Chef John Malik

a writer in a cook's body

January 19, 2021
by ChefJohn
1 Comment

The Jaguars and Speed Bumps of Belize

The big cat quietly scrunched up its body, coiling its muscles as a competitive swimmer would on the starting blocks. Her mass was being converted to momentum, she was kinetic energy, clutching claws, and sharp teeth wrapped in a priceless fur coat. At that moment I was unsure that Carlos even realized how close this wild animal was to us.
“Uh, Carlos?”
The jaguar unloaded its energy and leapt towards Carlos, covering at least twelve feet in a heartbeat. She clawed herself to the thin metal wall of her compound, eyes locked on her human target. Amy and I instinctively backed up and caught our breath. Carlos’s voice, earlier was commanding had now turned soft and appreciative as he offered “Chiqui” (chicky) a handful of raw chicken. Her threat vanished into a series of loud cat purrs and gentle tail wags.

The Belize Zoo’s Jaguar, Chiqui


The Belize Zoo is, and isn’t near Belmopan, the capitol of Belize. It’s in La Democracia a town, village really, so small, it barely registers on any location-based software and Trip Advisor notes it with the Zoo and two restaurants. Belize is a country the size of Massachusetts with 400,000 citizens to the seven million of that US state. When driving through Belize’s mainland it’s easy to appreciate the vast remoteness of this beautiful country.

Juan

We arrived at the Tropical Education Center, an offshoot of the Belize Zoo, after driving the 29 miles from Belize City in a four wheel-drive rental car. Jurgen, the gentleman that helped us at Crystal Car Rental, gave us some very specific instructions, as did our hostess Diana in San Pedro.
“These people drive crazy so understand that. There’s no speeding tickets because of the speed bumps and they will destroy the car and put you in hospital if they don’t kill you.”
“Got it, Jurgen, thanks.”
“Mr. John I am quite serious. You both drive, understand? You behind the wheel and her looking down the road for speed bumps and obstacles. Don’t you bring this car back with any damage because you hit a speed bump, do you understand?”

Belize doesn’t build great roads.


Jurgen’s native German was very stern. As a young mechanic on a long haul freighter he first saw Belize when donkeys were the main mode of transportation. Today he waved off Belize City with a warning of keeping our distance.
“So much crime, such a terrible place. Oh! But the places you are going, Toledo, Placencia, such warm wonderful people. You two are very smart to be going to Toledo, the Mayans are such lovely people. They have so little and have so much.”
Jurgen was correct about all of the above. Thirty minutes later we rounded a gentle corner, under the speed limit and Amy hollered “Speed Bump!”
Holy Shit! Hard on the brakes, no one behind us, ABS engages, brake pedal chattering under my left foot, here it coms, now off the brakes and BANG!
“Thanks, Jurgen.”

one of the nicer bumps in Belize


The warning signs for that one speed bump, imagine a speed bump built by a high school shop class specifically for the principal’s car, was placed about six inches prior to the bump. A standard yellow road sign with “Pedestrian Crossing” in 24 point font. The kids in the village cleverly wait at these to sell local goodies like fresh juice, chips, or flowers because they know everyone must come to a full stop to safely navigate these land mines. And Amy takes that cue to spot the next one.
“If you see a bunch of kids standing on the side of the highway, then drop the anchor.”
“Yes ma’am.”
As Belize City retreated in our mirror, we were both surprised to recognize the savannah of our own South Carolina coast. Anyone that’s driven through the edges of the lowcountry, Edisto, Hunting, or Fripp Island, would think they were back home. This part of Belize is flat, sandy, slightly damp, dotted with saw palmetto and scrub pine and patrolled by Turkey Vultures and Osprey.

“Are we home?” Quizzed my bride.


We soon found the Tropical Education Center. The TEC is akin to a summer educational camp or retreat, the kind that dot the western North Carolina mountains, except with crocodiles, and it lies about a half mile south of the Zoo. Juan, our host at TEC was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He had a genuine love for the flora and fauna of his country, and he found much of the animals amusing, as if their quirks were meant for Belize. Dancing Red Capped Manakins, gargantuan nosed Tapirs, insane Leaf-Cutter Ants, chattering Coatimundi, goofy Pacas. As Juan offers up descriptions of the local inhabitants, he does so with a laugh and a smile. He guided us across the campus and then to our much nicer than anticipated room. As we unloaded our bags his favorite crocodile slowly swam up to us. Perhaps “swam” is too athletic of a word to describe how a crocodile moves through water. Drift is more appropriate.

Pirate the Belizian Crocodile

“Too many visitors throw snacks to Pirate. So, he thinks visitors means food. Whenever we would look for him at night, he always closed one eye, made him look like he had one eye, so Pirate works.”
“We’ll hold onto our snacks.”
“Good idea.”
Even though the steps to our overnight accommodations looked challenging for a drifting croc, we still looked our screen door.

The Lodge at the Tropical Education Center

Our zoo tour was an evening affair. About half of the animals at the zoo are diurnal, half nocturnal. And an evening tour sounded like a great adventure. Carlos, our zookeeper guide and long-time member of the zoo’s team, was soft spoken and respectful and shared a wealth of knowledge on the zoo’s residents. Unlike most zoos, the Belize Zoo only keeps native animals. Fair enough because this country is home to a ridiculous amount of intriguing animals. Our first stop were the owls, one of which was a mere six inches tall. As we fed their assortment of birds, there was a distinct snuffle behind us.

it’s best to step over these guys


Tapirs (Tah Peer) are in the same family as horses and rhinoceroses and with their silly noses and hunch backs it’s easy to make that connection. “Indy” was a native of Independence, Belize. He’d been abandoned by his mom and a local found him and got him to the zoo. A familiar tale through our tour as all animals in this zoo are rescues. Indy is a fan of fresh carrots and Carlos gave me a couple to share. That nose. That long, Cyrano de Bergerac, prehensile nose and that silly smile, Indy is begging for his carrot and he makes me smile, makes Amy smile, and of course Carlos is smiling. How could you not? As he crunches through his carrots, he offers up his ears and back for a scratch and I see him as a member of the horse and rhinoceroses family. His bristly hair is as stiff as mine after a cut and he’s much friendlier than I’d have guessed. After a few minutes, after he’s gobbled his allotment of carrots, off he goes to the darkness.
Soon we were in the company of Belize’s big cats. Their Puma looked like any other mountain lion, majestic and glorious. Sadly, our east coast American Mountain Lions have been declared extinct since 2018. It’s possible there’s a few roaming around the Appalachians, but unlikely. As long as there’s biodiversity, there’s a food source for the big cats and unlikely they’ll bother humans. This Belizian lion kept his distance from us.
Carlos turned and smiled as if we were about to get on a roller coaster.
“This way to the jaguar.”
Chiqui is short for Chiquibul, a national park in Belize’s Cayo District. A half drowned, baby Chiqui was rescued from a stream in the park by rangers and immediately shipped to the zoo. Chiqui is now friendly with humans and naturally a poor candidate for reintroduction to the wild. Just as well as she and Indy are the stars of this zoo and receive the lion’s share of their donations. Here she has a very large compound (she is caged at night), Carlos, and a supply of fresh chicken.
I know we’ve seen a Jaguar in a zoo before, perhaps in New Orleans or San Diego. But I do not remember them being so incredibly beautiful as Chiqui. Her fur, her eyes, he teeth are all immaculate. She radiates love and care and even though she is a powerful cat that, according to Carlos, doesn’t know her strength, I want to put my hands through her cage and scratch every hair on her body. Carlos obviously has had visitors ask if they could touch her and he offers up a warning to please not put our hands near the cage.
“She’s no Tapir.”
Well, he’s got me there.

just a friendly tree in Belize


The zoo has all of Belize’s wild cats and we met the Ocelot, much bigger than we guessed, their Margay which was much smaller than we realized, and the Jaguarundi which was more shy than we realized because he wouldn’t come out. All of the cats were incredibly beautiful, and we were fortunate to get so close to them in their home country.
Carlos motioned us towards the next area and cautions us to mind the ants. Leaf cutter Ants are so named because they cut leaves and carry the pieces back to their massive mounds. They do not eat the leaves, they chew them, pile them up and their saliva creates a specific fungus. And that’s what they eat. Yeah, it sounds gross, but it’s genius because few animals can digest grass. How these ants came to figure this out is one of life’s amazing mysteries. And we asked Carlos what Belize would look like without leaf cutters and his answer, “probably much greener” points out that all these animals serve a purpose in their homes. Humans, at least most of us, learned only recently that the collapse of one species can lead to the collapse of many others. Kill the coyotes in west Texas and you could be overrun with jack rabbits or prairie dogs. Introducing wolves back into Yellowstone was met harshly by many and the incredible results, now 25 years later, have been widely praised by many. Bats may creep you out but imagine how awful the mosquitoes would be without them.

leaf cutters have been here


Before departing we met the zoo’s coatimundi, its kinkajous and their four eyed possums. Other than the miniscule Pygmy Owl, the tribe of Kinkajou may have been the cutest. Members of the raccoon family, these long tailed furry friends scampered up to us looking for a snack, which we had. They are tree dwellers and prefer the rainforest and have no problems raiding a honey bee hive for honey. Hence their nickname of Honey Bear, although they’re not bears.
As Carlos walked us back to our cars and a big tip, I really wanted to go back to Chiqui’s area.
“Hey can we go back and see Chiqui?”
“You can’t put your hands in her cage. And we have a curfew.”
Damn. He was correct. Belize has an 8:00 pm curfew and these folks had a drive in front of them. We headed back to our lodge at the TEC, bade good night to Pirate, and locked our cabin door.

I think this will keep a croc out

~ John

Indy The Tapir

Leaf Cutter Ants

Wake Me Up Granola

2 cups Old-Fashioned Oats
1/2 cup sesame seeds raw, rinsed, drained
1/3 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 cacao seeds, ground, or 1/2 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/3 cup coconut
2 tablespoons coconut oil
3/4 cup dried fruit of your choice (I used cherries)

Preheat oven to 300°.

Line a baking pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Brush it with the tablespoon of the coconut oil.
Dissolve sugar in brewed coffee over low heat. Turn off the heat and add the vanilla, cacao nibs and remaining coconut oil to the liquids.
Place the oats, sesame seeds, and dried fruit in a large mixing bowl. Pour the liquid over the oats mix and toss to coat thoroughly.
Spread on the baking pan and place in oven. Set the timer for 10 minutes and turn the mixture with a spatula or spoon every 10 minutes. Could take up to 40 minutes to one hour to bake.
Cool before transferring to an airtight container for storage.
Yield: about 2 1/2 cups

©AmyMalikJan2021

You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

January 10, 2021
by ChefJohn
0 comments

Parrots & Horchata in the DFC

On our first morning here back in November we were excited by bird call from a host of tropical flyers. Squeaking Kiskadees, trilling hummingbirds, clucking kingfishers, warbling warblers, jabbering Grackles, boo hooing White Wing Doves, oddly quiet mockingbirds and the most provocative were the parrots. The common parrot here on Ambergris Caye is the Olive Throat Parrot and they travel in flocks occasionally numbering a hundred plus. They squabble and squawk as they burst into your neighborhood briefly settling into the treetops only to rush off, en masse, sixty seconds later. They prefer the tops of the almond, mangrove, sea grape, and coco plum trees as their colors are so closely matched. On many days, camera and long lens in hand, we’ve listened to several dozen parrots alight, watched the treetops shimmy from their numbers yet struggled to pick out a single bird for that close up. Perhaps when we venture to the national zoo in Belmopan, we will learn more about these chattering characters?

with Isariel Yupit


This past week I had my hair cut. While travelling on the water taxi to the small island of Caye Caulker I met a young man with a barber’s pole tattoo on his forearm. And as I would eventually need a haircut this gentleman seemed like a proper candidate to do the job. Isariel (pronounced: Izrael) had impeccable hair even on the fast-moving water taxi and like any good hospitality professional, he was very engaging. I broke the ice by asking him how does a native Belizian decide which language to use with a friend, Spanish, or English. When he finished chuckling, he responded he never thought about it before, it was something natural, like stirring sugar into his coffee. On our return trip to Ambergris on the water taxi, Isariel was once again my travelling companion and we shared favorite photographs, exchanged Instagram profiles, and made plans for a haircut.


DFC. It’s the working-class neighborhood of the island and just a bit south of here. It’s not a tourist destination, it is home to the homes of the front-line staff of the tourism industry. Years ago, the Development Finance Corporation was set up to provide micro loans to Belizians and this neighborhood is named for its fiscal beginnings. That’s where Isariel’s barbershop is and that’s where we spent the better part of three hours recently. Amy dropped me off at the shop, it’s just big enough for Isariel and his barber chair, a small couch and a TV featuring scenes of the Caribbean coast. He’s placed several wooden pallets in the street so if the water hasn’t gone down, his customers can keep their feet dry. Standing water is occasionally a challenge on this island and to hear the local government prattle on and on about their big plans of paving streets is akin to listening to Cliff Clavin spout his erroneous theories of American history.
Isariel is self-taught. It was something he desired to learn after watching a movie and now he’s a sought-after personal barber in the morning and sees the majority of his customers at his shop most afternoons. We both agreed the key to a healthy life is to keep learning, look for a new skill then develop it.

The mask came off just for this photo


“YouTube can be like free college, don’t you think?”
Isariel agreed and he often looks at other barber’s channels for the best techniques. As our time was winding down, I offered up one of my favorite theoretical questions: If you could be in charge for a day, what would you change?

“Easy. The government.”
“That’s a big change, Isariel.”
“But it has to happen. We just went through an election and we were so sick of the corruption from the previous party, we voted in the same corrupt party that’s been out of power for twelve years. Yeah, I’d change the government in one day.”
That question had offered him the invitation to roll his eyes at our government and I prepared myself for the onslaught that never came. This was the day after the ugliness on Capitol Hill and to his credit, he didn’t go there. Perhaps he wanted to. His government and our government have nothing to brag about right now.
While I was in his company Amy was casually driving through DFC looking for fresh tortillas. She received some directions from the owner of a small café but to no avail. After picking me up, saying my goodbyes to Isariel, it was lunch time and she suggested we head back to that one small café, Kenia’s.

Jorge, Kenia’s son


Restaurants here can be very small, and Kenia’s is a great example. Her kitchen is equipped with a few home appliances housed in a tight wooden framework. Her menu is limited to a half dozen local classics plus milkshakes and a few aqua frescas, which are fruit juices cut with fresh water. Amy and I each had a chicken and rice dish, one braised with ginger rice, the other fried with (red) beans and rice. Kenia makes her own drinks and her son, Jorge, sold us on a tamarind soda and horchata made with peanuts.
“Peanuts? Instead of almonds?”
“Yes. It is very delicious.” Replied Jorge.

peanut horchata and a small menu

And was it ever. Horchata is made with cooked rice, water, almonds, cinnamon, and sugar or honey. This one used the peanuts instead of the almonds and wow, I’m hooked. I’m a fan of that meaty minerality inherit in a peanut’s flavor and I prefer smooth over chunky butter. Almonds have a more delicate flavor, no surprise there as peanuts are legumes, cousins of black and red beans and not even in the same botanical family as almonds. Using legumes to make a drink sounds counter intuitive to everything we Southerners know of peanuts. Perhaps the closest we’ve come to drinking peanuts is when we drop them into a six-ounce bottle of Coca Cola. Yeah, I know that’s supposed to be some sort of religious experience like taking communion from the Archbishop on your birthday, your humble writer thinks it’s dumb. Horchata made with peanuts instead of almonds is insanely delicious. It was about this time my wife spied a young Olive Throat Parrot bouncing around in the mangrove behind Kenia’s. Once again, she was flummoxed by one of these parrots. She saw the leaves fidgeting where its voice was originating, yet couldn’t exactly see it. She stood up to try and snare a photo and Jorge asks her if she likes parrots.
“Yes!”
And at that Jorge left, returning a few minutes later with Jorgito, his very friendly, very curious, very beautiful Yellow-Headed Parrot. In a few minutes Jorgito the parrot was crawling all over us, exploring his new friends and chattering to the dogs, leashed up at a safe distance. After Jorgito became comfortable with us Jorge brought out his female, Paquita.
Yellow Headed Parrots are endangered, and Jorge’s are legally owned, banded by the Belize version of our DNR. As his parrots crawled around us, he offered up some parrot knowledge on their habits and shared stories of their parrot youth while Jorgito and Paquita chuckled their approval.

Amy, Otis, and Jorgito

Yellow Headed Parrots can be quite talkative, and many have been known to emulate human conversation. These two offered up the occasional “hello” and Jorge assured us they’re very talkative at the end of the day.
Eventually we had to part ways and as we were putt putting our way back to the main road, we discussed our luck at finding someone to share such intimate knowledge of his home.

Back in the US, we Americans tend to be very proud and protective of our dogs and to share them at our home to a visitor signifies our respect and trust of said visitor. Am I correct? Jorge was only too happy to share his “puppies” with us. We had spent the better part of the morning in the working-class neighborhood of the least visited (by tourists) area of this island and enjoyed a professional haircut, a remarkable drink that will stay with me for a lifetime and got up close and personal with two parrots whose kissing cousins had spent months defying our attempts to snap one decent photograph. On our travels, in the US or abroad, we’ve learned the most memorable experiences aren’t scripted, and our best meals are rarely found on the avenue.

~ John

parrots nibble (it’s called beaking) to test the strength of their perch and to explore their surroundings with their very sensitive tongue.

You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

January 2, 2021
by ChefJohn
6 Comments

Salt Water and Sea Turtles

A soft pull or a gentle tug. That’s how to get your snorkeling partner’s attention. Something more dramatic could mean a spinning propeller is bearing down on you. This was a hard yank. I turn and to Amy on my left and she’s pointing down and there, twenty feet below us, effortlessly gliding through the blue, is a…

an aptly named vessel for this essay


A journey, a quest, a goal. How do we define our many stated objectives of life on this planet? We want security, a meaningful occupation, strong healthy children, a handsome roof over our insured heads. In the space between those lofty, concrete goals we make room for dreams, ethereal pots of coin at the end of our rainbows. Mine have shifted with the years, the tides, the bikes I’ve owned, the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve influenced. Hers have been more delicate. Lingering scents from a favorite perfume, once briefly sampled then kept safe for another day, another time. Often our well-planned adventures have been fashioned by those scents. Our itineraries have occasionally felt like a Jenga puzzle secured by that one thing: a detour for a famous sandwich, a switchback to that particular vista, an hour at that one museum, for that one painting. Some have been successful, all were memorable. An adult sea turtle in salt water? That dream has been just out of her grasp as all those moving parts are out of her control. An afternoon at an aquarium with a sea turtle rehabilitation facility is easily conjured. Plan the weekend, save the money, make the reservations, buy the tickets. Observing a certain animal in its natural habitat, well now we’re going to need all of the above plus a whole lot of luck, plus the right weather and maybe a few pieces of specialized equipment and it still may not be enough. One may read all the books but good luck getting that elusive animal to read the same book.

preparing to sail


Over the years a little slice of our summers has been spent on the shores of a few South Carolina barrier islands. Fripp, Pawley’s, Edisto, Harbor, and Hunting have all offered their sea turtle nests and the possibility of a late-night hatching. It’s easy to schedule that visit, challenging to be in the right place at the right time. Those baby turtles hatch courtesy the warmth of the Carolina sand and their own timetable. We’ve spent many nights and early mornings walking those shores in search of a hatching nest and her only success was watching a few stragglers clamber to the water, holding one briefly with the encouragement of a park ranger. “One day I’ll watch hundreds of baby turtles emerge from the sand then skitter their way into the surf.” Like a gentle saltwater breeze that never quite finds a sail, that was and is one of those softly scented, elusive dreams, always remaining just beyond her grasp.

off we go into the blue horizon


As we simmered plans for our sabbatical to Belize and its many Central American aromas, she was teased by that one sea turtle. We both imagined it, knew it was a possibility, performed our due diligence. One morning, a month prior, she recounted a vision. She was in the water with a brilliant collection of animated fish and coral of all colors and through it swam a large turtle. No words were spoken, just a late-night vision of the sea and its life. Were these wispy tendrils a premonition of what was to come? Here in this small country with its Caribbean border we’ve met many divers and swimmers. And she’s peppered each with that question of “Have you ever seen a sea turtle?” Most have replied negatively. One dive master told her:
“Oh, that’s a tough one, they’re very elusive and live a solitary existence.”

