The Evolution of Belizean Food

Throughout travel guides 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 travelers 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 closer to the Caribbean version than the Latin: 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.

Kriol stew. Photo © Lebawit Lily Girma.
Kriol stew. Photo © Lebawit Lily Girma.

For breakfast, you should 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 habanero sauces, jams, and other creative products. Marie Sharp is an 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.

Then, of course, there’s the international cuisine, in the form of many excellent foreign-themed restaurants. San Pedro and Placencia, in particular, have burgeoning fine-dining scenes.

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 Sunday and holidays.

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