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Simple Food Done Well

BELIZE | Thursday, 21 April 2011 | Views [368]

Plantaños frying in Guatemala
Up until Belize, the food on our trip had been ok but nothing particularly noteworthy.

Guatemalan cuisine is certainly edible and functional - corn, rice, beans. Mom & I fought over the last of the 5 Q crispy plantaños, a perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up (particularly if properly salted and just out of the fryer!). We had had guacamole done every which way possible and then some. The famous Guatemalan KFC rival Pollo Campero is every bit as deliciously greasy as it's billed to be.

Now *that's* a mandoline! Slicing plantains for the fryer in Antigua.

But after nearly two weeks of eating  variations on 4 ingredients, it was becoming a bit same-same.

Our guesthouse in Cayo District of Belize employed an amazing cook, Mel. She instinctively knew how to season, put a lot of thought into the menus yet still came up with the night's dishes on the fly, clearly loved her job and did it well. We had tasty breakfasts and dinners of both western and Kriol influences - curry, jerk chicken, fry jacks, corn fritters - and sincerely praised them all.

Mel & I had an extensive discussion one day, mostly about food and during which she gave me her fry jack recipe.

Belizean Breakfast of fry jacks, beans and eggs.

You know you're talking with a good cook when they can not only rattle off the ingredients and quantities, but the instructions are simply "knead as for tortillas" and "cook it until it's done."

Mel's Fry Jacks

flour (1 pound)

baking powder (1T)

touch of oil

salt

- Knead as for tortillas
- Cut in quarters, deep fry

Fry jacks are a common Belizean breakfast and they're not going to win any heart smart awards. But as a fellow cook it's amazing to me and, dare I say, humbling: how tasty such a simple dish can be when executed well. (Likewise, how terrible it can be when done poorly.)

Another noteworthy dish in Belize is ceviche. Nearly every food culture up and down the coast of the Caribbean and Pacific has some version of this - including Guatemala, though the opportunity didn't present itself to try ceviche on that side of the border. Raw fish or seafood "cooked" in some form of acid - usually lime - and mixed with a variety of other seasonings from cilantro to onion and salt.

Conch ceviche - note the Marie Sharp's in the background!

We tried a dish in Caye Caulker at one of the countless beachfront open-air cafes. This particular version was made with conch - the first time I'd had conch that I could recall. Naturally, in that kind of environment, it's best if accompanied by a piña colada or other brightly coloured fruity drink with an elaborate garnish.

In this particular case, the latter was better than the former...Luckily I had a chance to try it again with another fish, as I wasn't a huge fan of this particular conch (chewy and an unpleasant aftertaste).

Coconuts doesn't have his mise done: ceviche on the snorkelling trip.

"Coconuts," one of our cheery Rastafarian sailing guides, prepared ceviche for the sundowner session on the Caribbean Sea as we made our way back to land. Reggae blared through blown out speakers as I offered to help with the mise: I couldn't help myself, it was too much to watch him prepping alone. After a few weeks away from the kitchen I was itching to get a knife back in my hand - and, after all, I had just spend 4 months learning how to chop an onion among other things.

My culinary instruction hadn't prepared me for a swaying boat, a rusty dull knife and a footstool as a prep area. (But we got it done, of course.)

Our other guide, Kevin, was responsible for the beverage service: thus, some kind of potent, fruity, brightly coloured rum punch was mixed. Though lacking in elaborate garnish, given our more rustic settings and the fact that our hosts had just taken me to snorkel with stingrays and sea turtles, I'll forgive this.

Now this was more like it - despite the rough knife cuts, the ceviche was perfect. Fresh, crisp, well seasoned and just the thing for floating on the Caribbean Sea.

And I wasn't complaining about the rum punch either.

We also dined on fresh grilled fish - the kind of place where you pick it out and then they whack it on the grill for you with minimal fuss - picnicked on Good Friday BBQ chicken with rice & beans, fit in some street food tamales from a cyclist that reckoned his were the best! - and of course consumed a brightly coloured and elaborately garnished fruity concoction.

Beachside spit roast. I'm not sure I'd want his job...then again, he's still in Belize and I'm not.

The first and key characteristic of Belizean food, though, we learned almost before crossing the border. It could be found on every table in the country, right next to the salt and pepper.

The national pride of Belize is Marie Sharp's, a hot sauce made from "all natural all local" ingredients including a great number of carrots.

And even greater number of habañeros - it completely blows your head off and is indeed unlike any other hot sauce out there (despite the better efforts of the habañeros, you can, actually, taste the carrots).

The best street tamales on Caye Caulker? Perhaps! (I only tried the one.)

This stuff goes on your fry jacks, the ceviche, any barbecue, grilled fish, rice, beans. Probably ice cream given the opportunity or inclination.

I also have no doubt that, in patriotic tribute, an enterprising backpacker bar has already invented a shot or 2-for-1 cocktail containing the Marie Sharp's (most likely complete with four kinds of alcohol, fruit, loud colours and an elaborate garnish).

Simple's not an insult. Is Italian food "simple"? Just ask all the people who have come back from Italy perplexed by having average tourist food ("I thought it was a foodie destination!"  - Sure, it can be with research, connections, language skills and/or dumb luck, or you can try Vietnam and drastically increase your chances).

Hummus has 5 ingredients at its most basic - but cook those chickpeas wrong and your digestive system will be a bit cranky with you.

Simple, done well, is anything but. Mel at Cohune Palms in Belize knows it for sure - and despite the blunt knife,  so does Coconuts.

Tags: belize, ceviche, food, guatemala

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