Food and Drink
Throughout this travel guide (and throughout Belize), you will find references to “Belizean” food, often preceded by words like “simple” and “cheap.” It should be noted that the very idea of a national cuisine is as new as every other part of Belizean identity. Since the times of the Baymen, Belize has been an import economy, surviving mostly on canned meats like “bully beef” and imported grains and packaged goods.
With independence, however, came renewed national pride, and with the arrival of tourists seeking “local” food, the word “Belizean” was increasingly applied to the varied diet of so many cultures. Anthropologist Richard Wilk wrote about the process in his book, Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists.
The common denominator of Belizean food is rice and beans, a starchy staple pronounced as one word with a heavy accent on the first syllable: “RICE ’n’ beans!” Belizeans speak of the dish with pride, as if they invented the combination, and you can expect a massive mound of it with most midday meals.
Actually, Belizean rice and beans is a bit unique: They use red beans, black pepper, and grated coconut, instead of the black beans and cilantro common in neighboring Latin countries. The rest of your plate will be occupied by something like stew beef, fry chicken, or a piece of fish, plus a small mound of either potato or cabbage salad. Be sure to take advantage of so much fresh fruit: oranges, watermelon, star fruit, soursop, mangoes, and papaya, to name a few.
For breakfast, try some fry jacks (fluffy fried-dough crescents) or johnnycakes (flattened biscuits) with your eggs, beans, and bacon.
One of the cheapest and quickest meal options, found nearly everywhere in Belize, is Mexican “fast-food” snacks, especially taco stands, which are everywhere you look, serving as many as five or six soft-shell chicken tacos for US$1. Also widely available are salbutes, a kind of hot, soggy taco dripping in oil; panades, little meat pies; and garnaches, which are crispy tortillas under a small mound of tomato, cabbage, cheese, and hot sauce.
Speaking of hot sauce, you’ll definitely want to try to take home Marie Sharp’s famous habanera sauces, jams, and other creative products. Marie Sharp is a classic independent Belizean success story, and many travelers visit her factory and store just outside Dangriga. (Her products are available on every single restaurant table and in every gift shop in the country.) Her sauce is good on pretty much everything.
Many restaurants in Belize have flexible hours of operation, and often close for a few hours between lunch and dinner. The omnipresent Chinese restaurants provide authentic Chinese cuisine of varying quality. Most Chinese places sell cheap “fry chicken” takeout and are often your only meal options on Sundays and holidays.
One of the favorite Belize specialties is fresh fish, especially along the coast and on the islands, but even inland Belize is never more than 60 miles from the ocean. There’s lobster, shrimp, red snapper, sea bass, halibut, barracuda, conch, and lots more prepared in a variety of ways.
Conch (pronounced KAHNK) has been a staple in the diet of the Maya and Central American communities along the Caribbean coast for centuries. There are conch fritters, conch steak, and conch stew; it’s also often used in ceviche—uncooked seafood marinated in lime juice with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and a host of spices. In another favorite, conch is pounded, dipped in egg and cracker crumbs, and sautéed quickly (like abalone steak in California) with a squirt of fresh lime. Caution: If it’s cooked too long, it becomes tough and rubbery. Conch fritters are minced pieces of conch mixed into a flour batter and fried—delicious.
On many boat trips, the crew will catch a fish and some conch and prepare them for lunch, either as ceviche, cooked over an open beach fire, or in a “boil up,” seasoned with onions, peppers, and achiote, a fragrant red spice grown locally since the time of the early Maya.
Responsible Seafood Eating
Don’t order seafood out of season! Closed season for lobster is February 15–June 15, and conch season is closed July 1–September 30. The ocean is being overfished, due in large part to increasing demand from tourists. The once-prolific lobster is becoming scarce in Belizean waters. And conch is not nearly as easy to find as it once was. Most reputable restaurateurs follow the law and don’t buy undersize or out-of-season seafood; however, a few have no scruples.
Small snappers are great fish to eat. Not only are they delicious, but they are one of the most sustainably caught finfish in Belize, often caught locally with hook and line. You also get positive ecological karma points for every invasive lionfish you eat in the Caribbean.
When dining out (especially in one of Belize’s many, many Chinese restaurants), do not patronize any restaurant offering shark fin soup, panades made with shark meat, or live reef fish. Not only are sharks critical to a functional marine ecosystem, but the meat is high in methyl mercury so it’s bad for you, too. Also avoid any restaurant that displays endangered reef fish like the Nassau grouper or Goliath grouper in tanks as meal choices. In fact, stay away from grouper in general, especially Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara, locally known as “jewfish”), a critically endangered species that is also high in methyl mercury. In addition, do not buy marine curios such as shark teeth or jaws, starfish, coral, etc.
There are wonderful natural fruit drinks to be had throughout Belize. Take advantage of fresh lime, papaya, watermelon, orange, and other healthy juices during your travels—they are usually made with purified water, at least in most tourist destinations.
Beer: Perhaps the most important legacy left by nearly three centuries of British imperialism is a national affinity for dark beer. Nowhere else in Central America will you find ale as hearty and dark as you do any bar, restaurant, or corner store in Belize, where beer is often advertised separately from stout, a good sign indeed for those who prefer more bite and body to their brew.
At the top of the heap are the slender, undersized (280 ml) bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, known affectionately by Belizeans as “short, dark, and lovelies.” Yes, Guinness—brewed in Belize under license from behind the famous St. James’s Gate in Dublin, Ireland, and packing a pleasant 7.5 percent punch of alcohol. No, this is not the same sweet nectar you’ll find flowing from your favorite Irish pub’s draft handle at home, but c’mon, you’re in Central America. Enjoy.
Next up is Belikin Stout, weighing in with a slightly larger bottle (342 ml) and distinguishable from a regular beer bottle by its blue bottle cap. Stouts run 6.5 percent alcohol and are a bit less bitter than Guinness, but still a delicious, meaty meal that goes down much quicker than its caloric equivalent of a loaf of bread. Belikin Premium (4.8 percent alcohol) boasts a well-balanced body and is brewed with four different types of foreign hops; demand often exceeds supply in many establishments, so order early.
Asking for a “beer” will get you a basic Belikin, which, when served cold, is no better or worse than any other regional draft. Lastly, the tiny green bottles belong to Lighthouse Lager, a healthy alternative to the heavies, but packing a lot less bang for the buck with only 4.2 percent alcohol and several ounces less beer (often for the same price).
All beer in Belize is brewed and distributed by the same company in Ladyville, just north of Belize City (Bowen and Bowen Ltd. also has the soft drink market cornered). Some batches are occasionally inconsistent in quality—if you get skunked, send back your mug and try again. You’ll see most Belizeans vigorously wipe the rust and crud from the open bottle mouths with the napkin that comes wrapped around the top—you’d be smart to do the same. Beers in Belize cost US$1.50–3 a bottle, depending on where you are.
Rum: Of all the national rums, One Barrel stands proudly above the rest. Smooth enough to enjoy on the rocks (add a bit of Coca Cola for coloring if you need to), One Barrel has a sweet, butterscotchy aftertaste and costs about US$8 for a liter bottle, or US$3 per shot (or rum drink). The cheaper option is Caribbean Rum, which is fine if you’re mixing it with punch, cola, or better yet, coconut water, in the coconut. Everything else is standard, white-rum gut rot.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition