As we discovered in a previous blog, everything is not always as it seems. Cashew nut is in fact a fruit and chocolate comes from a seed. This month we talk a little about one of Belize’s favorite foods, Conch; where it lives, how its caught, how its cooked and how… it’s a snail!
If you are eating conch in Belize, you are most likely eating Queen Conch. Horse Conch or mai mula as it is locally known is also eaten especially in ceviche but sadly it is now rare and considered a delicacy. Queen Conch is a large sea snail that can be found close to the reef in shallow water in the sand or seagrass. Conch don’t like to stay in one place and tend to travel miles looking for food. They move about in groups or schools using their “foot” to drag them across the sandy sea bottom.
Local fishermen are skilled at knowing where to find them and only those with a commercial fishing license are allowed to catch them. They are relatively easy to catch but extracting what’s inside requires skill and precision. The fisherman makes a small hole in the spiral part of the shell preferably using another conch shell (a knife is liable to break). This hole breaks the vacuum inside the shell making the meat easy to extract. Once extracted it needs to be cleaned of all the brown skin, best done with a fillet knife. The “nail” and eyes are normally discarded or kept as bait or to chum. Experienced Conch fisherman never throw the empty shells back into the same place they have caught the conch as other conch will not return to this place. Instead they wait until their catch is complete at the end of the day and throw the shells back in, where there aren’t any conch. That is why you often see piles of shells in one place.
Freshly extracted conch meat can be eaten immediately as its sweet and tender. The tough muscle or foot can be tenderized with a mallet so that it too can be consumed. Every local fisherman and chef have their own special recipe for conch ceviche but staple ingredients include conch meat of course, lime (lots of it) cilantro, onion, tomato and habanero pepper(if desired). Conch fritters, conch soup (which is known to be good for the back) and conch steak are the most popular dishes you will come across in Belize. However, if you want to ensure that you get to try one or all of these tasty dishes you need to visit between 1st October and 30th June which is open conch season. At all other times of the year, the fishing and serving of conch is forbidden in order to maintain the conch population. Luckily that time is now.
May and June see the start most Belizeans favorite season, mango season. After eight months of deprivation, these sweet beauties suddenly grace every market stall and roadside vendor in Belize. The countryside and city yards overflow with mangoes of every shape and size, with colors ranging from green to red, to yellow and even blue.
In Belize, there are well over 20 varieties of mango with names just as colorful as their skin. There are Hairy mangoes, Blue mangoes, Garlic, Daddyfoot, Common, Number 11, Slippers, Julie and even Turpentine.
There are four different stages of the mango, each with a very different taste. When it is green, the mango is hard and tart, delicious with salt and local habanero pepper, and is often used to make chutney. When its full or ‘turn’, the mango is just about ripe with a firm, slightly less sweet flesh, which is easy to eat and great in salads. Ripe mangoes are juicy and ready to eat with a delectable slightly perfumey aroma and taste. Overripe fruit is extremely messy and is best used to make mango juice. Add some lime, ice and a little bit of mint to it and you have a refreshingly delicious drink. The mango is paid homage to at an annual Mango Festival, in Hopkins in the Stann Creek District, usually at the beginning of June.
Belizeans love to celebrate the bounty of nature and the cashew is another fruit feted with its own festival. The Cashew Festival is held annually in Crooked Tree Village in late April or early May. Wait! It’s a fruit? Yes, the cashew is actually a very fragrant fruit with the more familiar nut hanging below. It grows wild in North Central Belize and flourishes despite the poor sandy soil in that region. It doesn’t need much water or fertilizer so it is indeed seen as miraculous. Harvest is generally between March and June where the trees are resplendent with red, orange and yellow that is the cashew fruit. Birds love the fruit as well, much to the chegrin of the farmers. It also makes a great wine.
Here is a great video that tells you all about this fruit and nut!
Cashew SeasonStraight outa Crooked Tree and in time for cashew fest 2017.
Did you know that chocolate was a fruit as well? Strictly speaking cacao (where chocolate comes from) is the actual fruit of the Theobrama tree. These colorful pods grow straight from the trunk or branch of the tree. Inside these pods are about 20 to 30 seeds covered in a thick sweet pulp that tastes nothing like chocolate, but is delicious all the same. It’s the beans themselves that are taken from the pod, fermented in a box covered with banana leaves, dried and roasted. Once roasted they are ground in a machine to release the oil (cocoa butter) which is put back into the cocoa mass to produce a liquor which will become chocolate as we know it. The Cacao Festival a celebration of chocolate occurs annually in May in the Toledo District of Belize.
Belize’s abundant cultural interaction makes for an incredible diversity of foods. As tourism has increased, so has the availability of international cuisine countrywide and whilst the mainstay of Belizean fare is undoubtedly stewed chicken,rice and beans served with plantain, potato salad or coleslaw, every region has at least one or two specialties based on its cultural heritage.
Corozal maintains a strong Mexican influence. Corn is a staple here and used in the making of tamale, a corn based dough called masa surrounding chicken, wrapped in a banana or plantain leaf served with a juicy tomato based sauce. Traditionally the tamale was prepared by the ancient Maya for feasts. Today they are eaten by everyone. Dukunu another delicacy is made from the ground and roasted corn kernels steamed in corn husks.
