Friday, August 21, 2015

Chu'uk Wa. Part 1 of My Personal Belize Food Bucket List

We call Belize The Jewel for good reason. Our country is small, almost exactly the size of the American state of Massachusetts, yet overflowing with cultural and environmental diversity. From rainforests to reefs, yes, of course, but also pine savannas that make one feel on safari, rare isolated cloud forest peaks hidden in the Cockscomb Mountain Range and the inviting cool green of mangrove forests and estuaries. Across the country we find Kriol (Creole), Mestizo, three Maya groups, Garifuna, but also over 11,000 Mennonites in both electricity and non-electricity using communities, a large Chinese immigrant population and villages whose members trace their ancestry back to India, as well as many individuals whose ancestry is an unlabeled mixture of peoples from across the world. The Caribbean coast of Central America has been a melting pot of diversity since the chaos of colonialism began over 500 years ago and in Belize this only adds to the sparkle of our little Jewel.

For a long time British colonial policy discouraged land ownership and farming, yet it continued on a small scale and despite the dominance of British ideals and British food, especially amongst those closest to the colonial system, a diverse array of food traditions survived in this little corner of the British empire. Today some have gained international attention while others are still hidden from the eye of most visitors.

Starting with this post, I'd like to mention just a few of the many lesser known foods and food related activities that I think every Belizean and visitor should know about and experience. Look for Part 2 of my bucket list soon!

Chu'uk Wa: Also called sweet corn tortilla, a name which utterly fails to capture its delicate sweet crispy nature. Chu'uk means sweet or sugary in Kekchi Maya. Wa, corn or food, refers to the main ingredient: corn cooked with lime as if to make regular corn masa for tortillas. This cooked corn is ground together with our local rich brown sugar, giving each wafer a sweetness that only enhances its aromatic corn flavour. A seed pod from the plant chu'uk-pim (otherwise known as "sweet-plant", see in the photo below) is used to stamp a filagree of beauteous labor across the face of a round, hand shaped corn wafer so thin that it is semi transparent. These wafers are hand formed on a leaf from the jungle called waha leaf, which allows the cook to place the wafer face down, leaf up, on the hot comal (cast iron griddle) on which corn tortillas are also cooked. After a second the wafer hardens enough that the cook can carefully peel off the leaf and quickly decorate the uncooked side using the seed pod. This painstaking hand labor requires great skill, and only a few Maya women in any given village know how to make good Chu'uk Wa. Tracking it down can be difficult. My best source for it so far is the King Energy gas station in Big Falls Village, Toledo District, and even there its not guaranteed. These delicate wafers are a great accompaniment to some Maya style hot chocolate, or even alongside a cup of tea or coffee. If they lose their crispiness in our humid climate a couple seconds on a hot cast iron surface will toast them right up again.




Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Summertime with The Kids

I have four kids with me this month and find myself eating a lot less healthy than I prefer, but a lot more healthy then they normally do. Anything with bread and cheese or fruit (thank goodness at least they like fruit) makes them happy, while vegetables are generally viewed with suspicion and must be well disguised to past the taste test. The one exception is cucumbers, which are happily accepted sliced raw and chewed down to their green skins which are then discarded.

I've never cooked for children before (except long ago when I was a child, at which point I was determined to learn to bake only so my brother and I could have sweets). They didn't like my chili, but when I turned it into nachos with tortilla chips and cheese suddenly they decided it was delicious. They didn't care for the spaghetti sauce, until it was dolloped on bread, covered with cheese (again) and turned into mini-pizzas at which point they stuffed themselves.

Its a brave new world here at the Rice and Beans blog. What healthy things do your kids or kids in your care like?


Sunday, June 7, 2015

I Love Mangoes! And a Recipe.

