Flavors of Belize
With its colonial British heritage of warm beer and tinned meats, Belize could well have become one of the dead ends of gastronomy in the Americas. Indeed, there are hints of that culinary catastrophe in the instant Nescafe and glasses of Tang still occasionally served in Belizean homes and restaurants. But what saved Belize from dining disaster were two things: first, the spicy influence of its Latin neighbors and its own multicultural population, and, second, the influx of tourists with discerning palates who demanded, and eventually got, a higher standard of cooking at hotels and restaurants.
Rice and Beans
There is no single Belizean cuisine. Belize dining, like Belize itself, grew out of a gumbo of influences—Mexican, Guatemalan, African, Caribbean, Mayan, Garífuna, English, Chinese, and American. The most Belizean of all dishes is rice and beans. Although originally considered a creole dish, today it's eaten daily by just about everyone. Recipes vary, but most use kidney beans, garlic, coconut milk, onion, and seasonings like black pepper, salt, and thyme. The kidney beans are boiled with seasonings and a little piece of meat—salt pork, pigtail, or pieces of bacon. Then the seasoned beans are cooked together with rice. A related but different dish is beans and rice, which is stewed beans served with white rice on the side, not cooked together like its sister dish. In many restaurants you'll have a choice of rice and beans or beans and rice. Whatever and wherever you eat, you're likely to find a bottle of Marie Sharp's hot sauce on the table. This proud product of Belize—it's bottled near Dangriga—comes in a spectrum of heat, from Mild to Fiery Hot to No Wimps Allowed.
Among other creole specialties are cow-foot soup (yes, made with real cows' feet), "boil up" (a stew of fish, potatoes, plantains, cassava and other vegetables, and eggs), and the ubiquitous "stew chicken." Many creole dishes are cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with red or black recado, a paste made from annatto seeds and other spices. You'll also find many Mestizo or Latin favorites such as Belizean escabeche (onion soup), salbutes (fried corn tortillas with chicken and a topping of tomatoes, onions, and peppers), and garnaches (fried tortillas with refried beans, cabbage, and cheese). Many of these homey dishes are sold at street stands, and it's usually perfectly safe to eat at these stands. In Dangriga and Punta Gorda or other Garífuna areas, try dishes such as sere lasus (fish soup with plantain balls) or cassava dumplings. The Chinese influence in Belize, unfortunately, focuses on the lowest culinary common denominator. Chinese restaurants abound, but they mostly serve dishes such as cheap chop suey, with ketchup on the side. The American influence is also less than haute cuisine, having been responsible for the widespread popularity of "fry chicken" and hamburgers (usually called beefburgers in Belize). Speaking of beef, it is generally not very good in Belize, as most local beef is grass-fed and can be tough. Fillets are generally the most tender option. Belizean pork, however, is superb, and it's rare to get anything but a juicy, delicious pork chop in Belize. Chicken, the most popular meat in Belize, is also good. Most of Belize's chickens are provided by Mennonite farms in Spanish Lookout and elsewhere.
On the coast and cayes, seafood is fresh, relatively inexpensive, and delicious. The Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is one of Belize's gourmet treats. Unlike its Maine cousin, most of the edible meat in the spiny lobster is in its tail, and it lacks claws. It's perfect lightly grilled and served with drawn butter, but you can also enjoy it in fritters, soups, bisques, salads, and even burgers. Lobster season runs from June 15 to March 15. Conch, in season all year except for the months of July, August, and September, also is widely served in Belize, as conch steak, fritters, and soup. On restaurant menus, you're most likely to find snapper and grouper, both tasty without being too fishy. Farm-raised tilapia is also widely available. Most shrimp, or "shrimps" as Belizeans say, also is farm-raised, from one of the large shrimp farms in Placencia or elsewhere.
Belizeans love their ceviche—raw seafood marinated in lime juice. You'll find a variety of ceviche dishes on menus everywhere—conch, shrimp, lobster, fish, and even octopus and squid. Usually the seafood is mixed with onion, hot peppers, salt, and herbs such as cilantro or culantro (culantro is similar to cilantro but stronger flavored), and then "cooked" with lime or other citrus juices. It's all delicious!
Fruits and Vegetables
Belize offers a cornucopia of delicious fresh tropical fruits, although unfortunately not too much of the fruit makes its way to restaurant tables. You may have to stop at fruit stands and buy your own. In season, fruits in markets are remarkably inexpensive. For example, you can buy 8 or 10 bananas or a huge pineapple for BZ$1. Papaya, mango, banana, oranges, and watermelon are the most common fruits served usually on breakfast plates. But the markets have many other kinds of fruit: one is craboo or nance, a small yellow fruit the size of a cherry, which ripens in July and August. They're excellent mashed and served with milk, or just eaten raw. Markets also have star fruit, soursop, breadfruit, dragon fruit, cashew fruit, and others.
Rice and potatoes are the mainstays of Belizean vegetables, but there are a few more unusual vegetables, too. Cho cho, a mild-flavored squash also known as mirlton or chayote, is commonly served raw in salads and also baked, fried, boiled, and stuffed. Chaya is a green leafy plant that is sometimes called Mayan spinach. It is rich in several vitamins and minerals. Chaya is often served as cooked greens or in scrambled eggs.
Beer, Wines, and Spirits
Nearly all restaurants serve beer—almost always the local brew, Belikin —and many bars offer terrific, tropical mixed drinks; a growing number offer wine. Imported liquor, is expensive. Due to restrictive import laws, the fine beers of neighboring Mexico and Guatemala are rarely available. Several Belize companies manufacture liquors, primarily rum, but also gin and vodka and variety of local fruit wines. Traveller's "One Barrel" Rum, with a slight vanilla-caramel flavor, is a favorite. Imported wines are available in supermarkets and better restaurants, at about twice the price of the same wines in the United States. There are wine stores in Belize City and San Pedro. One restaurant, Rendezvous on North Ambergris Caye, makes its own wines from imported grape juice, and cashew, blackberry, and other local wines are available around the country. The legal drinking age in Belize is 18.
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