Stretching along the Caribbean coast, directly below Mexico, Belize is no longer a well-kept secret as a travel destination, recognized for its romantic offshore cayes, adventure-filled rainforests, and Maya temples. Yet its diverse and rich culinary landscape remains little known outside its borders. Not anymore. Here's your foodie introduction to Belize.
"Belize and her cuisine are unique because she has dual citizenship: Central American and Caribbean," said Chef Sean Kuylen, one of Belize's celebrated chefs, trained in San Francisco and with a career that spans several Caribbean resorts.
This duality in Belize's identity, Latin and Afro-Caribbean, is hard to miss when you're traveling around the country. Up to eight major ethnic groups coexist across six districts, in a country of just about 320,000 inhabitants: from descendants of the ancient Maya, the first to inhabit Belize, to Spanish-descended Mestizos and two Afro-Caribbean groups (the Creole and Garinagu). And then there are communities of East Indians, Mennonites, Chinese, and Lebanese.
Naturally, this diversity, in large part the result of colonialism, as well as escape from war and persecution, spills into every aspect of life. You'll see it year round in music, festivals and costumes; hear it in local languages; and taste it in the food.
In the western Cayo District, which borders Guatemala, and up north, Latin flavors and Mexican-influenced heritage dominate. From morning to the wee hours of night, street carts dish out cheap, steaming hot tacos or garnaches (crispy, fried tortilla shells topped with refried beans, cabbage and cheese) while restaurant daily specials list tamales and escabeche. This Spanish influence dates back to 1847, when the Caste War led thousands of Mexicans, Mestizos, and Mayans to seek refuge across the border and into Belize's northern districts.
Along the picturesque south coast, an Afro-Caribbean culture thrives in the Stann Creek District, home to Garífuna beach villages and towns. There, you'll spot women mashing green bananas with a mortar and pestle and serving cassava, freshly caught fish and coconut stews, staples of this seafaring, Afro-Amerindian people. The Garinagu people brought their West African and Carib Indian heritage along on a tortuous journey that led them from Nigeria to St. Vincent, where they escaped and lived free before the British arrived and exiled them to Roatán. From there, they migrated along the coast of Central America, reaching Belize in 1802. Today, their foods are among the most unique in the country.
Next, a look at two classic dishes of Belize...