It is heartbreaking to see the pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian across the Bahamas. Lives have been lost, buildings have been destroyed and families have been displaced.
On most days, the Bahamas are a paradise with crystal blue waters and white puffy clouds. For me though, it is the people that make the Bahamas a special place. They are friendly and welcoming and exude the essence of a true joy of life. I know with the help of the world, they will pick up the pieces and begin to laugh again.
Like most places that depend heavily on tourism, there are two Bahamas. There are the glitzy resorts, with all manner of restaurants and shopping, and then there are those places that tour buses avoid. It’s those second places that Louise and I love to explore. That’s really the only way to learn about the people and their food.
Nothing says the Bahamas more to me than conch fritters. They are golden nuggets of deep-fried, crispy batter mixed with minced conch and served with a variety of sauces. They are absolutely addictive, and I order them in every restaurant because every restaurant has them on the menu. Just like every family’s chicken and dumplings are a little different from everybody else’s, conch fritters take on a slightly different personality everywhere you try them.
Conch (pronounced konk) are a large marine mollusk that are indigenous to the Caribbean. The queen conch can grow up to a foot long and weigh about 5 pounds. The shells are almost as sought-after as the meat. They are the big seashells that you can put up to your ear and hear the sound of the ocean. That’s not really the ocean you are hearing; it’s really the blood coursing through your head, but it still sounds a little like the ocean.
Conch are to the Bahamas as lobster is to Maine. You will find conch in ceviche, soups, salads and, in my favorite, conch fritters. The meat is firm and can be a little chewy. For fritters the meat is minced. The meat is mixed with some minced onions and bell peppers with a light simple batter and fried at about 375 degrees by the spoonful. While they are a great appetizer, I can make a meal off of them. Serve them hot with a little spicy dipping sauce. I have included the recipes.
Conch can be a little difficult and pricey to find here, so feel free to make these fritters using calamari, shrimp or even lobster.
If you are eating like the locals for breakfast you may have stew fish and johnny cakes. Hands down, this dish is Louise’s favorite. As with the fritters, stew fish are family recipes, and they all are a little different.
Traditionally, the fish is stewed in a medium-dark brown sauce. The stewing liquid begins with a dark roux made with equal parts of flour and oil. Chopped onions and a little tomato paste and thyme are added, along with some water. The fish is then added and simmered until done. The fish is served in this brown sauce with johnny cakes or grits.
In North America, and most Caribbean islands, johnny cakes are flat, cornmeal cakes that have been fried. For Bahamian johnny cakes, flour is used instead of cornmeal. The johnny cake resembles a cross between a very dense bread and a cake. While it may be slightly sweet, it is definitely not a dessert dish. It is, however, perfect for sopping up the brown sauce around the stew fish. Johnny cakes are usually baked in a round dish, instead of fried, and served in wedges. It doesn’t take many ingredients or much time to prepare johnny cakes. You just need a little butter, flour, water, salt, baking powder and milk. They are best served right out of the oven and slathered with butter and maybe a little jam.
For real comfort food, you might try digging into a big mound of pigeon peas and rice. This is a favorite Bahamian side dish that goes with virtually everything. The combination of a legume and a grain makes for a complete protein, so the dish has become a mainstay for the frugal family.
Pigeon peas are a dark brown bean that originally came from India and because rice is not cultivated in the Bahamas, it, too, had to be imported. The peas and rice you find in the Bahamas are a little more substantial than the similar dishes in other parts of the Caribbean. This is due to the addition of salt pork and chunky vegetables. Many believe that no lunch or dinner is complete without peas and rice.
The Bahamas are a special place, and they need our help now. Do what you can and plan a trip there real soon.