Yes, its a mango. In Belize we call this a "slippas mango" for its supposed resemblance to a slipper. This one was about the size of a papaya and dripping with delicious sweet juice. I love mangoes. And mango season has begun here in Belize. Mango trees are all over Placencia Peninsula, dropping ripe fruit left and right. Tiny pungent garlic mangoes grenading the sand below a massive tree, blue mangoes beckoning from someone's back yard, round apple mangoes, slippas mangoes and the old standby hybrid "number 11". Last Saturday was even Mango Fest in nearby Hopkins Village. Of course I was there, Taste Belize Tours had to make an appearance after all!

The best kind of mango is the one you don't pay for. There is a long standing tradition of naughty children "stoning" the neighbors tree for illicit mangoes in Belize. As an adult such an avenue seemed questionable, but a few days ago a significant other and I found another way. We walked down the beach and stumbled across a few big trees laden with fruit on an abandoned property. The caretaker not only said we could get mangoes, but even lent us his mango picking stick. We returned home loaded down with fragrant loot.


Free mangoes yay! Now what to do with them? There are so many amazing things you can do with ripe mangoes, the first being to cut that juicy flesh off the seed and devour it standing over the sink so you don't drip everywhere. But after that...well, thanks to another culinary experiment we had freshly smoked king mackerel in the fridge and I decided to make a smoked fish hash. Topping it off was a yogurt sauce and this delicious fresh mango salsa. Tasty by itself with chips, and wonderful at balancing the salty savoury flavours of the smoked fish.


Mango Cucumber Salsa with Habanero

Ingredients:

1 large mango, peeled, de-seeded and chopped finely
1 medium cucumber, seeds removed and finely chopped
1 small or half medium onion (a purple onion makes for a nice color contrast), finely chopped
About 1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro (may be omitted if you don't care for it)
1 tomato, finely chopped
1/2 habanero, seeds removed, minced (use a sharp knife and hold it with a fork, or wear gloves, habanero is nothing to play with!)
Salt to taste
Lime juice

Procedure:

Mince and chop all ingredients. Stir together and add salt and lime juice to taste. Let rest for at least ten minutes for the flavours to meld. Serve alone with tortilla chips. This is also great on top of guacamole, refried beans, or topping a nice piece of fish or chicken. What is your favorite mango recipe? More of mine to come!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How to Make Belizean Style Rice and Beans

In a prior post I talked about making rice the Belizean way. You wash the rice until all the starch dust has been removed and then cook it down in coconut milk until it is nice and fluffy. The great majority of Belizeans use white rice but you can make some delicious nutty-coconutty brown rice as well.

Plain rice of this type is often served with Stewed Beans. I have for your pleasure and convenience recently posted a standard Belizean stewed beans recipe.

But there is a third staple dish out there, famous and commonly eaten across Belize and in many other countries around Central America and the Caribbean, and that is Rice and Beans. As any decent guidebook to Belize will tell you, Rice and Beans and Beans and Rice are NOT the same thing. Beans and Rice refers to plain white rice, preferably cooked with coconut milk, and stew beans, which are beans, normally red kidney beans, but commonly also black beans, cooked in a lot of water, usually with cumin, pepper and fresh herbs, salted pigtail and lots of garlic and onion until it forms a rich gravy. The rice is dished out and the beans and their delicious gravy is typically spooned over the top.

Rice and Beans on the other hand is a dry mixture of rice and beans cooked TOGETHER in the same pot.  I have heard a number of different ways of doing this, but the way that I know how to cook rice and beans is the following:

Belizean Rice and Beans

Ingredients:

Cooked beans. (Red kidney beans are most common, but I have seen rice and beans made in Belize with everything from RK beans to black beans to black eyed peas. This is a perfect use for your leftover stewed beans from the day before)
Coconut Milk (see post on making coconut rice for information on coconut milk)
Rice (This is usually white but this can be made with well washed brown rice as well)
Salt
Coconut Oil

Procedure:

The procedure for making rice and beans is very similar to that for making plain rice. Take as much rice as you think you will need (one cup of dry rice is usually enough for two people, but I would suggest making more, rice and beans are delicious and reheat well). Put it in a pot, run water over it and wash the rice, pouring out the water until the water runs clear instead of becoming cloudy with starch. Then put enough coconut milk (or water or broth if you don't want coconut rice) in the pot so that it reaches to the first joint on your index finger when the tip of your finger is touching the rice (this is much simpler than it sounds. Stick your finger in the pot until you touch the rice, and look down. Is the liquid up to the first joint of your index finger? Yes? Ok, you're good). I like a tablespoon of coconut oil added to the pot as well for extra coconut flavour. ''

NOW, here's the different part. Add your cooked beans to the pot as well. If you are using one cup of rice and only making enough for two people, you probably only need about half a cup or so of cooked beans. But again, I urge you to make more. So for 2 cups of dry rice, I would add about one cup of cooked beans. Just dump them in and gently stir them in before you even start the burner. Add salt to taste, remembering that the stew beans will have some salt in them already.

Put the pot over high heat with the lid off and let it come to a boil. When it has boiled until there is only a little liquid left over the top of the grains (which usually only takes a few minutes), turn the heat down to very low, put the lid on, and let simmer for about 20 minutes (30 for brown rice) until the grains have absorbed all the liquid and are not tough or crunchy when you taste one. Turn off the burner and let the rice and beans sit in the pot with the lid on for another couple minutes before you serve it.

Do you want to read even more about rice and beans? My mentor and academic adviser Dr. Richard Wilk contributed to this book, which is all about rice and beans in fourteen different countries! 

 


Sunday, April 19, 2015

A New Era

When I started this blog in 2008 I was sitting at a receptionist desk in Washington DC, completing a Masters degree in Anthropology. Today I am sitting in my comfy chair in my apartment in Belize, with a fan blowing on me trying to keep me cool in the dry season heat. It's been a wild ride for the last 7 years and some of my adventures led me to cease updating this blog in any regular way. In fall of 2009 I moved to Indiana to start a doctorate in Anthropology with a concentration in Food Studies. It was not until September of 2014 that I submitted my final, revised, dissertation and was completely done with my doctorate. It was also in the summer of last year that I started my new business, Taste Belize Tours, and began really delving into culinary tourism, expanding on and adding to the chocolate tours that I have been doing since January of 2013. You haven't experienced our country until you Taste Belize!

While I have learned my lesson and won't make any promises about updating this blog, I hope that with more free time on my hands that I will find myself here again. After all, the last 7 years of my life have been to some degree shaped and instigated by this blog. It was because of it that I was recruited for my doctorate (my adviser found me through this blog), and that was the catalyst for me moving back to my home country and making a living from my love of food. Above is a picture of my kitchen counter in Belize, from a day when I made a delicious coconut curry fish head soup using this tasty hogfish. I hope to share more pictures and recipes soon!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Chocolate on The Brain: One of my Food Tours!

In the past 8 years FIVE small chocolatiers have opened their doors in Belize, close to the source of certified organic high flavour cacao beans coming out of our jungley Toledo District. Only one, Ixcacao Chocolate, is Belizean owned, but it is (according to my taste) the best of the five. Moreover it is owned by a Mayan family which makes for a unique experience as you get to grind up cacao beans to make chocolate on stone tools that have been handed down for generations, and drink hot chocolate like the Maya do: no milk, and (if you dare) with smoked ground fiery bird pepper on top. The company grows about 40% of its own cacao beans on a small farm (the rest is purchased from the Toledo Cacao Growers Association), as well as cultivating sugar cane that is cooked down into raw sugar used in their chocolate bars.The result is that when you eat a piece of their dark chocolate at their tiny factory, all the ingredients came from within 25 miles of the building! This is real farm to table chocolate and you can make it yourself right there at Ixcacao headquarters!

The last time I went on the tour was with my 83 years young chocoholic grandmother. She had a blast making chocolate for the first time in her life on 150 year old stone mano and metate (also traditionally used to pulverize corn for corn tortillas and anything else that might need grinding).


































Me and Grandma drinking hot chocolate made the Maya way with no milk or sugar (you can add Ixcacao sugar or delicious sugar-cane syrup to taste) and a sprinkle of smoked hot bird pepper on top.


