Once upon a time, I liked only white foods. White rice, mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream. When I left home for the first time, I wound up eating plain pasta mostly, eventually graduating to crackers with slices of cheddar cheese, and then moving on to plain bagels with cream cheese. Sadly, I’m not kidding. During college, I could go days at a time eating only one of those foods and mostly eating other food under the mild social pressure of roommates and friends acting worried about me.
Michelle was the first person to teach me to eat and like other foods. When she and I spent six months in Europe together, she got me to try squid (it’s white, after all) and Nutella (initially with marshmallow fluff, I seem to recall) and even artichoke (served with mayo, which is, of course, white.) She liked to try every new fruit that came our way. Her attitude was “take a bite and if you don’t like it, stop there.” She even tried durian, which has a smell that is so completely overpoweringly disgusting that being in the same train compartment with one made me nauseous. (I cannot believe that wikipedia says that some people find it “pleasantly fragrant.” Those people are insane.)
Anyway, Michelle started me on a path to food curiosity and then I moved to San Francisco. Sushi. Thai. Indian. Dim sum. Avocados and mangoes. Weird ingredients like cilantro and salsa! From thinking that only white foods were good, I became an adventurous eater, always willing to try something new, at least once.
Before going to Belize, I thought “relatively poor country” plus “traveling on a tight budget” would equal “rice, beans, tortillas.” Well, I was right about the rice and beans part — almost every meal included them as a side — but I was wrong about the lack of adventure. What follows is a list of the new foods I tried, and my opinions about them.
Barracuda: A strong-tasting fish, more like swordfish than anything else I can compare it to. I ate it at least twice, I think, once in a coconut curry, and it was fine. Just fish, nothing amazing.
Conch: Wikipedia tells me it’s an edible snail. I wasn’t so sure about the edibility the first time I had it — it tasted like I imagine shoe leather would, only with less flavor. But I tried it in ceviche and again in a coconut curry and it was much better. I wouldn’t order it at a restaurant again, but I’ll try it if it comes my way.
Lionfish: Tasted like fish. White fish, maybe a little closer to haddock than snapper, but unremarkable. I suspect that it’s all about the preparation. I’d try it again as a creole dish or maybe fried, but I didn’t love it. (I only had a bite of Suzanne’s.)
Hogfish: One of the worst dishes I tried, but I suspect it was the preparation. I ordered it with butter and garlic and it came to me swimming in a sea of yellow liquid. I like butter, but more as a flavor than as a soup. Anyway, the fish was fine, but not exciting. Same restaurant as the lionfish, so again, a different preparation might have made me like it more.
Hudut: Wikipedia failed me! But hudut is a traditional fish stew of the Garifuna people, made with coconut, garlic, and fish. I’m guessing other ingredients vary. The link I found said it had thyme in it, but I didn’t taste any thyme and I’m pretty sure that the hudut we had included okra. It was delicious. I think the fish in ours might have been snapper, but I don’t know for sure. If I asked, I don’t remember the answer, and I probably didn’t ask, because delicious is delicious, after all. The type of fish didn’t matter. Along with the hudut came a ball of a doughy substance. I know it contained plaintain, but I’m sure it contained something else, too, because it didn’t taste like banana. You take a spoonful of the dough and drop it into the soup and it turns into something like a little dumpling from the heat. I didn’t love it–it was sort of thick and chewy, but I didn’t dislike it either. (I think I’ll write another post about that meal, because if I tell the whole story here, I’ll never get back to the other foods.) Anyway, if you have the chance to try hudut (and you like fish and coconut), totally go for it.
Johnnycake: Ah, looking for a link let me know that Belizean johnnycakes are not the same thing as the ones in historical novels set in New England. The Belizean variety is made with flour and coconut milk and tastes a lot like a biscuit, while the American version is made with cornmeal. But it was delicious and a new food for me even if it wasn’t the romantic historical food I thought I was getting.
Stone crab: I wasn’t sure how different stone crab would be from other crab that I’ve eaten and taste-wise, it wasn’t really. It wasn’t as sweet as some Alaskan crab or as salty as the crab you can get in Maine, but mostly it was just crab. Except that breaking it open was a serious challenge — forget those little tongs, we needed a serious meat tenderizing hammer and even then, you had to hit it hard.
Stewed gibnut: You know how often people say strange meat tastes like chicken? (Frog legs do taste just like chicken.) Gibnut tastes nothing like chicken. I think it was closer to a roast pork taste, but with a different texture, meaty but not tough or stringy. I knew it was a rodent, but until I found that link, I didn’t really know what kind of rodent. I’m glad it’s closer to rabbit than rat! Although honestly, as long as it’s not dog or monkey, I’m good with trying pretty much anything. The stewed gibnut was a little salty but overall yummy. I would absolutely eat it again.
Most of the food I ate in Belize was really good. It was the most unexpected and yet delightful part of the trip–so much fresh seafood and so much of it delicious!