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Perfect Caribbean Cooking And Fresh Food In Belize

The Way To Someone’s Heart Is Through Their Stomach In Belize

All we humans need food, of course, but it’s so much more than just nutrition. Good food can help break the ice, forge friendships, create unforgettable memories, and even broaden horizons…

In Belize, I’ve not only learned about many new fruits, vegetables, and types of meat, I’ve also made so many new friends in the process. From eager stall vendors to helpful hosts and my friendly neighbors, everyone has been happy to help me learn about food and cooking in my new home.

You’ll find that almost everything you buy or eat in Belize is fresh. Prepackaged foods and imported, boxed, ready mixes just aren’t sold here. And neither will you find a single fast-food franchise in this entire country.

The need to get back to food basics might be a little shocking to newcomers who aren’t prepared. You won’t find it easy to buy a frozen dinner… or to order take out… When you come to live in Belize, you’ve got to get used to cooking again, which might be a little alien to those used to ordering in or dining on thaw-and-heat entrees.

So… how to cook all these exotic new fruits and vegetables that you discover in your new tropical home? How exactly does one prepare a fish that hasn’t been cleaned? How do you eat the tongue that’s sold in every supermarket? What about the odd meats like lizard and gibnut (also known as “Royal Rat”
in Belize)?…

That’s where the social aspect comes into play.

I was raised in a home with 10 children, and my parents worked hard to keep food on the table. To tell you the truth, I didn’t appreciate the effort they had to make to keep us all fed. I knew someone had to buy the food and prepare it for it to get on my plate for me to eat… but I never liked being involved in the process of doing what it took for it to be edible and palatable.

Peeling potatoes was not a task I enjoyed, nor did I like having to snap the string beans, wash the greens, shuck the corn, or any other cooking chore usually passed off to the kids. And onions? Who wants to stand over smelly vegetables crying from stinging eyes? I couldn’t imagine that ever being enjoyable.

As a kid, I was not one for the kitchen. I was in a hurry to get to the other rooms where my other chore awaited me—babysitting my younger sisters and brothers. At least it was fun playing with them.

I grew up, of course, and raised a family of my own, but my husband did most of the cooking. I continued to stay as far away from the kitchen as I could.

Then, one fine day, I relocated to Belize by myself…

Fortunately for me, my first stop was Punta Gorda, on the southern coast, where I boarded with a lady who was a gourmet cook. When my host discovered my lack of cooking skills, she began teaching me about the many fruits and vegetables that Belize has to offer, doing her best to show me how to prepare them.

Still, honestly, I wasn’t that interested. It was the first food-related ice breaker I experienced in my adopted country, though, and a lovely memory of my first home in Belize.

My Punta Gorda host must have had every cooking utensil that Martha Stewart ever used on her television show. In her front garden she raised her own herbs and plants for cooking and medicinal purposes, and in her large back yard she had a cashew tree and grew various fruits and vegetables, including limes, peppers, scallions, and more.

Belize doesn’t import a lot fruits and vegetables, so many people grow their own. What is not grown at home can be purchased at the town market. You’ll find an abundance of juicy, great-tasting peaches, plums, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, bananas, and many, many other fruits. Much of what’s for sale I had never heard of before… the popular sour sop, for example (you’ll even find ice cream of that flavor).

You can also do your produce shopping driving along the highway, where many farmers sell their goods. You’ll be surprised by all the delicious fruit you can sample this way. I can’t even remember all the names of the new fruits I’ve discovered since living in Belize. One had a gigantic seed and the sweetest juice I have ever known. Another was small and round and a little sour, but the inside wasn’t solid. The middle was filled with what felt like soft teeth. You can even get into learning about medicinal fruits… the cassava, for example.

Being on the southern coast in Punta Gorda was to be near a bounty of fresh fish that was served in a variety of ways… fried, stewed, in soup, with rice, and more. Grouper and red snapper meals are among my strongest memories of my first few months in Belize.

Some months later, I moved to my own apartment on the northern coast of Belize in Corozal Town. There was no one to cook for me, and I was left to my own devices. My first few attempts at cooking weren’t always fruitful… sometimes what I ended up with neither looked nor tasted very good.

Not to worry!

Belize is home to some of the nicest, most hospitable people on the planet. My neighbors taught me how to find my way to the market, step one. But then I had to figure out the ingredients I was to buy and learn how to cook them. Stall vendors were doing their best to sell me their specialties, but I didn’t have a clue what to do with any of it.

So we started a tradeoff: I would buy the item being offered if they would explain to me how to cook it. This was my method for several months. Sometimes I had to go back to the same guy a few times until I finally got the hang of cooking the food item in question.

And, guess what? Finally, I was beginning to like cooking! This was fun.

I learned how to tell the difference between plantains and bananas, as well as how to know when to buy plantains at the correct ripeness so they wouldn’t soak up too much of the oil they were to be cooked in. I fell in love with coconut oil and its many uses. The first time I saw apple bananas, I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me.

I realized that I have a mango tree growing in my back yard producing loads of ripe mangos to enjoy. I started bagging them up and giving them to my neighbors or to a stall keeper to sell. They were delighted.

A new friendship was forged most recently over food when one of my favorite vegetable sellers came by my home to deliver a great pair of pants she had gotten for me across the border in Mexico. It just so happened that when she stopped by I had finished preparing string beans the way she had suggested. She was happy to come in and check out my finished product and congratulated me on how good my dish looked. She even said she would be happy to come by sometime and show me how to prepare something else in person.

Yes… food can most definitely be a way to someone’s heart—especially in Belize.

Marie Peay
For In Focus: Belize

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