By Pat Foster-Turley
It’s no surprise to my readers that whenever I travel, food is always on my mind. Well, actually, food is usually on my mind—just ask Bucko. But on our recent stay in Belize, I made it a point to seek out and consume local delicacies.
What made this easy was the little shack selling take-out Belizean home-cooked meals about a half block away from our hotel: Kendra’s Kitchen. During our stay in Placencia, I made it a point to stop by each day to hobnob with Julie and Jason Westby, the owners, and Irma, their cook, and to sniff out the specials of the day. Whenever I arrived, they vacated one of the two chairs on their porch, and I sat there like a queen chatting with them about all things Belize while their young grandkids played nearby. Each day they had a handful of meals available, most often stewed chicken or stewed beef, curried lamb, beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, and plantains, but sometimes something intriguing on their menu that I had never heard of before. Of course, I always choose that.
So one day Bucko and I feasted on Belizean escabeche soup, an aromatic concoction of well-cooked onions, chicken and spices served with corn tortillas. Perfect. Another day when I walked by, they were busy cleaning fresh-from-the-sea yellow-tailed snapper. Fry fish was on their menu. Another wonderful meal. And all these complete meals, served with side dishes cost only $7.50 US. A real deal!
And then there was gibnut, a famous dish in Belize. I had heard about it, and when it appeared on the menu board at Kendra’s Kitchen, I ordered it. Gibnut is the Belizean name for paca, a large rodent that roams the fields and jungles of the country—the country’s main source of “bushmeat.” Sure it was a rat relative, but a big vegetarian one that is savored by locals, and even the Queen of England, during her visit to this Commonwealth country in 1985, when this meal got the moniker “royal rat.” Like most Belizean meat dishes this was served stewed, and it was delicious, with a taste like pork, and a fatty layer that helped flavor the broth. When we ate this for dinner Bucko reminisced about the wild chipmunk-colored paca that crossed his path when we were in the Montverde cloud forest of Costa Rica. Little did we know then that in another few months, we would be eating its cousin in Belize. And I will happily eat it again whenever I encounter it on a menu. Tasty!
But there was one Belizean meal I read about, but did not find on Julie’s Kendra’s Kitchen menu when I was there: chimole. This dish is a stew with ground meat and chicken, flavored with black recado paste, a conglomerate of charred achiote or arbol chili peppers, burnt corn tortillas and various spices. This paste gives the stew a dark black color, thus its other local name “black dinna.”
With no black dinna available when I was in Belize I took matters into my own hands and bought a block of black recado and a smaller tube of red recado and brought these ingredients home. I spent a few days researching various recipes and made my own, modified to prepare in my crock pot. It involved coating chicken pieces in red recado (a different paste that also incorporated chili peppers with spices), salt and pepper and frying it, then adding it to my crockpot with some potato chunks, some cilantro and garlic, water to cover it, and a splash of vinegar. A bit later I added in a slurry of black recado paste dissolved in water. Meantime I browned ground beef but left it in chunks (but pork would have been more traditional) and added this to the pot right before serving. With the addition of a hardboiled egg and corn tortillas to serve it with, I was all set.
I proudly posted my black dinna cooking experiment on my Facebook page and asked my Belizean friends to rate my attempt. Although they couldn’t taste it themselves, they all agreed I did a good job. But I am not a Belizean. And I know they can do it better than me. But now that will happen too. Julie has promised to make her own version of black dinna at Kendra’s Restaurant when I return. I am already looking forward to it!
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]