Eddie the confident first mate of catamaran Miss Faith


How poetic for such a celebrity of an animal. You see, sea turtles can be seen readily across the Caribbean, on postage stamps, logos for bars, kites and clothing, ice cream shops and sailing ships. Indeed, while visiting the Bahamas she was teased by their presence at every turn and our dives were filled with spectacular sights, just no sea turtles. Perhaps here in this small country with its massive coral reef, her sail would find that breeze? On December 31st, we received an invitation from our friend Tammy. One of her catamarans was short a few guests and would we like to sail tomorrow, the first day of the new year?

coral reef in the distance


What better way to spend the first day of 2021 than meeting new people, sailing across sparkling water, and swimming across a coral reef? That day we were certain to do our yoga and drink our water. All the better to enjoy our dive and give her a sense of preparing. The first of January dawned gusty, the wind raced across our island, loosening every tree limb and bit of sand in its path. Sleeping to sunrise wasn’t to be, the trees of our island home spent their early hours scratching and squeaking against our roof. The saltwater breeze was calling to her, urging her awake, finding its purpose. On our sail we met new friends, from Houston, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, and Belize and only one had seen a sea turtle on a previous dive, on an island far away from this one. Our boat’s sails strained against the wind as we kept the reef on our starboard and fingers crossed.

sails with purpose

About an hour later we anchored near another boat, geared up and splashed in. Swimming near a reef means the current will be strong and the day’s wind added to that. Right away the waves pushed us around and we bounced off one another like ping pong balls in a sink while the wind stole our words. Eddie’s “Follow me!” was easily understood. Ten minutes later I felt that yank on my right shoulder and now she’s pointing, trying to yell underwater. It’s her turtle, the one from her dream, the one she held so long ago, the injured one she sponsored at the South Carolina aquarium, the one that’s spent the last fifteen years evading her. And it’s gliding effortlessly through the water, underneath her, gently encouraging her to follow. We briefly comply. Sea turtles may lumber on sandy shores, they are greyhounds in the water. He’s nimble and fast, gracefully navigating the Mumbai-ish traffic of this reef. His (hers?) shell glistens and shines as shafts of sunlight momentarily reflect his beauty towards us. Then he slipped away into the sparkle of the deep water. She reaches out to me and holds my hand, I squeeze back and even in this cool water, the warmth between us is noticeable. She has found her turtle, spent a fleeting moment in its company, marveled at its presence and wished it a safe journey.

photo courtesy Tamara Sniffin, My Beautiful Belize


Sea turtles? We know sea turtles. They’re very elusive, prefer a solitary life and for a brief moment, we were fortunate enough to be in the company of one.

~ John

You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

December 28, 2020
by ChefJohn
5 Comments

Christmas ‘cakes

Christmas to us, as a married couple, has always meant a big church service, our kids dressing up in new clothes bought just for the occasion, a fine meal and the company of friends and family. Although the years I spent working for hotels or retirement communities meant working on those big holidays we still found the time for that big celebration. With that in mind one of our big pre-move questions was how will we celebrate Christmas? And our answer was we would decide when the time came.
My position was all those Christmas day appearances had earned the good graces of our savior and he would surely allow us a casual sandy Christmas full of sun and sand. And on December 25th Ambergris Caye had their coldest day of the year.
Cold in Central America isn’t the same cold we have in Greenville County. However, 67 degrees in Belize is cold, especially when there’s heavy grey clouds and the winds are gusting to 20 mph. The night of the 24th, Diana, our innkeeper, had to root around her closets for blankets.
“Let’s see, the last time we needed blankets I would’ve put them…hhhmmm?”
With one sheet, one thin “Peanuts” dog blanket, two furry foot warmers and one Mennonite blanket in place we shivered through our Caribbean Christmas morning. As a joke my bride played Leon Redbone’s Christmas Island:
“How’dja like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How’dja like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?”


After which she surprised me with a 12-ounce bottle of maple syrup and a long sleeve shirt. Yes, a bottle of Vermont maple syrup. Because that happens to be one of my favorite flavors in the world, and two weeks earlier I’d made a sourdough starter. I’d guess that was her way of asking for sourdough pancakes for Christmas breakfast. I was happy to oblige and we happened to be enjoying our community kitchen with two Canadians and wouldn’t that be special if their Christmas Island breakfast was the possibly the best iteration of that northern tradition? Yeah, I set the pancake bar rather high.


Coconut Pancake Recipe
Two cups all-purpose flour
One teaspoon salt
One teaspoon baking soda
One teaspoon cinnamon
One teaspoon vanilla extract
Two Mennonite Eggs
Half of one stick of butter
One cup coconut milk
One cup Belizian sourdough starter
Two tablespoons (Mennonite) honey
Water to thin batter to desired texture

Those packaged boxes of pancake mix are an enormous waste of time. Why? Because the basic ingredients of pancake batter are likely already in your kitchen so let’s not waste time and money driving to the store for a box of cobbled together ingredients and chemical preservatives. So, let’s make pancakes. For your first attempt let’s start the night before, and to understand why, may we talk about gluten without everyone going into a panic attack? Gluten is nothing more than protein strands, and protein can be found in egg whites, beef steak, cheese, ice cream, beans, bacon, etc. However, in order to make fluffy pancakes it’s best to understand the behavior of gluten with respect to basics of baking.
Imagine holding a slinky in your hands. It’s pliable, that long spring easily moves from one hand to another. That’s a good approximation of how a raw protein strand behaves. Now imagine a bowl of plain flour, full of tiny Slinkys. Once we stir a simple batter, or knead a dough, those Slinkys start to stretch. Let’s go back to that one life-size Slinky in your hands. Now imagine a friend holding one end of your Slinky while you walk across the kitchen holding the other end. Now that previously pliable spring is stiff and elongated. That’s what happens when a wet flour mixture, such as a batter or dough, is mixed, either by hand or with a mixer. The more that dough/batter is mixed, the more those little Slinkys stiffen and elongate. That’s what makes a French baguette crunchy. And knowing how to control that bowl of Slinkys, when and how to mix, when to allow the dough/batter to relax, can be the difference between a silky chocolate cake and a disaster.
For great pancakes, making our batter the night before takes out a lot of that guess work and allows our bowl of Slinkys to slowly relax and return to a level of pliability which creates soft, luscious pancakes. Before we embark on this recipe we’re going to need two bowls with one rather large, big enough to hold a small frozen turkey and the other one big enough to hold a frozen chicken. And let’s have the chicken sized bowl be microwave safe, perhaps it’s glass or corning ware. Into the chicken bowl place that half stick of butter (or a quarter stick if you’ve got heart disease) cover it with a paper towel or plastic wrap, and pop it in the microwave for thirty or forty-five seconds. We just want it melted and the paper towel will prevent it from popping and covering the inside of your mike with melted butter. Once it’s melted place it on the counter and let’s go to the turkey bowl. Do you have a sifter or hand-held strainer? Good. Start with the sifter, place it over the bowl, put the dry ingredients in it, then sift into that bowl. Why? We don’t want lumps of baking soda and salt to end up in John’s pancake, that’s why. Those dry ingredients are the two cups of flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda.

Now back to the chicken bowl of melted butter. You’ll need a whisk first. Or a hand-held mixer and make sure before you turn it on, it’s on THE LOWEST SPEED. Now into that chicken bowl let’s add the coconut milk, honey (yeah honey is hard to measure, just pour in what looks like a shot’s worth) the two eggs and the vanilla extract. Using the mixer or whisk, mix this together. Do it quickly so the butter doesn’t congeal, you want a nice cohesive mixture of this stuff. Now add in the sourdough starter and mix again. Don’t expect this to turn into a smooth paste, just get close. And if you’re afraid of getting messy, place this bowl (before you start mixing) into an empty sink. That way any messy bits will land in the sink. Once that’s mixed into a gloppy mess, remove the bowl from the sink and place your turkey bowl into the sink. You’re going to need a large rubber spatula for this. Add the wet stuff into the dry stuff and either mix with the spatula or the whisk or a wooden spoon or the mixer. You want the consistency of apple sauce and you want it reasonably mixed. If it’s the texture of pudding, thin it with a bit of cold water until it reaches your pancake batter texture.