Most street corners in Belize towns, have their own taco stands and local favorites but Orange Walk arguably has the best. Tacos, a rolled corn tortilla with meat filling can be spicy or not, and make for a delicious breakfast. Orange Walk tacos are shipped countrywide by Tropic Air via our cargo department, so wherever it is likely that will be able to enjoy them or you can get them flown in specially.
The cuisine of Ambergris Caye one of the main tourist destinations of the country has absorbed influences from around the country and here you will find every kind of Belizean delicacy, as well as international cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood. With dishes ranging from Japanese sushi, to Italian pizza, to Salvadoran pupusas, your taste buds won’t be disappointed. Lobster and Conch are seasonal and the local specialty of ceviche, is usually made with either of these raw and then “cooked” with lime juice, cucumber and habanero pepper.
In the South, in Placencia and the Cayo district, similar international cuisine is abundant whilst in Hopkins, and Dangriga (Stann Creek district), the traditional flavors reflect the strong Garifuna culture. Coconut milk, banana and plantain, fish and cassava root are all popular ingredients used to make the specialities of this region, which include Sere, a coconut based fish soup, and Hudut, consisting of mashed plantain.
As well as the staple, chicken with rice and beans,in Belize City, a diversity of fried chicken restaurants, offer a variation on a theme, creole and spicy, others oriental and crispy, all served with orange Fanta infused ketchup. With nicknames such as “kick down fence”, “Nice and Nasty”, “Freetown Kentucky” and “Greasy Bag”, who can resist this artery clogging indulgence!
Healthier fare is on offer in the Toledo district, where the indigenous Maya have a mainstay diet of corn and beans and whatever else is grown on their farm. The Midday meal is often caldo a clear soup eaten with tortillas and accompanied by the Maya cacao drink Kukuh which is a mixture of ground cocoa beans, pepper, corn and water. Along with the Maya there is a strong East Indian influence here and the local spices are added to make delicious curry.
Throughout Belize you will find three countrywide staples. The “Johnny Cake” a heavy bread eaten plain or with ham/cheese or chicken, traditionally cooked over an open flame, “Fry Jacks” deep fried flour tortillas, or “Pepper”. No Belizean meal would be complete without a bottle of hot sauce made with habanero chile peppers. This stuff is addictive and once you’ve tried it you will have it on everything, just like the locals do and be sure to take a bottle home for your friends.
Do you every wonder how that succulent juicy lobster tail arrived on your plate? Catching lobster is a little bit more complicated that catching a fish and involves a few more steps. We asked some local lobster fishermen to give us the low down on how to catch a lobster.
So, the million dollar question.. how do you catch a lobster?
There are two ways to catch a lobster: using a trap or using a hook. The trap method is used in shallower water in areas such as Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. The second method is normally used further afield. Lighters (a 30ft sailing sloop) sets sail for 10 to 15 days at a time with 6 to 7 fishermen and a boat load of ice. These fishermen skin dive the outer reef and atolls and catch lobster with a hook stick or gaff.
What do the traps look like and how do they work?
The lobster trap is made from strips of wood from the palmetto palm. They are un baited and have a funnel on the top. They are set in the open seagrass. The Caribbean or spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) which is nocturnal leaves the safety of the coral reef to find food and graze on these seagrass beds. As soon as the sun comes up they are looking for a hiding space. They aren’t the brightest of creatures and if they see any chance of shade such as a trap they will scurry down the funnel and then won’t be able to get out.
The shade trap is made of palmetto and corrugated roofing. The lobsters hide under these shades. Tin Drums are also used as traps.
Who makes the traps?
The traps are made by the fishermen themselves. This skill has been handed down from generation to generation.
When do you start to lay traps and how do you know where to put them?
At the beginning of June the traps, old and new are put in the sea to soak. This makes it easier for them to sink. About a week before the beginning of lobster season the traps are situated. Each lobster fisherman has a fixed territory which is usually inherited from previous generations and on the whole other fishermen respect this. The secret to location and pattern of laying the traps is known only to the individual.
How big should the lobster be?
A whole lobster, must measure three inches or more from the eye to the start of the tail; the lobster tail should weigh at least 4 ounces. There are big fines for being caught with undersized, spotted (which means the lobster will soon lay eggs ) or those with eggs .
How early do you get up on the first day of lobster season and how long do you catch lobster for?
At the break of day until about 10 am or until you have a good catch
Do you go out every day during lobster season?
Normally its every few days to check on the traps. With a fast powerboat checking your traps doesn’t take that long.
Where do you sell your catch?
In times gone by the catch would be sold at the Fishermen’s Co-operatives which existed in the major towns of San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia and others. In the past lobster was a big export and here in San Pedro a cargo plane full of ice would fly in to take the catch. Today the tourism industry has changed all that. The co-operatives don’t really exist as before and fishermen tend to have an agreement with a hotel or restaurant, who will buy all their catch.
Much of traveling has to do with finding great places to please your taste buds. In Belize the choices are wide and delightful and San Ignacio is certainly a destination that delivers on this. Sure, San Ignacio a great destination for a range of tourist activities like spelunking, Maya Archaeological exploration, horse back riding, canoeing and more but doing all those wonderful activities work up an appetite.
Tropic Air is the only airline that can take you to experience these delights in San Ignacio. Book with us today and check out the following blog from Lorenzo Gonzalez on details about your food options that will have your mouth watering.
See you on the next flight ;).
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