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  • Writer's pictureMeera Dattani

Where food culture meets community tourism

As part of our Greentraveller's Guide to Belize, Meere Datanni tastes a range of hyper local food provided by local communities

Miss Cecila Ack is sat at the bus stop in the Belizean beach town of Placencia with a cool box on her lap. Inside are tamales, the Mesoamerican dish made from Masa, a traditional dough from nixtamalized (more on that later) corn, filled with meat, cheese or beans, then steamed and wrapped in banana or plantain leaes. “She comes here every week – she takes the Hokey Pokey water taxi from Mango Creek village to sell tamales and handmade corn tortillas in Placencia,” my food tour guide Dr Lyra Spang tells me. “It’s the real deal, from a traditional Maya recipe.”

two women in front of a food stall
Meera enjoying her food tour with Dr Lyra Spang of Taste Belize. Photo: Richard Hammond

Deliveroo, eat your heart out. This is my kind of food tour and Lyra Spang is no ordinary guide. She’s a thinker, innovator and author who’s long been involved in disseminating how Belize’s diverse cuisines have evolved out of a country that, as she says in her book ‘Bite Yu Funga! Innovating Belizean Cuisine’, was “initially created as a colonial logging camp.” With a population of approximately 400,000, Belize is relatively small (it’s the least populated country in Central America), but there’s a wide mix of cultures including Mestizo (Spanish Indian), Kriol (African European), Maya, Garifuna (Black Caribbean), Chinese, East Indian and European – Punta Gorda in southern Toledo district is one of the best examples of this cultural diversity.

Lyra set up Taste Belize in 2014 to celebrate the range and quality of local cuisine – she has a shop in Placencia selling 100% Belizean goods where I taste Belize-grown chocolate, and a food and cultural tours outfit. Given the inevitable mix of cultural influence on local food, Lyra is keen that visitors should keep an open mind over what is traditional food; “Who's saying, 'This or that is Belizean food’?” she questions.

fork lifting cube of chocolate
Belize-grown chocolates from Taste Belize's shop in Placencia. Photo: Richard Hammond

The most interesting food is usually cooked in people’s homes, which is why Miss Cecila’s tamales (also known as bollos) are so good. We head to streetside restaurant Carmen’s Kitchen where we unwrap the tamales, and buy puffed, fried tortillas called ‘Salbutes’ and delicious pork tacos. The tamales are filled with recado-spiced (local spice blend) beans and meat, and the texture chewier as the dough isn’t pre-cooked. All of it begs for seconds.

two woman across a table of food
Tasking tamales, puffed, fried tortillas and pork tacos at Carmen's Kitchen. Photo: Richard Hammond

At Miss Geneva’s Fine Foods, another Placencia roadside restaurant, we try Kriol rice and beans, an all-in-one dish, with meat or fish cooked in a sauce. It’s different to beans and rice (sometimes ‘rice and gravy’) where they’re separate, beans are saucier, and the meat/fish is often fried. Miss Geneva also makes her own coconut milk; a security guard who works nearby heads here around 5am after his night shift to grate it for her.

We finish at Barefoot Beach Bar, set up by two Belizean sisters who’ve created a warm, welcoming vibe. One bartender has been there for 12 years, Lyra says. Their bitters from local herbs are a Barefoot specialty; woody, easy on the palate, and nicely paired with fried breadfruit and smoked fish dip. Later, I head to neighbouring Tipsy Tuna, another beach bar, also Belizean-owned and operated, where after a day of local food, I submit to their chicken wings special.

signage for local ownership
The Belizean-owned Tipsy Tuna beach bar. Photo: Richard Hammond

Hopkins village, north of Placencia, is considered the cultural centre of the Garifuna, descendants of an Afro-Indigenous people from St Vincent, exiled in the 18th century to Honduras before moving to Belize. The Garifuna Cultural Immersion Tour organised by Hopkins UnCut starts with a drumming session with the Lebeha drummers, followed by a cooking lesson with resident chef Kenima Williams. It's interactive and I (happily) sing for my supper. Kenima teaches me to grate coconut from the husk using a grater clamped to the table, before squeezing out the milk. I learn to make hudut soup, a coconut milk soup with onions, peppers, herbs, chillies and fish, served with mashed ripe plantain, which I squash down using a pole-sized pestle into a mortar on the ground. It’s delicious.