You’re done. Now cover this with film and place it in the refrigerator. Hey, let’s make sure the bottom of the bowl isn’t full of goo first. Clean up the mess and while the batter sits in the fridge overnight, all those little Slinkys have about eight to twelve hours to relax back to their normal state. That means we’ll have a nice smooth batter that’s also soft, and soft means fluffy pancakes.

Now let’s jump to morning and make some pancakes, or waffles. The batter is flexible that way. If you want to make waffles, just read the directions on your waffle iron and leave it at that. If it’s pancakes, we’ll need a large cast iron skillet. Don’t have one? Go buy one and get back to me.

This is critical to perfect pancakes

Wipe the skillet with a paper towel dampened with cooking oil then place it on LOW heat on your range. Now do you have a thin metal spatula? Good. Thinner is better. A flabby plastic or wooden one will definitely not work.

Place the bowl of batter to the left of the skillet, if you’re left-handed, do the opposite. On the right of the skillet, place a large plate for the cakes. Next to that plate goes the soft butter and warm maple syrup. You cannot make a huge stack of pancakes then go wake the kids and tell them there’s fresh cakes because they’ll be a big nasty mess. It’s best to make a couple at a time and let your crew help themselves as they come off the skillet.

Now splash a bit of water on your skillet, just enough to look for a sizzle. If it doesn’t sizzle then wait. When you have sizzle, pour a teaspoon of oil (not butter) on the pan. Here in Belize where coconut oil is cheap, that’s what we’re using.

Now rub that oil around with a wadded paper towel and if you burn yourself, suck it up and keep going. Now did you notice how the skillet is shiny when it has a thin coat of oil on it? That’s what you want every time you pour batter on the skillet. You’ll need that large spoon now. Take a dip of batter, about two tablespoons worth. Now pour it into your warm skillet, make two cakes worth. They are not ready to flip until you see lots of little bubbles in the batter. That’s steam rising up from the batter and if there’s no bubbles then your Slinkys won’t be stiff and the pancake will turn into a mess when you try to flip it. Let’s wait until we see at least one bubble in every dime sized space. Now flip. If your skillet has the proper amount of heat one cake should take roughly two to three minutes total. Once it’s been flipped the cake probably needs about thirty seconds to finish cooking. When it’s done it should look like this, without all the fancy accoutrement:

look through the syrup and coconut

If it’s blonde in the middle and crispy and shiny on the perimeter, your skillet is too hot and you’ve got too much oil. When that happens, the perimeter is absorbing the oil as it expands outward. That gives you an oily perimeter and if there’s no oil in the middle of the cake, then it’s not going to brown properly.

After flipping that first cake have you noticed how the wall of the skillet crowd the metal arm of the spatula? If so, consider purchasing a large skillet with sides that are only a half-inch tall.

I topped ours with slices of little bananas, powdered sugar and a sprinkle of toasted coconut. And of course, we topped them off with that bottle of warm maple syrup.

that green bottle holds local honey, shame on you for thinking it was beer, now go say ten Hail Marys

Prior to all this pancake activity, Amy made banana muffins and peppermint chocolates, made about eight goodie bags and addressed them with handwritten tags. We delivered those to some folks on the island that have gone out of their way to help us feel at home. Diego, one of the servers at Ramon’s Village Resort is one of those. He was quite flattered as were the others. And that’s what we believe Christmas should be, a calling beyond church, an attitude to carry with you daily. Now go do something kind for someone special in your life. And we wish our readers a (happy/cautious/fingerscrossed/betterthan2020) New Year

~ John & Amy

You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

December 18, 2020
by ChefJohn
2 Comments

Christian

“I was nine years old and the air tank on my back was as tall as I was. I remember how beautiful the water was that day and it was just me and my uncle on his boat, out by the reef. He adjusted my mask and asked me if I could breathe. I took a pull of oxygen through the regulator and nodded yes. Then he picked me up and dropped me over the side.”

Christian Trejo


When Christian was eight, he was snorkeling almost daily. At nine he was learning to scuba dive, at ten he was selling small tropical fish to local dive shops to stock their aquariums. And at 21, he is captain of Miss Faith, the catamaran on which we enjoyed our first sailing excursion in Belize. I’m no sailor yet I can recognize confidence and ability and Christian has it in spades. Our time on Miss Faith was smooth and memorable and watching him bring the big catamaran into the dock while also sharing his knowledge to a less experienced sailor begged the question, “Who is this young man?”
And about five weeks later I sat with him on Miss Faith and we shared similar stories of our youth. Christian is a native to Ambergris Caye. As a little boy growing up on a small island, he naturally spent a lot of time in the water. A lot of it was due to his home life.

“What little kid wants to be around Mom and Dad when they’re fighting?”


Christian is Mestizo and Mayan, his Dad hails from Cayo District, western Belize, the ancestral homeland of the Mayan culture and home to the largest ancient pyramid in this hemisphere, El Castillo. His dad missed out on higher education; while his brothers were in school, he went to work selling bread to help the family get by. As a kid, his dad fell in love with the water and later shared that love with Christian. And as Christian grew, so did his abilities in the water. He remembers being very young, five or six a running to the water, away from the conflict at home, and swimming for hours. Learning to swim led to learning to snorkel then learning to scuba dive. The landlubber in me guesses that’s a normal progression for an island kid but it’s not so. Lots of local kids can’t get over their fear of the water.


“Captain Shark’s, a local dive shop, would pay me a couple dollars for those bright tropical fish and I could make ten dollars in a short afternoon. Soon I was building my own traps from those gallon jugs, cutting them in half and baiting them. We were very poor and there was no such thing as money for snacks or extras, and of course I was always hungry.”


We both agree that’s good money for a ten-year old and snacks were no longer an issue. His pre-teen youth was full of the same games, the same adventures I had as a little kid, his happened to be on water. Sitting on the top of Miss Faith he points north. “We used to play tag, but in the water. And like that dock over there was home and right here was the other side. So, all that was our playground.


I’m surveying his playground and shake my head.
“Christian, that’s like a quarter mile, one-way.” When I guess as to the enormous amount of swimming he would’ve done one ordinary afternoon, he just grins and agrees.

“Oh yeah, we swam a lot.”

Christian is lean and athletic, with those natural, seamless reflexes only a 21 year-old possesses. He climbs easily across the bobbing boat of his company fleet as he scrambles to retrieve my dropped pen. Looking out at the sea, he slips his own moorings and sails off to his youth.

“We didn’t have phones or TVs, no video games but we had some good times. There was, I don’t know ten or twelve of us and after school we’d just meet up. We just knew where to meet. And we run down to the water and play and swim for hours. I miss those days. Such good times. When I was a kid, we always had something to do, and we never thought about what was for supper. I started fishing when I was little. No rods or reels, we just used a spoke from a bicycle wheel and tied a line to it. And we’d go down to the harbor, by the sea wall and corral the mullet into a small area, and we’d gig them with that spoke. Then off we’d go with our catch to a friend’s house and their mom would make empanadas or fish chowder. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather back then and one of his favorite sayings was ‘Good things happen to good people and those that are patient.’ Back then we looked out for each other, it was me and my friends and if one of us was in trouble, we would help each other however we could. And I feel like all that has come back to me now”
Christian’s sails are now full of a youthful breeze.
“One time me and two friends went snorkeling to the reef, we were at a point where one side of the reef the water is maybe eight feet deep, the other side the water is like twenty-five feet deep. And I’m on that side, my friends are on the shallow side. And this Eagle Ray comes rocketing towards me, so fast. And I knew something was chasing that ray. Then this big Bull Shark comes racing towards me, he’s like eight, nine feet long. Such a big shark. And I just froze, that shark flew past me after the ray. I surfaced and told my friends to get in the boat. And they said why. Just GET IN THE BOAT!”
“Did they get in the boat?”
We share a laugh then trade stories of my south Louisiana childhood, of snakes and crayfish, alligators and giant fish with an alligator’s mouth. Yet somehow the ferocious animals of my youth don’t feel as threatening as Bull Sharks and decompression sickness.

“When I was getting my diving certificate, I’m in the water with four other students and our dive master, my first organized dive, and we swim past the coral and this big green eel rushes at me and bites my tank. I heard this ‘Clang!’ and saw this eel swimming away.”
Yeah that never happened to me in Louisiana.

Green Moray Eel at the Georgia Aquarium


“When I was swimming with my friends, sometimes I’d see a boat, a sailboat, heading out to the horizon and I’d dream of doing that one day. Then Dad drifted away from us and I lost interest in school, but I never lost interest in the water or sailing. It was Andy Miller, he helped me turn my dream into reality. The school offered a spot on the sailing team to the ten kids with the best grades and that’s when I buckled down. And in a few months, I was on the team, learning how to sail.”
At those words his smile is brilliant, as that’s what led him to Tammy Lemus. Tammy, an expat with a mile-wide entrepreneurial streak, was the “Mom” for the sailing team. Soon she was Christian’s surrogate mom when he ran from the rancor at his own home.

“Tammy treated me like her own son, she taught me to be hard, to be tough when the time came. And she promised me one day I’d be captain of one of her boats. At the time she had one small single hull sailboat.”

