Belize is a land (and sea) of multiformity. Varying landscapes, rich biodiversity, and a potpourri of cultures make this small nation “a curious place.” An assortment of different people with intriguing histories and unique traditions all call this country home, but in the month of November, we celebrate a particular segment of people and their cultural contribution to our society. November 19th is Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize and you can celebrate all month long with a culinary exploration of the culture. Let’s learn about the history of the Garifuna people, their arrival in Belize, what some of their traditional dishes are, and where you can try them.
Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize
The Garifuna Culture arose in the Caribbean (initially on the island of St. Vincent) from the mixing of the native Arawak people and shipwrecked or runaway would-have-been-slaves from West Africa. In 1635, two Spanish slave ships carrying a cargo of peoples from Sub-Sahara Africa en route to the West Indies floundered off the coast of St. Vincent and the marooned escapees were too spirited and independent to be recaptured and enslaved.
This group of shipwrecked people found refuge on the island with the native Arawak Indians, as did a number of other maroons escaping slavery on nearby Caribbean islands. The blending of these peoples’ knowledge, practices, and bloodlines gave birth to an Afro-indigenous culture uniquely their own and free from the colonial forces ruling the surrounding region. The Garinagu, or Garifuna as we say here in Belize, were also known as ‘Black Caribs.’
From St. Vincent to Belize
The Garifuna were exiled by the British in 1796 from St. Vincent to Roatan, but this intrepid group re-established themselves and eventually branched out to mainland Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.
According to folklore, the Garifuna people landed upon Belizean shores on November 19th, 1802. We mark this important day in our country’s illustrious history as a national holiday. The town of Dangriga is the first place in Belize where the Garifuna settled. Dangriga is still the Culture Capital of the people, though there are several other communities throughout Belize, including Hopkins, Barranco, Punta Gorda, and Placencia Peninsula’s Seine Bight Village.
The Garifuna retain their own language, lore, cuisine, and traditional dress. In these towns, and others, the Garifuna recreate their ancestors’ landing in Belize with a sunrise ceremony known as Yurumein. In the Garifuna language, Yurumein translates to ‘Homeland’ and the reenactment includes the use of traditional drums and dug-out canoes. After the Yurumein ceremony, look for local eateries and roadside vendors serving traditional Garifuna cuisine.
Garifuna Cuisine: The Earth’s Gifts Meet the Sea’s Bounty
History tells us that the Garifuna carried cassava with them on their migration and re-cultivated the crop wherever they settled. Today, cassava persists as an important part of their diet and is featured in many of the customary dishes. A staple of the Garifuna cuisine is Cassava Bread, or Ereba in their dialect, which resembles a cracker more than a traditional loaf of bread but is delicious, nonetheless.
The arduous process of peeling, grating, washing, draining, sieving, and baking the bread is traditionally a communal effort among several women, and the techniques are taught and passed down through generations making this a significant and fascinating cornerstone of both the culture and cuisine.
It isn’t a singular aspect; not solely the ingredient, nor the product, not the preparation, but the compilation of those things that make a food unique to a culture. For an immersive culinary experience with a side of history lesson, try a Garifuna Cooking Class. Palmetto Grove Cultural & Fishing Lodge in Hopkins and Taste Belize Tours in Seine Bight offer excellent hands-on classes to explore typical Garifuna dishes and their traditional preparations.
Warm Up With A Bowl of Hudut This November
For heartier fare, seek out some Sere or a bowl of wholesome Hudut. These are similar dishes with parallel flavor profiles. So, if you like one, you’re almost guaranteed to like the other. Sere is a somewhat savory, somewhat sweet soup of pan-fried fish in a coconut milk broth. Vegetables such as onion, okra, and potato are typically added, though some purists appreciate letting the sweet and flaky fish remain the star of this dish served aside white rice.
Hudut is also a fish and coconut milk broth soup but the main attraction in this dish is the filling and fortifying ball of plantain dough sunk inside the stew. Made by pounding together both ripe and green plantain then forming the resulting dough into a softball-sized hunk and simmering in the broth, Hudut is quite hearty and one of the most popular dishes that can be found on menus throughout the country.
Should the weather turn chilly (Belize considers “chilly” to be any temperature below 80 degrees Fahrenheit), as it sometimes does during November cold fronts, then warm up with a cup of Sahou. This sweet and super thick beverage has a porridge consistency and is served warm. Cassava-based and sweetened with condensed milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla, it reminds me of eggnog and oatmeal.
Another sweet Garifuna treat to try is Cassava pudding. It’s otherwise known as Plastic Cake because its clear, gelatinous appearance resembles melted plastic, but I swear, it smells and tastes much better! Try and track some down alongside other Garifuna favorites at Vern’s Kitchen on the beachside of the main road in Seine Bight or at Tuani Garifuna Food at the Havana Bridge Market in Dangriga Town.