Belizean food is simple, unpretentious, filling, and meaty. It’s an amalgamation of the cuisines of all the different ethnicities that make up the country, plus a combination of foods based on the country’s unique location – a kind of Central American vs. Caribbean mash-up. If you’re after delicate, sophisticated meals that are a marriage of presentation and taste, go to France. If you want heady aromas and spicy tastes, make a beeline for Thailand. If you’re a vegetarian, Indian food’s perfect. But if you just want to be filled up cheaply with protein and carbohydrates, meat and bread and rice, you can’t go too wrong in Belize.
Of the country’s various ethnicities, the Mestizos bring to the table foods that are now found all over Central America – burritos, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas, garnaches, panades – basically every combination of tortilla, beans, meat and cheese that you can possibly think of. And then a few more combinations that you never thought of. The Mestizos, being predominantly an inland culture, eat chicken and tortillas. Many many tortillas. In Spain, a tortilla is a potato-based omelette, but here it’s a flatbread made from either corn (maize) or wheat. The Spanish colonisers are responsible for the confusion, as they named the bread after the omelette, due to the resemblance between the two. Nowadays most tortillas are made by machines and sold to customers by the dozen, but there are plenty of villages where the women, taught as small girls by their mothers, still make them by hand, picking the corn, soaking it, drying it, grinding it into flour, then mixing and kneading and rolling the tortillas, and finally cooking them on a griddle over the fire-hearth.
My favourite Mestizo dish (probably my favourite Belizean dish) is Escabeche, a soup of chicken and an enormous quantity of onions (I thought it was onion soup when I first ate it, until I found the submerged chicken hiding at the bottom of the bowl), cooked in a clear broth flavoured with pepper (almost as much pepper as there is onion), chilli, lime and cilantro. It’s spicy, zesty, aromatic and delicious (it’s also purported to be a hangover cure, which may explain why I often eat it for lunch on Fridays). Other tasty meals are Relleno, a soup of chicken stuffed with ground pork (I told you the cuisine was meaty!) and Chilmole, a dish of meat served with a dark sauce made from, amongst other things, chilli and chocolate.
My least-favourite Mestizo dish is Tamales – popular and portable, the Latin American sandwich, a corn-based dough encasing a meat filling, all wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. The dough is always soft and squishy and the filling never seems to consist of filleted meat; so you bite into your first tamale, unaware of the tooth-breaking surprise lurking within, to find a whole chicken leg stuffed inside the wet dough. No thank you.
The Creoles live more on the coast than inland, so their diet has always consisted more of seafood than the Mestizos (although they love their chicken!). All their seafood dishes are delicious (crab, lobster, shrimp, even conch [pronounced conk, a large sea snail that often turns up as a fishy-smelling, rubbery-textured ingredient in a soup that’s apparently an aphrodisiac]). But the mainstay of their diet (as well as seemingly that of everyone else here) is the ubiquitous Rice and Beans. I don’t know of a single Belizean who doesn’t eat it. And most of the locals seem to eat it in one way or another every single day. Rice and beans is popular all over Latin America, so it’s a dish I’ll be seeing lots more of if I travel round the region after finishing here. In addition to Rice and Beans, there’s also Beans and Rice, which, believe it or not, is a separate dish – rice and beans consists of the two ingredients cooked together in the same pot; while beans and rice is where the two are cooked separately, the stewed beans poured over the rice at the end. You can have white rice or brown rice, red beans or brown beans or black beans, you can cook them in water or stock or coconut milk, but whichever way you look at it, to the uninitiated foreigner at least, it’s all rice and beans. The rice and beans / beans and rice combo is served with meat or fish – the standard is stewed chicken, but you can have anything, from pork to peccary (a wild pig), deer to armadillo (which is delicious and tastes a bit like chicken, like everything foreign and exotic does), pig tail (surprisingly meaty, who would’ve thought there’d be that much to a pig’s tail?), and gibnut (a large rodent, nicknamed the Royal Rat after it was served to Queen Elizabeth at a banquet in 1985. History doesn’t record whether she actually knew what she was eating at the time). As you now may have gathered, Belizeans eat plenty of game meat alongside their chicken.
My least-favourite Creole dish is a toss-up between Cow Foot Soup (basically a shin bone with small fatty lumps of meat clinging to it) and Dukunu – a fat, sausage-shaped cornmeal dumpling cooked in a banana leaf. Perhaps if I’d originally known that it was wrapped in a banana leaf I would’ve had a more pleasurable first eating experience. And the street-vendor wouldn’t have laughed at me quite so much…
Many local dishes use Recado, a combination of ground herbs and spices that people either mix themselves at home or buy ready-made from the store. Store-bought, it looks like a small red brick – annatto seeds give the recado its distinctive colour, as well as colouring all the foods that it’s in. The Mesoamericans also used annatto as sunscreen, insect repellant and lipstick. And before you think it’s a weird foreign thing, annatto’s used to colour everything, from Red Leicester cheese to margarine to custard powder. Just don’t get any on your clothes! Recado’s originally from Mexico, and the process of making it on an industrial scale involves burning large quantities of chilli peppers – this produces an acrid smoke so fierce that commercial recado-making has been banned from the centre of many Mexican towns!