Christian’s office


That boat is still part of Tammy and Nef’s (Neftali) fleet, looking a little forlorn and destined for some updates as soon as vacationers return to this island.
“Tammy was dating Nef and he was a really good guy, they were always planning for the future. Nef liked me right away and I was just a kid, thirteen, fourteen. And he had a good heart, an open mind. I started working for them and I just kept my eyes open, I’d do whatever needed to be done. And I was gaining more knowledge of the sea. And before I knew it I was on my first paying cruise. We sailed to Caye Caulker and took them snorkeling at Hol Chan and they were so happy. When you snorkel or dive at Hol Chan it’s like a 3D aquarium and that time, I hadn’t been in years and it all felt new and wonderful to me, and my guests. That was years ago, and I remember that trip well. It was a beautiful day, and the guests were smiling and thrilled with everything. At the end of the trip, I got a really big tip, too.”
“That’s cool, right?”
“Yes but I never expect a tip. I just do my best and if it happens, that’s great. Visitors, guests, they want to feel that positive vibe, so we treat them like family. Grandpa used to say, ‘When we treat people well, we receive that energy back. That was one of his sayings and he’d remind me of that often. So that’s how I treat our guests, our visitors, the crew. And on the water, there’s always something new to see, there’s dolphins that come up to the boat, schools of flying fish, sea turtles. It’s always an adventure and that’s what I love about this job.”

Some days the two horizons melt into one another

A captain of a sailing ship at 21 and an important part of the number one industry in this country, what’s next for him?
“I’m studying mechanics. We have six boats now and when one of our engines goes down, Nef has to pay a mechanic and I’d like to keep that money in the company.”
At that I remind him of his grandfather’s saying: “When we treat people well, we receive that energy back.”
There’s a cleansing aspect to the water. Perhaps if we spend enough time in it, let it run across our bodies, course through our veins, will it absolve our past of its sins and mistakes, polish our frayed edges, restore our souls? I see that theme in the marketing for the four-star resorts coming to this small island. Lithe models in yoga poses, beautiful girls in three hundred-dollar bikinis apparently need their souls cleansed, too. My cynical side often smirks at those advertisements because they focus on the individual, not the culture, country or experience. Christian sees these new resorts as an opportunity to show off his boyhood playground, his sailing skills, his country, his water, his home.

Christian sails for Nef & Tammy Lemus at Xsite Belize

You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

December 13, 2020
by ChefJohn
5 Comments

The Best Chocolate in The World

In my hands is a basalt stone, about the size of a small running shoe. I’m rubbing  roasted cocoa nibs on a metate, (mah tah tay), a curved tablet of rough-hewn stone, and watching the cocoa bean components melt into that familiar texture of warm, dark chocolate. Chris offers me a small spoon and I scrape off a teaspoon’s worth and enjoy an ethereal bite. The chocolate, already melted, sits satisfyingly on my palette. There’s a beautiful essence of red raspberries, Oregon Pinot Noir, and red plums floating across those layers of traditional chocolate notes of caramel, vanilla, roasted nuts, dark coffee, and butter.

grinding cocoa nibs on the metate

This is not candy. Cocoa nibs, the fermented, roasted, then cracked components of a whole cacao bean are almost devoid of natural sugar. What I’m tasting is the building block of every spectacular dessert, every molten chocolate cake, every memorable chocolate truffle I’ve enjoyed. And at this moment we are about an hour’s boat ride away from the ancestral home of that first bite of chocolate.

Chris Beaumont, an Englishman, and his bride Jo own Belize Chocolate Company in San Pedro, on the Caribbean shore of Ambergris Caye. Chris is a modern-day chocolatier using 21st century technique and machinery to honor ancient Mayan traditions of exceptional chocolate. Chris is guiding us through the basics of cacao farming, bean fermenting and roasting, to creating his exquisite bars.

Amy’s chocolate cupcakes ready for finishing touches. The recipe is below

Chris isn’t a chef or baker, he’s a former process engineer for a glass company. Makes sense, right? Great chocolate and beautiful glass are the result of combining time-honored and modern technique, proper ingredient sourcing, and adherence to the process of mixing, shaping, and cooling. From his small shop on the beach to farms across Central America, Chris and wife Jo source cacao beans from farmers descended from those ancient Mayans.

Mayans negotiating with cacao beans

2000 years ago, the Mayans, better known as the original Belizians, realized the potential of those football shaped pods on the cacao tree. Kah Kow, as it’s pronounced, is an evergreen tree that would rather not be cultivated. It prefers to live amongst a variety of plant life. Its fruit, those football shaped pods, grow directly from the trunk. These trees are finicky. They like 60ish inches of rain annually AND well-drained soil, and their shallow root system requires proximity to hefty green neighbors to protect them from strong winds. The rain forests of Central and South America are its natural home.

Chris conducting a chocolate class

Evidence suggests as early as 450BC, the Olmecs of southern Mexico were drinking a fermented beverage made from cacao beans. We know this because chocolate leaves traces of its key ingredient, theobromine, behind and archaeologists have found enough of it in ancient sites. The Olmecs likely considered chocolate a ceremonial beverage, not an everyday drink for you and me, it was something reserved for the ruling class and their shamans.  Cacao pods enrobe their seeds in a thick, sweet syrup and it’s easy to imagine early humans enjoying the pod’s sweetness but how did we get to the roasted seed part? Chris imagines at some point a late-night reveler may have tossed their now dry seeds into a dying fire and the next morning one curious (probably the village chef) sort crunched into the bean, the heavens opened, a shaft of light shone down, and chocolate knowledge was bequeathed.

rough chocolate on the metate

Laugh, but consider this. The sensation of sweet, those ripe sugar notes would be familiar to anyone with an ample supply of ripe guava, bananas, papaya, or pineapples. Those intoxicating notes of dark chocolate, though, wouldn’t that be eye-opening on your first taste? And you’d want to share that knowledge enthusiastically. And soon the Olmecs had likely shared their cacao knowledge with their southern neighbors.

cacao pods

Perhaps it was a couple of fishermen, cooks, or hunters trading knowledge of this technique? “Yeah, well you think roasting a whole snapper over avocado wood is awesome, try throwing some of those tannic cacao beans into your fire then crushing them in the metate the next morning.”

The Mayans of Belize began roasting their own beans, crushing them in their metates, and turning the paste into a bitter drink flavored with chile pepper, corn, cinnamon, and/or allspice and writing about it with their 800-glyph language. Cacao drinks were the topic of much artwork and the beans were eventually used as currency.

Mayan ceremonial chocolate cup

While I was crushing my own Mayan chocolate paste, Chris invited me to add in a little sugar and powdered milk and after a few passes with the stone those familiar, exquisite chocolate flavors transported me back to my first taste of a real chocolate truffle.

My young bride was working in the pastry shop of the quite French Meridien Hotel in downtown New Orleans. One night she got into our old car, gave me a kiss then handed me a Meridien cocktail napkin wrapped around a tiny dark chocolate. Truffles are so named because they’re meant to resemble the eponymous underground mushroom. Properly made, they have three components, each one being chocolate. My mom was an excellent baker, and I was no stranger to simple chocolate desserts. This truffle, however, what a revelation. Its dark crunch yielded to a center of mystery, intense flavors I hadn’t yet experienced. That truffle was followed by a warm kiss, at midnight, in July, in downtown New Orleans, in our first year of marriage. And today, standing over that metate and tasting freshly ground cacao at Belize Chocolate Company makes me feel young again and I remember that first truffle, that warm kiss.  Is it any wonder the Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmecs all believed chocolate had powers of youth, vigor, and wisdom?

Those so-called chocolates you see at the checkout counter or the department store have very little chocolate in them. They’re all sugar, lecithin, vanillin, diabetes, and palm kernel oil and other crap. They are not “chocolates”. And that familiar squeeze bottle of chocolate syrup? Good luck finding the words “chocolate” on its label. Chocolate isn’t something you buy at the department store, the convenience store, the average grocery. At its best, chocolate comes from producers with French, Swiss, and Belgian provenance. Beans are grown and shipped to these familiar producers from not only Central and South America but western Africa and the Pacific equatorial islands. Like great wine, cheese, coffee, and tea, the more defined the location of the raw ingredients, the better the final product. Red wine with grapes grown in “California” will never reach the heights of wine created from grapes grown in “Isaac Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, California.” Real chocolate, the stuff capable of creating life-long memories, should look something like this:

In the past I’ve been thrilled by those world-class chocolates from producers such as Lenotre, Valrhona, Torres, and Guittard. Their chocolates have intense flavor profiles and are used to create desserts at the finest restaurants. This chocolate from Chris and Jo is unlike those. Yes, it’s smooth and supple with all the best chocolatiness one would expect from a luxurious bar. It’s the glossy nature of those aforementioned streaks of red fruits, an uncommon trait in the “best” chocolates and something I’ve never tasted before. And those enticing notes of raspberry, plum, and Pinot Noir are a direct result of the cacao trees grown in this terroir, the intangibles that define the dirt, the heat, the humidity, the jungle canopy, and the salt water breezes of Belize.

ready for chocolate class

The chocolate from Belize Chocolate Company may be my favorite chocolate of all those “Best” in the world chocolates.

~John

Belizean Chocolate Cupcakes

Cupcakes

1 Cup All purpose Flour
1/3 Cup Belizean cocoa powder from Belize Chocolate Company
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder

¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon salt

Two cocoa nibs, ground to a powder
¼ Cup cold coffee
¼ Cup Media Crema (or Half n’ Half)
4 ounces of unsalted butter (softened)
1 Cup sugar
2 whole eggs – preferably from local gallinas (chickens)
1 teaspoon Mayan vanilla

Buttercream
3 egg whites
2/3 Cup turbinado or cane sugar
¼ teaspoon of lemon or lime juice
4 ounces Belize Chocolate Company Dark Chocolate, melted and cool
4- 8 ounces softened butter, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon Mayan vanilla
4-6 Cups of sifted confectioner’s sugar

For the cupcakes:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
    Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, allspice, cocoa nib powder and salt together. 
    Mix coffee and cream.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time and vanilla and cream. 
  3. Add dry ingredients alternately with liquids to egg/sugar mixture, incorporating well after each addition. 
  4. Portion batter into paper cups filling approximately 2/3 full. 
  5. Bake for 18-22 minutes.  Check after 18 minutes by gently pushing the top of an individual muffin. If the top springs back they’re done. Remove from oven, remove muffins to a baking rack and allow to cool before decorating.