Above, Abelina with chocolate samples. I particularly love their spicy chocolate (the secret ingredient is allspice!) but the coconut, orange (made from ground orange peel from their garden), cacao nib and plain dark are fantastic too! Below, Juan Cho with the mano and metates for making chocolate the traditional way!

Its been a long and sometimes bumpy road in life since I started this food blog over 6 years ago. But I feel like I am finally settling into my calling-sharing my love of food and agriculture and Belize with the world! (Not to mention that being a tour guide is a great job for someone who talks a lot:). I hope some of you will look me up if you come to Belize and come on one of our tours! Check us out here: Taste Belize.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Belizean Stew(ed) Beans (the secret ingredient is the Pigtail)

I love stewed beans-called "stew beans" in Belizean Kriol. Everyone eats them in Belize and although the seasonings are a bit different with the traditional Mayan preparation, in any restaurant you will find this version, which uses salted pigtail to add a savory flavour to the already delicious bean gravy. If you want a vegetarian recipe for stew beans which features more Mayan-style flavorings found in some communities in Stann Creek and Toledo Districts check out my earlier post here.

Belizean Stew/ed Beans

Makes 4-5 cups of beans. I usually make double this amount so I have plenty on hand for re-fried beans, bean based soups, bean dip and other fun foods. 

Ingredients:
2 cups of red kidney or black beans (red kidney beans are traditional, coming to Belize first as ballast in ships from New Orleans that arrived to purchase prized Belizean mahogany in the 1800s). 

Water

1 allspice or bay leaf

Whole cumin seed, at least one teaspoon

Oregano, dried or fresh, to taste

Fresh garlic cloves, cut into several pieces, to taste.

One medium or half a large onion, diced.

Coconut oil, at least two tablespoons

Salt-brined Pigtail (fished by hand out of 5 gallon buckets in every grocery store) is the traditional pork flavoring device used in Belizean stew beans. If you don't want any pork product in your beans you can omit it, otherwise, ham hock, a fatty thick cut bacon or some other salty porky item can substitute for the pigtail. This is for flavour and to add something meaty to chew on when chowing down on your hearty plate of stewed beans.

If you do not use a salted pork product in your beans, you will want 1 teaspoon of salt or to taste.

Procedure:

1. Wash the beans to rid them of dust and pick out any debris (in Belize it is not uncommon to find an occasional tiny stone in the beans).

2. Cover the beans with at least twice the amount of water as there is beans. You will most likely have to add more during the cooking process. There are several ways to speed up the cooking process. One is by putting the beans in the water and letting them soak for 8-12 hours. If you work all day, just prep the beans in water before you go to work, then you can cook them in the evening and use them the next day or later that night. You can also soak the beans overnight and cook them the next morning. Otherwise you can put the pot of beans and water on the stove, bring them to a boil, boil hard for ten minutes, then let them soak for several hours. This will also cut down on total cooking time.If you don't want to soak the beans it will take a couple hours to cook them, but this is a great thing to do on a long evening or morning at home while you are working on other things.

3. Cook the beans: add the coconut oil, garlic, cumin seeds, oregano and allspice or bayleaf to the pot with the water and beans. DO NOT add any salt or the salted pork product at this point. It will only cause the skin on the beans to toughen. Then bring to a boil and let cook at a fast simmer/almost boil with the lid on. If the beans threaten to boil over, just crack the lid. The beans will begin to absorb water and some will evaporate so check on them every now and then, add water if needed so they are well covered, and stir to make sure they don't stick to the bottom.

4. After a while pull up a spoon of beans and blow on them. If the skin on the beans peels back when you do so, they are getting soft and its time to season the beans. Add your pork product (or salt) if you are using it and the diced onion. Continue to simmer until the flavors have melded and the beans are completely soft and delicious swimming in their own gravy. Correct the seasonings as needed. Serve over coconut rice with Belizean stew/ed chicken , fried plantain and potato salad or coleslaw for a classic Belizean Sunday meal.