These experiences show Belize’s story in a way that’s so engaging you don't realise you're also getting a history lesson. In northern Belize, near Orange Walk Town, I visit the Mennonite community of Indian Creek with my guide Eduardo Ruano. Cornelius and Anna Schmitt welcome us to their home and Cornelius takes us on a horse-and-buggy tour (no motorised vehicles here) of this community, his farmland, local church, and the store. It’s an insight into a culture often perceived as closed, but like any community of thousands of people, there’s a spectrum. Some Mennonites are stricter; some use electricity and drink alcohol; others don’t have electricity.

It's a practical, outdoors life. Things are made, fixed, farmed, cooked from scratch. When we sit down to lunch to enjoy Anna’s feast of chicken schnitzel, picked vegetables, mashed potatoes and delicious salads, there’s a palpable sense of joy and satisfaction at the table.

Mennonite family with tourists on horse and cart
A visit to the visit the Mennonite community of Indian Creek. Photo: Richard Hammond

Breaking bread has always been a way of connecting with people. About 40 miles north on the New River in northern Belize, upriver from Lamanai's Maya temple complex, tour guide Manuel Novelo enthusiastically welcomes me to his hometown of Orange Walk Town. Home to Mestizo, Kriol, Mennonite, and East/South Asian communities, it’s an industrious place, known as ‘Sugar City’ for its sugar production, and host of an annual TacoFest. Manuel shares its history from Maya settlement, Holpatin, to a colonial logging hub through to now.

"I've lived here my whole life," he says. "My uncle lives over there, cousins here, my grandchildren over there," he gestures around us. Our morning tour ends at Chengs Tacos De Cochinita, effectively the kitchen and front yard of husband-and-wife team Cheng and Yanira, where we dive into homemade tacos, tortillas and juices on a shared table. Manuel knows everyone who rocks up to collect a delivery, including the town's mayor. “Although we're famous for tacos, the best ones are by the roadside, not the restaurants,” says Manuel.

signage for orange walk town
Orange Walk Town is known as 'Sugar City' for its sugar production. Photo: Richard Hammond

Hyper-local is always a winner. On the outskirts of San Ignacio, the gateway town for western Belize, is the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative. A grassroots organisation, it was created by local Maya women. “We wanted to promote our culture and empower young girls,” Timotea Mesh, one of its founders, says. Here, elders speak in Maya, traditions are honoured, and medicinal plants are the first port-of-call.

With Timotea, I learn more about the heart and soul of Maya food: Corn. She explains the nixtamalisation process used by the ancient Maya to make corn kernels less acidic, using limestone powder. Grinding kernels into a smooth wet dough is tough, then we flatten and shape them into round tortillas; it reminds me of making round chapatis (rotli) as a young South Asian girl - and never quite nailing it. I watch Timotea cook them on the hot griddle, the fire crackling below; hers rise perfectly, forming an airy pocket. Mine remain flat.

two woman making tortillas
Meera learns how to grind kernels into dough then shaping them into round tortillas. Photo: Richard Hammond

After learning about Maya pottery techniques and visiting their gift shop for local souvenirs, I rejoin Timotea for lunch and tuck into one of the tastiest meals I’ve enjoyed in Belize with homemade tortillas, fried plantain with a sweet tamarind marinade, chaya (a type of spinach) and a garden-fresh salad.

As I eat the last tortilla under the thatched hut, I think back to a conversation with Lyra Spang. “We need to make sure people get a chance to represent their own culture,” she’d told me. “There are dishes disappearing and only a few old women know how to make them. Done the right way, food tourism encourages people to hold onto their cultural skills.”

For nearby places to stay, local attractions and a range of outdoor adventure activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Belize


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