While cupcakes are baking, make the buttercream. 

  1. In a large stainless steel bowl add egg whites and sugar. Using a large pot with about an inch of water, place this over medium heat, then the bowl with the egg whites. Whisk the whites and sugar constantly. Heat until the mix feels silky, sugar is dissolved, and is warm to touch. This should take about five minutes.  This technique will heat the whites to a safe temperature without scrambling them. Do not let them sit over the hot water, immediately transfer to a stand mixer, whisk attached.
  2. Add the citrus juice. Whip on the lowest speed and gradually increase the speed until light and foamy. Add the vanilla, continue whipping until whites form stiff, glossy peaks.  Make sure the mix is cool to touch. 
  3. Add the butter cubes in a few additions, whipping constantly. At first the mix will begin to look curdled, but with the addition of more butter it should begin to look glossy and shiny like a buttercream.
  4. Add the sifted confectioner’s sugar one cup at a time until the buttercream is stiff but still spreadable. Taste when curious, the amount of confectioner’s sugar is adjustable for flavor and consistency. 
  5. If you wish all the frosting to be chocolate, add all of the melted chocolate and whip to incorporate. If you are making a vanilla icing and a chocolate frosting, reserve the vanilla in a separate bowl and add the melted chocolate and mix until incorporated. Leave the buttercream at room temperature until ready to use. It can be kept in the refrigerator for up to one week. 

Yields 12 frosted cupcakes.

©AmyMalikDec2020

Magdalenas de chocolate, muy delicioso


If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

December 3, 2020
by ChefJohn
2 Comments

Watercolors

The green torpedo burst into the air, exploding the water around it. It hung in the air, shimmering in the sunlight, flapping wildly, temporarily framing itself into its own watercolor. For one brief moment I was the sole admirer of a painting unlike any I’ve previously revered. The glimmering water, the late day Caribbean sun, the outrageous greens and yellows of the Mahi Mahi fighting for its life, the taut line, and Daniel’s Colgate smile encouraging me to reel.

The owner’s name is Gus

Back into the water and the Mahi dove, desperately trying to rid herself of the steel hook. Down she went taking line with her, now Jamie is next to me telling me to tug hard on the rod then spin the reel. I know that, but I’m laughing because the reel is on my left and I’m right-handed, and it feels like my left hand is drawing clunky triangles with chalk on a gravel driveway. For just a second, I see my reflection in Jamie’s Polarized sunglasses, and I’m smiling.

I’m old enough to know better, young enough to amuse myself daily with a few dozen pushups. I grew up near the Gulf in south Louisiana, moved as a newlywed to Charleston, SC and somehow missed out on deep sea fishing. Amy and I have fished many times, fresh water and salt. We’ve caught our limit of bass in Lake Moultrie and flounder near Pawley’s Island. Today we’re in very deep water, off the shores of Ambergris Caye, on a 55-foot Hatteras with some folks we’ve known for just a few weeks.

With Gus and Anna on Gusto

When we decided to go on this year-long adventure, my bride found Tammy Lemus, a local realtor. She manages a rental home here in Belize for good friends of good friends. And she’s been our tour guide, restaurant critic, and hall monitor that’s kept us out of international trouble and up to date on the political mischief. She’s a native of Colorado, moved here fifteen years ago after a short visit.

Tammy and Daniel

Tammy has introduced us to people, Americans and Belizians alike. Like Tammy, these are generous people, with their time, their insight, their boats and smiles. They’ve welcomed us to this small island with handshakes and cold beers. Perhaps they admire our moxie for moving here sight unseen? Like good bourbon to writers, kindred spirits tend to attract one another. We’ve already spent an afternoon on one of her catamarans and enjoyed a few beers in her friend’s restaurant. And today we’re with another of her friends, on his boat, making more friends and doing something neither of us have ever done, in a country we’ve lived in for thirty days.

Daniel reels one in

Jamie and Daniel are also friends of Tammy’s and I assumed they’re both professional fishing guides. They’re so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and of the two, Jamie is the more esoteric. He’s watching all eight lures dance on the water, making sure they don’t catch on grass, imagining himself a proper fish underwater. Daniel is more technical, looking at tension of the lines, adjusting the reels. Earlier Daniel has sought me out and offered me the first fish, not as a prize but to reel in. Perhaps this is a tradition on a deep sea excursion? Doesn’t matter the reason, I’m all in and I thank him.

 Thirty minutes later and the sun is low on the horizon. At this time of the year, we have sunset by 5:30 and there’s already a splash of copper on the waves.

Fishing at sunset off the coast of Ambergris Caye, Belize

“Fish on!”

It’s Daniel calling to me. He hands me the rod and a seat on an ice chest and “Holy Shit!”, there’s a damn bucking bronco on the other end. I’m sliding around on this ice chest, the rod dancing in my hands. This is a small Mahi Mahi, After landing I’d guess about 15 pounds. The boat is doing about 12 knots, maybe a bit faster and there’s probably 100 feet of 50 pound test line out there. And this 15-pound fish is tugging and pulling me around the tail of this boat like I’d hadn’t expected and of course she’s bit on the only left handed tackle. Well, not much I can do about that. After a few awkward cranks, Daniel wraps a fat belt around me, the end of the rod clicks snugly into the belt. Much better. Soon I get the hang of it. When the fish breaches, I reel hard. Nef, Tammy’s husband is coaching me along the way. Pull on the rod, straighten the tip to 90 degrees, let the rod come down and crank hard on the reel. Now bring the rod back up to 90 degrees. Let it come down and crank. The fish has other ideas and dives down, taking line out. Shit. Pull hard. Ugh.  I realize I haven’t worked out in like 45 days and this damn fish is taking advantage of me. Pull hard to 90 degrees, let it ease back down and Nef is right there telling me to crank.

“John, you okay?”

“Yeah Nef. All good.”

I’m not good, though. My left shoulder is burning, my arms are cramping, the ice chest won’t cooperate. Years of cycling taught me to pedal through cramps and breathe deep and I’m not about to let someone else reel in my first big fish.  Soon the fish is tiring, I can sense her energy dissipating. Daniel encourages me with “almost there” and a minute later the fish is on board, bleeding everywhere. The hook comes out and after posing for a few photos she goes onto the ice. Earlier I was certain this was a fifty-pound fish and once I held her for the photos, given the fight she put up, I’m almost embarrassed at her size.

dinner

Over the years I couldn’t guess how much Mahi Mahi I’ve cleaned. From Charleston to New Orleans, to Greenville. I’ve grilled it, fried it, seared it in numerous cast iron skillets. Most of the time I’ve seen it as a skin-on filet and that skin was grey with little streaks of color. I’ve read how Mahi Mahi lights up when hooked and seen friend’s photos of their catches.

Now that I’ve seen it, felt one fight, watched her break the water on the other end of my rod, cleaned one less than an hour after it left the water, eaten one that I’ve pulled from the sea that day, it’ll never taste the same. About a year ago, I invited some chefs and cooks to our farm to slaughter some chickens. I had four roosters that had to go and the invitation was purposeful. Slaughtering a living animal makes you a better cook. When your restaurant is busy and you’re serving four hundred covers a night, and the cash register is full, a burned steak isn’t a big deal. It should be and yet it usually isn’t. The cook gets an order, she reaches into the low boy and grabs a NY Strip or a filet of Mahi Mahi without considering this was once a living, breathing animal. It’s just an order that has to get cooked, plated, and served and on to the next order, the next piece of meat.

That day at the farm I had five cooks with me and walked them through the first rooster. That’s not an easy thing to do, take a life when you’ve never done it before. Three of these cooks hadn’t. They’d spent years cooking without ever truly understanding where that meat came from. Hold a dying animal in your hands, waiting for its life to ebb away is a tough thing to do. And at the end of that day on the farm, after we’d cleaned up the blood, all of these cooks agreed. They’d remember this for a long time and they’d be better cooks, more careful with their fish, chicken, pork, and beef, and they’d share this lesson with younger, less experienced cooks. If YOU did that once, you’d likely never waste another bite of chicken again. You’d be less likely to send your steak back just because it was a tiny bit overcooked.

As I placed that Mahi Mahi into the ice chest, I thought about those guys on the farm. They left thanking me for making them better cooks, more respectful cooks. I placed my hand on that Mahi Mahi and thanked her for the fight, promised none of her would go to waste.

~ John

If you’d like to visit Ambergris Caye, Tammy and Nef Lemus own a charter service, Xsite Belize and we heartily recommend their services. They’ll take you diving, snorkeling, sailing, exploring, or fishing and you will love every minute.

After our dinner of Mahi Mahi, we shared a dessert of fresh coconut pudding fortified with ground cocoa nibs from Belize Chocolate Company.

Belize Coconut Pudding

1 ½ cups Crema Media or (Half n’ Half)
1 cup Coconut Milk (not Coco Lopez)
½ cup sugar
3 egg yolks
3 Tablespoons corn starch
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup freshly grated coconut
2 whole cacao nibs, ground (we use our coffee grinder)
½ teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

coconut pudding garnished with hibiscus blossom and leaves

Toast the coconut to a light brown by placing in a thin layer in a 250° oven for 10 minutes at a time. Set a timer and stir the coconut to toast evenly and return to the oven for another 10-minute period. Repeat until there is a mixture of dark, light and slightly blond flakes. Once cool, the coconut can be stored for three to four days in a Tupperware style container.

