobster tails in garlic butter and lime were simply outstanding and quickly landed on our dinner plates the first couple of nights.
Other popular food choices include ceviche, especially those made with conch, local tacos, burritos and tamales, a true Mayan staple generally consisting of chicken or pork within a cornmeal roll wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves. During our Belizean adventure, we also stayed inland at a small farmhouse near the Belize-Guatemala border. Each day we ate homemade corn and flour tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To this day, it may be the best repeat meal we have ever tasted. Not to be outdone, the sweet foods are classic tropical fare and include Soursop fruit ice cream, fry jacks, cassava pudding and Belizean fruit cake, a rum cake popular around holidays. Oh, and you can also buy giant pickles by the gallon as our Canadian friends discovered!
Washing the meals down is a choice of the Carribean's finest cocktails, locally made rum and whisky or Belize's national beer, Belikin. Belikin Beer is synonymous with Belize. Belikin is one of the ancient Maya names for Belize and means 'Road to the Sea'. The beer is made in the style of a German pilsner and easily holds its own against imported varieties. It helps when imported beer is heavily taxed by the government and more famous brews from neighbouring Mexico and Guatemala are prohibited. As our friend, Taylor, will attest to, an ice cold Belikin is mandatory at all times.
So when it came to our take on Belizean cuisine, we didn't need to look far. Our main dish was Cochinita Pibil, a traditional Yucatec-Maya slow roasted pork dish served alongside rice and beans and homemade tortillas. Preparation involves marinating the meat in an acidic sour orange juice flavoured with annatto seed paste (a local spice known as recado), garlic, allspice and onion. The dish was then slow cooked in the oven until the meat was succulent and tender. Served alongside fresh home-made corn tortillas and guacamole, it's an absolute winner!
Our Belizean made Cristal Parrot Rum was pulled out for the occasion to fashion Karla's second love, the piña colada. For something sweet to eat, we turned to powder buns or 'pow-da buns'. The combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, fluffy texture and a sugary crust makes it irresistible. It is a staple snack in many Creole (of African descent) households up and down the country. Capping off our dinner, we were joined by Aaron's parents who were down for the weekend in Christchurch!
Tortilla press or heavy cutting board
Cast iron skillet
Medium pot or pressure cooker
Mortar and pestle
Yield: 16 tortillas
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Corn Tortilla ingredients:
1 ¾ cups masa harina
1 cup + 2 tablespoons hot tap water
2 tablespoons water, at room temperature
Corn Tortilla method:
1. Using a wooden spoon, mix masa harina and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of hot tap water in a large mixing bowl. Cover it and allow to rest for 30 minutes.
2. Begin kneeding the masa harina and water mixture with your hands. Add 2 more tablespoons of cool water (one at a time) for the dough to reach an ideal texture, where it is still soft without being sticky (similar to Play-Doh). If, for some reason, it is dry (looks like it is cracked), add a little more water. Or if it is too wet (or sticky), let it sit on the kitchen counter uncovered for it to dry out for a little bit or add more masa.
3. Divide the dough into 16 golf-ball size pieces. Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel.
4. Cut sides of a ziplock bag to make it a large rectangular piece. Lay it on the tortilla press (or use a heavy cutting board), making sure it covers both the upper and bottom parts of the press.
5. Place a piece of dough in the ziplock bag, close the press and push it down. Gently peel back the top layer of the bag, and transfer it to your hand. Place it on a baking sheet and cover it with a kitchen towel. Continue with pressing the rest.
6. In the mean time, heat a cast iron skillet in medium heat for 10 minutes. You want to make sure it gets really hot.
7. When you are ready to cook, place a tortilla on the skillet and let it cook for 15 seconds. At first it will stick, but then, if your temperature is right, it will come off easily for you to flip it. Let it cook for another 30-45 seconds or until it is lightly browned.
8. As tortillas are cooked, transfer them in a basket lined with a kitchen towel. Allow them to continue cooking with the steam (from their own heat) inside the basket for at least 10 more minutes before serving.
Belizean Rice and Beans
Belizean Rice and Beans ingredients:
1 lb / 450g beans (black or kidney)
½ tspblack pepper
½ tsp thyme
1 tsp salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium onion, sliced
1 cup coconut milk
2 lbs / 900g rice
1 small pig's tail or salted beef or pieces of bacon (optional, trim fat)
6-8 cups water
Belizean Rice and Beans method:
1. Soak beans for 4-6 hours.
2. Boil beans until tender with garlic, onion, and pig's tail, salted beef, or bacon pieces. You can use a pressure cooker to cut down on the time.
3. Season beans with black pepper, thyme, and salt.
4. Add coconut milk. Stir and then let boil.
5. Clean rice.
6. Add clean rice to seasoned beans. Stir, then cover. Cook until rice is tender. If necessary, add more water gradually.
