Wednesday, January 14, 2009


This post is especially for Daniel Grant, who requested recipes.

My sister, Julie, recently sent an e-mail asking if we were enjoying exotic fruits. The short answer is “no.” I was surprised to find that there are few exotic fruits and vegetables grown in the Bahamas.

I had expected to find mangoes falling from the trees. I thought we would shop at open-air markets featuring fresh-picked pineapples, bananas, taro root, papayas, guavas and lots of produce I didn’t recognize, but would soon learn to use in making fabulous new dishes. I was wrong.

The reality is that these beautiful limestone islands have only a thin layer of fertile soil. There is some successful farming in the Bahamas, mainly pineapples on Eleuthera and vegetables on Barraterra, but not nearly enough to feed the population. Most produce is imported and, for that reason, frightfully expensive.

At the local market in George Town, I paid 75 cents for a banana, $4.00 for a 3-pack of Romaine, and 50 cents for an apple. Most of the produce is imported from the U.S. or South America.

So, what do the Bahamians eat? Lots and lots of fish, prepared every way imaginable. Loads of French Fries. A ton of macaroni and cheese. Peas and rice. Johnny Cakes. Cole slaw.

In spite of a few exotic dishes like Fish-Head Soup and Chicken Souse that I mentioned in a previous post, the Bahamian diet is fairly limited and extremely bland.

The majority of the population came as African slaves on British plantations. The Treaty of Versailles in 1783 restored the Bahamas to England and Florida to Spain. Many British loyalists with plantations in the southern colonies of America relocated to the Bahamas to escape the wrath of the revolutionaries, tripling the population of the Bahamas in a short period of time.

The slave trade ended in 1807 and slavery was abolished in 1834. Hundreds of freed slaves learned to survive as fishermen and subsistence farmers. Their diet was limited by the lack of good soil for growing fruits and vegetables and influenced by the English dishes they were used to.

Local restaurants have surprisingly similar menus. You will usually find a variety of fish, shell fish and conch dishes, barbequed chicken and ribs and often meat loaf. Sometimes you will see pigeon meat and pig’s feet on the menu. Side dishes almost always include French Fries, Johnny Cakes, macaroni and cheese, slaw, and peas (pigeon peas) and rice.

The macaroni and cheese here is nothing like the Kraft Mac and Cheese that comes in the blue box. Bahamian macaroni and cheese is a rich, baked dish that puts Kraft to shame, but is guaranteed to raise your cholesterol.

Bahamian Macaroni

2 cans evaporated milk, 6 beaten eggs, 1 lb. grated cheddar cheese, 1 chopped green pepper, 1 chopped onion, 1/4 lb. butter, 16 oz. box macaroni, 2 T. Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce to taste, salt and pepper.

Boil the macaroni with the onion and green pepper. Strain. Mix eggs, milk, seasonings and 3/4 of the cheese. Add the macaroni and stir well. Pour into greased baking dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

The one really exotic dish I have yet to try is Guava Duff. I have heard folks speak of it in raptured tones and it’s difficult to find. I’ve never seen it on a menu. I think you must go to a bakery to find it (or become good friends with a local cook). A visit to the Bahamas is probably not complete without tasting Guava Duff and I will persevere until we have sampled some.

I found a recipe for it and it sounds a lot like persimmon pudding. I hesitate to try to make it myself, not knowing how the finished product should look or taste. You might be more adventuresome. If so, let me know how it comes out.

Grava Duff

4 T. butter, 1 cup sugar, 3 beaten eggs, 3 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 2 cups guava pulp, 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp. ground cloves.

Cream butter with sugar, add eggs, beat well. Add sifted flour and baking powder. The dough will be stiff. Roll the dough out to about 3/4 inch thickness with a rolling pin. Mix the guava pulp, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves together and spread over the dough, leaving a margin around the edges. Moisten edges, roll up and seal the ends. Flour a pudding cloth (whatever that is) and wrap around the Duff. Tie the ends, leaving room for Duff to swell. Place on top of a saucer in a saucepan of boiling water. Cover and boil 1 hour. Slice and serve with Butter-Egg Sauce.

Butter-Egg Sauce

1/4 lb. butter, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 egg, separated. Cream butter and sugar, add egg yolk and blend. Beat the egg white until stiff and fold into the mixture. If too thick, add a couple of drops of hot water.

Finally, I have had chicken souse twice in the Bahamas and loved it both times. It's surprisingly simple to make, delicious to eat, and I understand it will cure a hangover.

Chicken Souse

One 2 to 3 pound fryer (or 2 to 3 lbs. drumsticks and/or thighs, or 24 wings, separated), 1 large diced onion, 4-6 peeled and diced potatoes, 3 diced carrots, 1 T ground allspice, 2 bay leaves, hot pepper flakes or bird peppers to taste, salt and pepper to taste.

In a large pot, cover the chicken with water and add remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and continue simmering until chicken and vegetables are tender, about one hour.

Serve with lime wedges, grits and Johnny Cakes.


Barbara's Blog said...

Which one is the iguana? Really, I love iquanas and its good to see so many in one place. I was afraid they were becoming extinct. I'd love a bowl of that mac and cheese right about now. Its snowing and 18 degrees and dropping. Stay away, stay far,far away!

Melissa said...

Thanks for the recipes! I'll have to give the Guava Duff a try. We have been feasting on persimmons lately (very big for the Chinese New Year) and I have been thinking about persimmon pudding. Maybe we'll do both!

Debjani said...

I just came back from the Bahamas and can't wait to be back there again! We stayed at Cable Beach but ate at the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay almost everyday! Twin Brothers is fantastic for it's food and drinks! You'll find the famous Guava Duff there. Yummm....

Bahakiwi said...

I stumbled across this blog and had to put "my 5 cents" (Bahamian talk show) in. While you have it right that we do have very poor limestone soil, if you visit some locals, you will find many fruit trees growing. Some things grow fairly well. Breadfruit, mango,grape fruit, sour orange, paw paw (papaya), guinep, tamarind, sugar apple (my favorite), guava, coconut, avocado, bananas, juju (might be known as Chinese Gooseberry elsewhere but won't swear to it), dilly, and okra to name a few. Very few vegetables survive our soils. As for the dishes, you forgot the infamous conch. By no means is our diet healthy for sure. We load up on starch day and night but we do have a number of variations. Conch chowder, cracked conch, conch salad, conch fritters, sweet corn, cornbread, conch chowder, crab 'n' rice, minced crawfish, potato salad (also made differently than in the US like our macaroni), boiled fish, black eye pea soup, lima bean soup with pumpkin fritters, homemade mango or coconut icecream (sweet milk makes it perfection), turtle soup, barracuda, coconut tarts, souse with any animal part you dream of--sheep tongue, pig's foot, cow tongue, etc. If you want or need recipes, I have them. It's not always easy to find the ingredients in the US (I live in FL now and am well aware of the difficulty) but it is worth the search. I didn't read any other blogs so I am not sure if you went to any of the other islands but the family islands are limited. For example, if you were to go to Green Turtle Cay, Abaco you would find fish, conch, or chicken (usually fried) on every menu on the island. It is a favorite and a lot of tourists aren't so willing to try a dish called sheep tongue souse as you can imagine. If you go to Nassau sometime, you will find jerk anything at the Bamboo shack or more native dishes at the smaller run down looking restaurants. However, a fairly nice restaurant (pretty expensive even to Bahamians though) to try is Traveler's Rest and you can find minced crawfish and grits there. Yummy! After this comment, I need to make a trip back home---I'm hungry. :)