Pudding may be made up to three hours to a day in advance.

To make the pudding:

  1. Mix the sugar, cornstarch and salt and set aside.
  2. Using a whisk, beat the egg yolks into the sugar mixture. 
  3. Heat the cream, coconut milk and ½ Cup of the flakes in a 2-quart, heavy bottomed saucepan.  Bring to a simmer. 
  4. Temper the yolks with about ¼ cup of hot milk and beat generously until foamy, then pour all the warm egg mixture into remaining simmering milk. Turn heat to low.  Using a heat proof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, continuously stir the pudding until it thickens to the consistency of thick pancake batter, but not a pudding texture. As the pudding cools, the cornstarch will continue to thicken.
  5. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine strainer into a clean bowl.  Stir the vanilla into the strained pudding and cover with plastic wrap pressing the plastic down upon the top of the pudding surface. Chill until ready to serve. 

For serving, garnish with remaining toasted coconut flakes.

Yield:  4 servings

©AmyMalikNov2020

If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

November 29, 2020
by ChefJohn
3 Comments

Sky Juice and Dog Paddles at Secret Beach, Belize

The “beach” here in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye is somewhat illusory. While most of the beach is public, the combination of sea walls, jagged shoreline, construction projects, and scattered bits of rocky terrain create a beach-ish puzzle. A walk on the beach in San Pedro means trotting over various obstacles, some natural and some not. Back home our favorite beaches offer up smooth, sandy thoroughfares often fifty plus yards wide. I can remember my beach runs back home where I passed tents, sunbathers, a guitar player, kids on wake boards, and never having to break stride.

Good times there, until one gets hungry.  Most food at or near an American beach isn’t fit for my dog. Feel free to challenge that.

This past Saturday morning we took a bumpy drive (heck even our shortest drives are bumpy) to the north end of Ambergris Caye and the much written about Secret Beach. My guess is years ago this beach was only accessible via boat, hence the “Secret” part, and since then there’s been a lot of development via American real estate speculators.

But I’m not even barking

Having been turned back twice previously courtesy flooded roads, it was a relief to make it on this occasion. I wasn’t especially interested in this trip and we can thank the marketing of Maruba Beach Club. Their signage promises pretty young women capable of keeping a secret. And to me that meant bad food, cheap drinks, poor service. Our morning would consist of a thirty-minute ride across rough roads in a poorly sprung golf cart to a questionable destination. And was I ever wrong.

The first person we met was Ricky from Maruba Beach Klub.

“Hey folks! Good morning and welcome to Secret Beach. Is this your first time here?”

The accent of a native Belizian is quite lovely. Take the word “noun”. In the states, most of us would say “nown.”  Here in Belize the average* resident would pronounce it “now…nn” and each letter would be drawn out as if they were singing this one word. The result is words such as “pronounce” practically drift away on treble clefs. A conversation with a native can be as satisfying as listening to one’s favorite song. Maruba Klub’s Ricky was offering us great hospitality, with four chords. He gave us an arm’s length visual tour of the beach, provided a short description of the four establishments sharing the beach, asked our names and our dog’s and promised a great meal should we return. And when we returned thirty minutes later, he called out: “Mr. John, Miss Amy! Welcome back and may I bring you a menu?”

Well yes. Because a few minutes earlier my wife purchased a Sky Juice. On our trips to the Bahamas we were intrigued by the Sky Juice cocktail. It was nothing more than a fresh coconut with a shot or two of gin and a straw. Simple and tropical, versions of which are sold in coconut treed nations the world over. Yet somehow, we never found one at the right time. You can see this one coming, correct? One of Ricky’s competitors offered Amy a fresh coconut cocktail and instead of her asking “hhhmmm, what time is it?”  (it wasn’t quite 10:00 am) or “What’s in it?” she asked, “Yes, please.”

Coconut & Rum for breakfast

Good thing I was driving.

One can measure coconut water’s ability to slow alcohol absorption with a sundial. And two shots of rum is still two shots of rum. So, after our swim, which provided our dogs a chance to humiliate us, we returned to Ricky’s care. A plate of fry jacks, a bottle of water, and an order of Huevos Rancheros showed up ten minutes after ordering and damn, this is what island food should look like and taste like.

Breakfast at Maruba, Secret Beach, Belize

Yeah, I know. “Hey Chef, what’s a Fry Jack?”

You’ve probably had a New Orleans style beignet, correct? Or a yeast risen pizza? Fry Jacks are both, and neither. Why Jacks? Why aren’t they Bobs or Jimmys? I’m hoping a reader will offer up a proper story as we’ve heard differing opinions as to why they’re “Jacks” and I doubted both.

Fry Jacks from Maruba Klub, Secret Beach, Belize

Two of the Jacks we’ve had were round, fairly neutral, yeast risen doughs like pizza dough. Both deep fried, one seasoned with cinnamon sugar and honey, and one was savory, with grilled chicken, beans, and hot sauce to form a Belizian style Sub sandwich. My least favorite was a baking powder dough filled with a scramble of eggs, cheese, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, and herbs. An omelet inside pancake batter, deep fried, sliced in half. Oof!

Chef Marlaine of Maruba offered up six small tropical beignets served with a dish of local butter and honey. And they were perfect. Light and airy, warm enough to melt butter and my cynical heart. Her Huevos Rancheros were miniature tostadas with all those delicious Ranchero elements. Here were clever and careful use of local ingredients used to create a delicious and photogenic meal. Two nights before we’d dined at one of San Pedro’s heralded brasseries where we expected this level of cuisine, only to be disappointed and relieved of three times the money of Maruba.

And the beach. Although not large by my previous standards, the water is clean and cool with the slight green and blue tint from phytoplankton. In other words, it’s a healthy beach. It’s not enough beach to go for a jog and it’s certainly pretty and clean. As we swam we were greeted by snappers, tangs, and small angelfish. There’s also a lovely view of the western Caribbean and Leonardo DiCaprio’s island. And those dogs of ours? The water at Secret Beach could not be more inviting. It has all the current of bath water. One couple had their two little ones in, and they were jumping and splashing about. Our two chasers of iguanas and eaters of raw beef, however, were petrified. We plopped them on one of Secret’s picnic tables and encouraged them to swim all of five yards in two feet of gentle, cool, clear water. You would’ve thought we were asking them to swim through a flaming river of rusty barbed wire into the arms of their vet and a year’s worth of vaccines. Years ago, Bonnie, our Jack Russell Terrier, would’ve comfortably swam to Leonardo’s island, peed on his favorite pair of Seersucker pants, then swam back in an hour. These two? Well, we still love them, they’re very good dogs and Leonardo’s wardrobe would be safe in their care.

Otis contemplates his fifteen foot swim.

Now granted our time at Secret Beach was during a lull in international tourism (thanks corona virus, no uppercase for you) and we were there at the aforementioned 10:00 am. Should you head to Secret Beach at 9:00 pm on a Saturday night and not get the same experience, don’t come complain to me.

Table for two at Secret Beach

*there isn’t an average Belizian

If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

photo by chef john malik

November 26, 2020
by ChefJohn
6 Comments

Island Turkey

Considering his night, Bobby’s smile is energetic. He six foot tall frame balances gracefully in his six foot long kayak. He’d spent the night fishing the coral reef and has several Jacks and a Permit or two in his boat.

“Cualquier otro pescado?” I ask.

“Yes” His voice husky is tired from his overnight excursion and returning to the dock with a broken paddle. He opens his cooler and shows me six gorgeous red snappers, each about five pounds.

“Thanksgiving turkey!” I spout.

Buying fish on the dock

Ben, the groundskeeper at Feathers, laughs heartily. Bobby spoke little English and after Ben translates, Bobby croons with raspy laughter.

“Si. Pava pescado, senor.”

We decide I’ll return in ten minutes and Bobby would have my snapper scaled and gutted and when I do so, I pay him his asking price of 21.00 BZ, $11.00 US, plus a nice tip. Bobby smiles, thanks me generously and wishes me a beautiful day. Bobby spent his night in a small, recreational kayak. His cutting board was a three-foot piece of two by four and he had a small LED flashlight strapped to the bill of his ball cap. He dropped lines into the water, no rods, no reels, just baited line. His hands probably could’ve sanded wood. I walk back to Amy, waiting for me with our dogs in our rented golf cart. The impossibly fresh fish for our dinner tonight would fetch $20.00 a pound back home. I have an eighty dollar fish in my hands.

Spectacular Red Snapper

For perspective, suppose an international tourist stopped by our farm back home and asked if I had anything delicious for sale. My only comparable offering would be Grey Squirrel which I’d have to shoot then clean. I wonder if he’d tip me for providing something I consider a nuisance?

Our Thanksgiving started with a 4:30 am rain shower. Under our tin roof the rain creates a pleasant, tropical sound. I made coffee sweetened with honey and tamed it with a shelf stable cream, curiously labeled Crema Media. “Media” means half yet this cream is as thick as pudding, much closer to heavy cream than our half and half. It is quite lovely and has none of the scorched flavor notes of canned milk. We shared a cinnamon roll from our nearest bakery, grabbed our camera, saddled up the dogs and putt putted our way to the beach.

Local landscaper loading Sargasso seaweed into his truck.
Photo mine, editing courtesy Richard Ondrovic.

