Like its kaleidoscope of cultures, Belize’s culinary landscape–from stick-to-your-ribs stews to streetside tamales–begs exploration.
Belize’s dual Caribbean and Central American identity leads to flavorful cuisines across six districts. There are surprising options beyond the national plate of coconut rice and beans, with stewed chicken. Start with this primer, and then add your own discoveries.
In the morning, bite slowly into an oven-hot meat pie, the spicy ground beef filling bursting out of a flaky crust. A personal favorite is the Johnnycake–a coconut milk-based unsweetened biscuit stuffed with your choice of refried beans, cheese, ham or shredded chicken, or if you prefer something corn-based, get your chicken tacos street side.
For lunch, burritos are a good fix; restaurants serve enormous sized ones, but I go street side. In Placencia Village, my pick is a three-dollar breakfast burrito from the small stand across from Wallen’s Hardware. Eggs and flour tortillas are cooked while you wait; the refried beans and freshly made salsa are sprinkled with homemade habanero pepper sauce, and it’s all topped with grated Dutch Edam cheese. Now that’s Belizean fast food! You’ll find similar spots across Belize.
Mayan and Mestizo bites
Corn-based foods are ubiquitous, thanks to our Mestizo and Maya heritage. Aside from tacos, try garnaches, crispy fried corn tortillas smeared with refried beans and grated cheese with a squirt of sweet ketchup. Panades are small, deep-fried empanadas filled with pulled fish, chicken or refried beans. Savor with a vinegary habanero and onion garnish. Ask locals for the best stands to sample these snacks.
Belizean tamales are wrapped with plantain or banana leaf, filled with season meat, usually chicken or pork immersed amongst a spicy, orange-colored sauce called col.
Maya villages in the south have tastier versions, stuffed with beans or gibnut–the “royal rat” delicacy the Queen of England was served when visiting Belize in 1985.
When I’m starving, my favorite lunch pick is hudut–a dish from Belize’s Afro-Amerindian Garífuna culture, found mostly on the south coast. Mashed green, ripe plantains are served with a bowl of fish stew, simmered in coconut milk gravy. I eat hudut the traditional way, with my fingers, but you can dig in with a spoon. Dare to bust di peppa or break open the fiery habanero found floating in the stew.
A Creole specialty often found in Belize City, boil up is a platter of boiled root vegetables, including cassava, carrots, and cocoyam–topped with flour dumplings, fried fish, and salty, brined pigtail. Simmered in a tomato sauce, it’s a delicious and filling meal.
Belizeans’ love for soup runs deep, thanks to our mestizo roots. Chimole combines tender chicken pieces and hard-boiled eggs into a well-spiced, midnight blue broth. Escabeche is a light, allspice-scented, onion-based chicken broth, with pickled jalapeño peppers. Dip into your soups with hot corn tortillas.
A serious hangover might give you the courage to try the Belizean booze cure: cow foot soup, rich in gelatin to soak up the alcohol. Get more adventurous, and visit Punta Gorda to taste caldo–a savory, cilantro-laced chicken broth with smoked chile. In the surrounding villages, ask for one of our most unique vegetables: the heart of the jippi jappa palm tree. Maya women sew beautiful baskets out of the leaves, but the heart is delicious when braised with a couple of smoked bird peppers. Enjoyed with fresh corn tortillas, it has an artichoke heart texture and is meaty like a mushroom.
You’ll discover a myriad of sweet treats during your stay. Don’t pass up cuttobrute, a coconut candy, or plastic cake, a starchy, sweet cassava root treat baked in coconut milk, with grated ginger.
In the past three years, chocolatiers have opened shops across Belize, selling creations made from our cacao beans. On Ambergris Caye, visit Belize Chocolate Company, and Moho Chocolate. In Cayo, try Ajaw Chocolate, and Lamanai Chocolate. In Placencia, Goss Chocolate bars are in grocery stores.
Better yet, make your own chocolate with heirloom stone tools at Ixcacao Chocolate, Belize’s original Maya chocolatier. This farm-to-table enterprise produces dark chocolate in ginger, coconut, and sea salt flavors. Take a shot of their chocolate nectar before you leave.
In San Pedro, sign up for a food walk with Belize Food Tours. In Placencia, I run Taste Belize Tours–the first culinary tour company–and we offer hands-on culinary excursions and cooking classes. For more ideas on Belize’s fascinating foodscapes, pick up a copy of Flavors of Belize Cookbook.
Wherever you end up, exploring Belize and embarking on a food adventure go hand in hand. Along the way, stop and ask what’s cooking–savor our traditions.
Written by Lyra Spang – Taste Belize