Yield: 8 servings
Prep Time: 3-12 hours
Cook Time: 4 hours
Cochinita Pibil ingredients:
4-5 lb pork shoulder or pork leg, bone in
1½ tbsp salt
5 garlic cloves
2 tsp cumin
1½ tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1½ all spice
½ tsp whole cloves
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tbsp Mexican oregano
2 tbsp red recado, diluted to form paste (see below for recipe)
1½ cups sour orange juice
2 medium onions, quartered
2 medium green bell peppers, quartered
¼ cup cilantro, minced
Cochinita Pibil method:
1. Score the fat of the shoulder and rub the whole pork shoulder with salt. Set aside and begin the marinade: combine all the dry spices: salt, cumin, black pepper, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, and oregano. Mix all dry spices together with sour orange juice until uniform. Add red recado paste.
2. Place the pork shoulder in a large bowl or large ziplock bag with the marinade. Turn the pork to coat in entirely. Allow to marinade at least 2-3 hours, preferably overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Cut onions in half and place in the bottom of slow cooker. Place marinaded pork on top of onions.
4. Pour the rest of the marinade over the pork.
5. Cook on low, for 12 hours, or on high for 6 hours.
6. Shred pork and serve on warm corn tortillas.
Red Recado ingredients:
½ tbsp achiote seeds
½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ tbsp black peppercorns
½ tsp cumin seeds
3 whole cloves
2 tsp dried oregano
5 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
1-2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Red Recado method:
1. Sift flour and yeast into a bowl.
1.Grind the first 6 ingredients to a powder in an electric spice mill. Achiote seeds are very hard, so it will take a little time.
2. Crush the garlic with the salt in a mortar, then gradually work in the ground spices. A hot red chili pepper could be added; crush it with the garlic. Moisten with the vinegar so you have a smooth paste.
3. Put the paste into an airtight container to dry. Recado will keep for several months if refrigerated.
Yield: 12-15 buns
Prep Time: 20-40 minutes
Cook Time: 15-20 minutes
Powder Buns ingredients:
2 cups flour
½ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup raisins
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
½ cup coconut milk
1 cup young fresh coconut, shredded
Powder Buns method:
1. Preheat oven to 350°F / 176°C.
2. Crack the coconut and grind out the meat. Allow the coconut water to drain over a bowl. Once the coconut is drained pull the meat from the shell. Make sure that the coconut meat doesn’t have any bark on it.
3. After grating the coconut, strain out the coconut milk.
4. Sift 2 cups of flour and add butter, mixing by hand until the mixture is crumbly.
5. Mix together the sugar, raisins, spices, baking powder, and ground coconut.
6. Beat eggs, vanilla, and coconut milk. Combine wet ingredients with dry ingredients slowly. Final dough is moist and sticky.
7. Use a spoon to drop large spoonfuls on a lined baking sheet and sprinkle generously with course brown sugar.
8. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
9. Broiling for a minute or two after baking for a nice browned crust on the powder bun.
Here are some interesting tidbits about the country:
Belize's cave systems are some of the best and most extensive in the world. Within these subterranean networks exists another world steeped in the mystery, religion, and tradition of the ancient Maya. One of our most unforgettable experiences was horseback riding through the jungle and stepping into an undocumented cave system containing Mayan artefacts and ceremony rooms alive with jaguar symbolism. Throw in more well known caves such as ATM and Barton Creek, and Belize is a dream destination for cave explorers and 'Indiana Jones' type thrill-seekers.
The national animal of Belize is a biological mix of a horse and a rhinoceros but is named Mountain Cow. Locally, it’s known as tapir and looks like a giant Guiana pig, weighing over 500 pounds/227 kilograms.
In 1971, famed marine biologist Jacques Cousteau discovered the Great Blue Hole, a unique diving site in the middle of an offshore coral atoll. The Great Blue Hole is regularly voted as one of the top 10 best diving sites in the world. It sits on the edge of the second-largest barrier reef system in the world, the Belize Barrier Reef. Only Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is larger!
Playing volleyball in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
Last year our country counter ticked 49 when we visited Southern Africa. Every one of those places is special in their own way but if you were to ask us which is our favourite, Belize sits at the top of that list. Although we saw plenty, there are still so many spots we'd love to visit or re-visit. Here's a couple of those places:
Spot a jaguar at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's only jaguar reserve as well as one of the best places in the world to see this awesome creatures.
Scuba dive one of the many reefs up and down the coastline and cayes. Near the southern end of Belize is Gladden Spit, a hotspot for whale watchers. It would be unreal to see the magnanimous whale shark up close!
Cave-tube one of the many water-filled caves.
Next week it's back to the Pacific as we wrap up the last one or two island nations remaining. Join our subscribers list to receive updates on new posts!
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