Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Flavors of Belize

Tonight I explored the rich culinary traditions of the little Central American country of Belize. The official language is English, surprisingly, as Spanish dominates the surrounding countries. This is easier to understand when you consider that Belize is under the common law of the united kingdom, and their monarch is Queen Elizabeth. Most of the population can speak Spanish (56%) as well as English (63%) and Creole (44%). You can thank Belize for gum as it was first cultivated there and called chicle. They have awesome toucans, the lowest population density in Central America, and the largest cave system in Central America. With all of this in only 8,867 square miles, Belize is a country jam packed with awesomeness.

The culinary scene of Belize is broken down into three main categories: the food of the mestizos and Mayas, the food of the Kriols (the descendants of African slaves), and the food of the Garifunas (the descendants of the native Arawaks and free Africans). The indigenous Mayans are known for their tortillas, tamales, and caldo. The Garifunas like to make a complicated bread out of cassava and use a lot of plantains. My dinner tonight was mostly Kriol inspired. The Kriols have a diverse and varied diet consisting of many native veggies, beans, rice, chicken and fish. Coleslaw, bile up (made of pig's feet), and rice and beans are some of their specialties.

A traditional lunch time meal often served in homes and restaurants across Belize, stew chicken is what is sounds like- chicken stew. The red recado paste used to flavor the dish gives it a nice red hue with pops of green from the pepper. It's a very interesting combination.
Stew Chicken
1 pound chicken thighs
1 onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
red recado (recipe follows)
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp oil

Heat the oil over medium heat in a pot. Add the chicken and brown each side for about a minute per side. Remove the chicken from the pot and add the garlic, onion, and pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent. Add the chicken back to the pan, and pour in enough water to almost cover the chicken. Bring to a boil and then simmer uncovered for 35-40 minutes.

Red recado is a paste made primarily out of ground annatto, and can be used to flavor meats, fish, poultry, or veggies. It was traditionally a Mayan seasoning mixture that is popular in the Yucat√°n area of Mexico and in Belize. Be careful with this stuff. It turns everything it touches red. (Including all your dish rags.)
Red Recado
2 tbsp ground annatto
½ tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried minced garlic
¼ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground pepper
1 tbsp vinegar
3-4 tbsp orange juice

Mix all the dry seasonings together and then stir in the vinegar and orange juice.
Don't get this Belizean staple of rice and beans mixed up with their also popular beans and rice. Unlike the latter mentioned dish which is made by separately cooking rice and a special type of stewed beans and then combining them, rice and beans is a one pot side for a meat dish. Often times coconut milk is added in to make the rice and beans super creamy, an addition that I loved.
Belizean Rice and Beans
1 cup rice
2 cups cooked red kidney beans
1/3 cup coconut milk
1 cup water
½ onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp thyme (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste
Bring the water to a boil and with the beans, onions, and garlic. Add the coconut milk and rice, cover and simmer for 40 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the water is absorbed. Let the pot sit with the lid on it for 5 minutes before serving. Season to taste.
My Belizean dinner was not quite up to par with Aruba or South Africa, but it was far from inedible. I think my main issue was with the flavor of the annatto. I just was not a fan. This was especially disappointing since I wasted a bunch of time looking for it at the grocery store, didn't find it and had to order it off Amazon, and spent $5 for two tablespoons of it. Aside from that disheartening factor of the meal, the chicken was very tender, and the rice and beans were flavorful and delicious.

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