The recent rains have left gaping holes in these gravel roads. And those holes are still fat with grey water so driving across these roads is akin to “Whack a Mole”. We dodge and skirt the watery divots, our golf cart transmits every bounce through our backside and spine. When another cart approaches it’s hurry up decision time. Do we return to the proper side of the street, likely plow through a nasty hole and possibly splash the bike passing us on our right? Do we wave the approaching cart through as we wait our turn for the less-bone jarring side of the street and if so, will the folks coming up behind us be in a gotta get to work hurry or will they also value their bones and joints as we do? There’s no chiropractor on this island (Edit: There is a very excellent Chiropractor on the island. David “Doc” Arnold. Tell him hi from the Bowens, former island residents now living in Merida, Mexico.) and but a few medical clinics and there’s plenty of broken carts with cracked wheels, rusted out leaf springs, drowned engines, fried electrics. This town is a graveyard of golf carts so we usually yield to those with an agenda. There’s but a few miles of paved road, and when I say paved, I really mean not gravel. Those particular roads are crowned with pavers and every quarter mile or so there’s an enormous depression with a “caution” sign. Sometimes those signs are near the depression, sometimes not. After the heavy rains of Eta, work began on those depressions. That work is still going on and it makes for more games of Golf Cart Chicken.

The mean streets of Belize

Access to the beach is available about every third block. We park, unload the dogs, lock up the cart. Our dogs love this adventure and on our walks they’ll chase iguanas, sniff Sargasso, watch leopard rays from a dock, spy a variety of sea and shore birds, maybe get a sausage treat from one of the vendors on bicycle. The rides through town are bumpy for us, the dogs don’t seem to be bothered. Their four legs absorb shock much better than our rumps and they smile and chatter all the way to our destination.

This is our fourth week here on Ambergris Caye  and this afternoon we discussed Thanksgivings from years ago. Parades, television, pies, broccoli, more pies, turkey & gravy, football, and of course there was always friends. Our dinner tonight will be a baked grouper, so fresh its eyes are crystal clear. I’ll stuff it with slices of lime, cilantro, onion, and hot peppers. We’ll have rice, cucumber tomato salad, avocado salsa, and fresh tortillas. One of the tortilla houses sends out a guy in a golf cart through the town. He has two ice chests full of warm tortillas, wrapped up in wax paper, 30 each. He charges 2.00 BZ for a pack of 30. This particular tortilla house grinds fresh corn every day, makes the masa, then cooks the tortillas on a comal and loads them into an ice chest. Maybe an hour later our guy swings through our neighborhood tooting his horn, letting us know the tortillas are here.  I believe we’ll have a glass of Hibiscus Rum Punch, too.

Fresh, warm tortillas can be had daily

We miss our friends and we have made new ones in this distant country. And we’ve also reminded ourselves of the bounty of America. Over the years we’ve been to Romania, The Bahamas, Mexico, Morocco, Yugoslavia, Greece and now Belize. And every time we’ve traveled, we’re reminded of the things we take for granted. Here in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, there isn’t one traffic light, there’s one gas station, little in the way of air conditioning, no movie theatre, one local beer. You get the idea. However, the charm and simplicity of life here reminds me of the things we seem to have forgotten. The natural beauty here is quite breathtaking, there’s fresh local fruits and vegetables available on almost every corner, there’s street food, simple little bars on the beach, and constant smiles for strangers. And we both believe Thanksgiving should be something we experience year-round, not just one day. A daily appreciation of all things beautiful, a daily expression of thanks and gratitude is the way to true happiness. We are enjoying ourselves immensely.

Hibiscus blossoms simmering for tea.
Look for the Hibiscus Rum Punch recipe soon.

“It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy that makes happiness.” ~ Charles Spurgeon

Sunrise on San Pedro. Photo mine. Editing courtesy Richard Ondrovic.

If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.

November 16, 2020
by ChefJohn
7 Comments

Rain, Sunshine, and Snapper

The week of our arrival to our temporary home here on Ambergris Caye, the island received about 12 inches of rain courtesy Hurricane Eta. This island is very flat and of course we’re but a few inches above sea level. That means the rain water leaves when the sun comes out, and very slowly at that. As of today, Monday the 16th, there’s still some standing water in what passes for streets. Only a handful of these streets are paved, most are a combination of dirt, stone, and potholes. Even though the typical vehicle is a roughly 700-pound golf cart, their heavy treaded tires can do some damage to a soggy dirt road. And today is really the first day the local government can get out and grade the roads. Doing so with water still there only makes the roads turn to soup so it’s done when the roads are dry.

Hooded Oriole of Belize

Tonight, Hurricane Iota will crash ashore below the Honduran/Nicaraguan border bringing 150 mph winds and perhaps 30 inches of rain to the same area hit by Hurricane Eta just two weeks ago. Here on Ambergris Caye, 500 kilometers north of Tegucigalpa, we’ll likely receive about eight inches of rain.

Amy and I will stay right here and deal with it. What else can we do? We’ve stocked up on the necessities, we have plenty of tortillas and coffee on hand, and early tomorrow morning we’ll head to the Tuesday Mennonite market at the docks and pick up fruit and vegetables for the week. It’s going to be raining. And we’ll get wet. Many locals will likely be more than inconvenienced, especially those that live south in the mainland. Their rivers will overflow, their fields will be flooded, their lives could be threatened, their small towns destroyed. Nicaragua and Honduras will bear the brunt of this storm, as they did two weeks ago from Eta.

These Central American countries have not achieved the level of sophistication in their transportation and health care systems they would like to. The reasons why are beyond my pay grade, as is the how and why they could receive two major hurricanes within such a short time span. Yet receive it they will. As I write this there is an unsteady energy in the atmosphere, the heavy clouds are already whisking past. Driven by a steady breeze with its accompanying drone, the clouds are fat and gray with moisture. The cloud tops are being whisked into streamers by the high winds aloft. Our temporary home is surrounded by trees and their limbs and stems are rubbing against one another creating squeaks, whistles, and groans. The green almonds are being shaken from their tree, falling on our home, landing with a loud crack. Most likely an iguana or two will land on our roof sometime tonight.

Iota is coming

The colorful, vocal birds that would normally be visiting the feeders are elsewhere. And the Grackles, instead of sounding feisty and curious, are issuing a harsh buzzing, likely an alarm call. The curtains of our community kitchen are being pushed and pulled, in and out. Our phones will be charged, the candles close at hand. Fortunately, our kitchen has a gas stove.

blue heron

Life is a series of calculated risks. Every time we leave the house, every time we get behind the wheel of a car, every time I climb on my bike, every time we make travel plans, we, perhaps unconsciously, accept a level of risk. Life has a 100% mortality rate, death is a certainty. We are all born, we will all die.  I believe it is our goal to fill up the middle of our lives with great stories, adventures, and purpose.

The rain is now falling and when it strikes our tin roof it makes such a lovely sound.

~John

coconuts are literally everywhere

Here’s a recipe we’ve been working on. It’s coconut milk poached snapper  with coconut rice and chayote squash. As there’s a LOT of coconuts, and snapper, and limes, and rice in Belize, this dish is a natural. We bought our freshly grated coconut at the market from a fruit vendor. When we asked her, she volunteered her son to grate a couple of fresh ones. She charged us 5.00BZ, exactly $2.50 US. And some people complain about the price of food here? And yes, we always tip well.

For the Fish

Two Pink Snapper Filets, about five ounces each

1 12 to 15 ounce can coconut milk

1 cup water

1 small yellow onion (half for the fish, half for the rice)

1 Scotch Bonnet pepper (split in half, seeds removed)

1 Lime, juiced

2 garlic cloves, cracked

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

4 or 5 stems fresh parsley

1 chayote squash (or your favorite squash)

chayote squash is a favorite of Central America

For the Rice

1 tablespoon coconut oil

1 cup rice

1 cup water

1 cup coconut milk

Half of the yellow onion, diced

¼ cup shredded coconut

Juice of one lime

Salt & pepper to taste

Tomato Relish

Two ripe plum tomatoes, diced

1 squirt of lime juice

Salt & pepper to taste

Fish

In a tall stock pot add the coconut milk, water, onion, garlic, Scotch Bonnet pepper, lime juice, vanilla, salt and pepper and bring to a simmer.

squeezing lime into the coconut milk mixture

Start the rice.

In a stock pot, saute the diced onion in the coconut oil until translucent. Add the rice and stir until all grains are coated in oil. Add the water, coconut milk, and water then bring to a boil. Immediately turn heat to a simmer, place lid on pot, set timer for ten minutes.

chayote squash, cut and ready for the pot

Let’s go back to the pot of simmering coconut milk. Add the chayote squash, or large dice of your favorite squash. In one variation of this recipe we used eight or nine local okra and it was delicious. Now add the fish filets on top of the milk, place the parsley stems in, place the lid on this pot and adjust heat to a very low simmer. The filets should be just immersed in the simmering milk mixture.

the squash has been added
the fish filets go in next

Has your ten minute timer gone off yet? When it does, turn off the heat on the rice. Leave the lid on the rice, just turn off the heat. Set your timer for ten minutes.

Dice the tomatoes

Since avocadoes are just now out of season in Belize, and it is illegal to import avocadoes into Belize, we couldn’t find any for our photos. However, if you can find some where you are, dice up a fresh one with your tomatoes, add in a splash of lime and maybe a bit of olive oil with the salt and pepper. Has your second ten-minute timer gone off yet?

add the coconut to the rice. we saw best results adding the coconut after the rice was cooked

If so, stir the grated fresh coconut into the rice, don’t beat the rice up with a big spoon. Just use a fork and gently stir in the coconut. The fish should be done so place a big scoop of the rice on the plate, add the squash, place the fish on top (be gentle removing the fish), spoon some of the poaching liquid on top of the fish, and top with the tomato relish.

that’s a good shot of our little kitchen
dinner for two, Belizian style

~Amy

If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.