Breakfast for most Belizeans consists of cereal or toast, but in a café or restaurant you can get fry jacks (fried pancakes) with bacon, eggs and beans, or some Johnny Cakes (unleavened cornmeal flatbread originally called Journey Cakes [as it’s what you took to eat on a journey], but now corrupted to Johnny Cakes). Or, for the health-unconscious, a Belizean specialty – a meat pie. That’s right. A meat pie. For breakfast. And they’re not even good meat pies, they’re just small pastry-covered bags of air.
Lunch is the ubiquitous rice and beans (usually with chicken), served with side-dishes of fried plantain, coleslaw and potato salad. The last two are the closest you’ll get to eating vegetables in this country! And with both made with full-fat mayonnaise, even they aren’t exactly the healthy option. Lunch is the main meal of the day and many schools, shops and offices close for an hour so that everyone can go home to eat. The meat, rice and beans might be followed with a sweet cake or pudding (Belize was colonised by the British, so don’t expect delicate desserts), and everything washed down a soft drink, a fruit juice (with added sugar of course!), or a heavily-sweetened tea or coffee (with condensed milk!).
Another thing that’s ubiquitous here is Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce. A condiment that’s found in almost everyone’s kitchen cupboards and on almost every restaurant’s table, it comes in various strengths (Mild, Hot, Fiery Hot, No Wimps Allowed, and Beware!) and utilises the infamous habanero chilli, one of the hottest peppers in the world. Spicing up the food (or burning the mouths, depending on how much sauce you use) of Belizeans has made Mrs Sharp a rich woman, I sailed past her private island on the way to Tobacco Caye last month.
Fortunately, it’s not all heavy, fatty food – one of the lightest, healthiest and tastiest things you can eat here (although I think it’s more of a snack or appetiser than a full meal) is Ceviche. Fresh and raw shrimp, lobster or conch (depending on the season), marinated in lime juice, mixed with chilli, cucumber, onion and tomato, and served with tortilla chips. The seafood is always as fresh as possible (it has to be, as it’s not being cooked with heat – the citric acid in the lime juice breaks down the seafood’s proteins, ‘cooking’ it chemically). It’s one of the few Belizean dishes that doesn’t have any fat in it. The vegetables make it the closest you’ll get to having a salad here. And it’s delicious (especially with a cold beer [although I’m not sure how healthy that part is]). And, being a tropical country, Belize is blessed with all manner of exotic fruits – bananas, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, coconuts; plus some less well-known ones, such as starfruit, custard apples and craboo.
Now, as tasty and natural as all the food is, most of it ain’t exactly healthy – meat with every meal, an almost total lack of vegetables, and too much fat (even the plantain is fried!) and sugar (all Belizeans have sweet teeth and eat cakes and biscuits or drink soft drinks or sweetened juice – some locals I know like to drink a combination of Coke or Fanta with condensed milk!). Add to that a society that beautifies big people (the men are especially fond of the, ahem, larger ladies) and looks down on any slim adults as being too skinny, plus more general issues that many countries have (the influence of American-style fast food, the consumption of more processed foods, increasing wealth, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle), and you have a potentially-serious nation-wide health problem. 15% of the population has diabetes, a chronic disease that can cause retinopathy (retina damage which can lead to blindness, something the staff here at the BCVI deal with regularly). A whopping 60% of Belizeans are overweight (which can lead to the aforementioned diabetes, as well as everything from cancer to heart disease [the country’s leading cause of death]). And 35% have hypertension (high blood pressure, a condition that can lead to heart attack and stroke). Even though there are many different contributory factors to each of these health issues, all of them are caused (at least in part) by diet.
Even I’ve put on weight, and I haven’t done that since 1998, when I left university and got my first proper job, started spending most of my time sitting in front of a computer (or in front of a TV) and finally stopped eating ramen noodles every day. I went up to a whopping 70 kilos (that’s 11 stone for the Brits and 154 pounds for the North Americans) and I’ve stayed that weight ever since. Apart from a few periods of weight loss (such as whilst travelling in India, when I used to evacuate half my body every time I went to the toilet), that’s been my heaviest weight. But since moving here even I’ve got bigger, I’ve put on 6 kilos. That’s an extra stone. I’m now 76 kilos. 168 pounds. 12 stone. I used to think 12 stone people were fat, now I’m one of them. Admittedly, I don’t have jowls, extra chins, man-boobs or bingo wings, but I do have a fat little stomach poking out over my trousers – my 32-inch-waisted trousers that I’ve popped the buttons off of and can no longer zip up properly. Every time I’m photographed I now have to remember to stand up straight and breathe in.
So, for the first time in my life, I’m actively trying to eat healthier – I’m no longer having two plates of dinner every night. I’m saving left-overs rather than eating them just for the sake of it. I’m trying to balance my excessive meat consumption with as many vegetables as I can. I’m cutting down on cakes and biscuits. And I’m drinking fruit juice with my rum, instead of Coke!