Chef John Malik

a writer in a cook's body

Departure

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“Well shit. Now what?”

Sunday morning’s news wasn’t good. A tropical storm had formed in the Caribbean, it would strengthen, then head for Belize. As were we.

Our home had been emptied off its contents and was safely stored, our cats had new homes, our chickens likewise, our jobs but a memory. We had a few hours of final prep ahead of us and in the early afternoon a friend would drive us to Charlotte for our trip to Belize. By the time that friend showed up, Eta was a full-blown hurricane with further strengthening predicted. Its path put it on a collision course with Nicaragua, then Belize.

My dark side, the one I try to keep in check, imagined a worst-case scenario. Belize could receive a hammer’s blow 12 hours after we arrive. It was my own self-interest, of course. Instead of focusing on others, I concerned myself with my self. That night in Charlotte we received an email from American reminding us there’s no penalty for changing our plans. And we considered backing up our journey by several days so this storm could play itself out. Then we talked ourselves into rolling with the punches.

Three months earlier we took our dream and set it into motion. I’d been unemployed since mid-July with no sign of returning to work any time soon. The hospitality industry had been gutted and as a special events chef, no events meant no need for my services. A good friend had been working in Belize for the better part of three years and an April joke (Bob, you know of any bars for sale in Belize?) turned into a months long conversation with him, then my bride, Amy. She was gainfully employed yet we both believed we could find employment upon our return.

Could we live in on a small island, Ambergris Caye, in a small Central American country without cars, car insurance, health insurance, jobs, and all the trappings of a three thousand square foot house? We made a list of the positives and negatives, addressed each one, then agreed. Yes, we could.

San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize

Our previous adventures to the Caribbean gave us a love of their diverse cultures and exquisite raw fruits and vegetables. To a professional cook, the allure of unfamiliar ingredients, authentic street food, and little federal oversight is very appealing. And now, on the cusp of our year-long adventure, we were racing to beat a hurricane.

Suppose you had planned a big move, a new job in a new town. And that town was threatened with a natural disaster. Would you change your plans? Hopefully not. We figured Belize was ours for a year or more so we should be for Belize. If we spent our first week or two there helping clean up, then so be it.

Our travel day started at 3:00 am, 90 minutes before our alarm, as we were both too wound up to sleep, as were our dogs. With 225 pounds of luggage, 45 pounds of dogs, and new regulations, documentation, and questions courtesy the age of CV, our journey would have new challenges for us, and other fliers.

In our defense, we would be away for at least one year

“Have you or someone you’ve been in contact with been exposed to someone that’s discussed, read about, drawn pictures of or shared photos of someone that may or may not have been exposed to someone with or without the virus known as Covid 19 in this lifetime or the next?”

“Uhhh…no?”

After a lengthy interrogation, a few suspicious glances, and two trips by the customer service agent to, no kidding, “see his supervisor” we hustled aboard.

Ever flown with a dog? Life for our two had been quite unsettling as over the course of four weeks their cat, chicken, and turkey companions all disappeared to new homes. Followed by their favorite furniture. Wouldn’t you think you were next? They were shoved into carriers and pouches, driven across state lines, then squeezed into a box for the flight. Otis sat between my feet and when the engines throttled up for takeoff, his shaking could’ve powered a small generator. On our flight from Miami to Belize I let him sit in my lap and that was much more enjoyable for all.

Our little dog, Pumpkin, in her backpack for the flight

On the Belize City to Ambergris Caye flight, the Cessna Caravan offered us plenty of room, a new friend to meet, large windows and none of the aural assault of jet power. Otis’ excitement was infectious.

From the morning chill of Charlotte in November to the warmth and salt air of Central America in a day. Crystal the innkeeper arranged a taxi to get us to Feathers Guest House. After unloading and changing, we clambered aboard a gas-powered golf cart and with sixty seconds of directions, we were off. My wife has a knack for finding her way around.

Our dogs are strapped in tight

The streets of Ambergris are a mixture of cobblestones, pavers, salt water, and pot-holed gravel. Single speed bikes, motorcycles, scooters, the occasional truck and a multitude of golf carts bang and dart their way across the island. I found myself humming Herb Alpert’s “Tijuana Taxi” as we bumped through San Pedro looking for sustenance. We were in a real-life game of Super Mario, dodging and weaving while trying to grab those shimmering gold stars.

Within five minutes we passed a guy on a bike with a rack of baked goods over his front wheel. Little sausages wrapped in pastry, chicken empanadas, miniature coconut pies, cheese stuffed hot peppers. Two of each, please. And all were so wonderful and obviously handmade as their edges showed a human touch. Our dogs gobbled up the sausages and we snacked on the rest.

Yes, please
Mennonite produce on Ambergris Caye

We passed a vegetable stand, then other, and yet another. Plum tomatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, cucumbers, papayas, dragon fruit, onions, garlic, oranges, brown eggs, limes, carrots, and pineapples called to us from every corner. And every bit of it was grown here in Belize. Many years ago, Mennonites from Canada settled here and set about farming. Today they have a vibrant community and make up about four percent of the population and they craft gorgeous dairy products as well as the farmed produce. As we scuttled through San Pedro we screeched to a stop in front of a tortilla shop, Leonel’s Tortillas.

A tiny little place with just enough room for 50-pound sacks of dried corn, salt, 25-pound bags of calcium hydroxide, a proper grain mill, a large mixer, and a flat top grill. The young lady inside was making her tortillas from corn dough she ground herself and her tortillas couldn’t have been better. She charged me 2.00BZ for ten amazing tortillas, two of which we ate right away while our imaginations ran wild with taco possibilities.  In comparison, the last meal we had in the states was two dreary plates of canned and frozen mediocrity, courtesy a huge restaurant next to our hotel in Charlotte. TVs adorned every bit of wall space, beer taps sold every traditional draft beer, their menu offered every artery clogging special from wings to potato skins to nachos and their construction must’ve set their investors back three million dollars. Yet their food was as mundane as their brown plastic plates. Years from now, when the aforementioned restaurant in Charlotte has been rebranded many times over, travelers will still be reading about and seeking out Leonel’s tortillas for a perfect example of a tortilla. Leonel’s tiny shop produced a single food with sublime passion and skill and did so with a minimal investment. That gargantuan restaurant in Charlotte with all its equipment, staff, furniture and massive construction costs had not one bit of soul, no passion, offered nothing memorable. In our first few hours in Belize we sampled something so complete, so beautiful, the finest example of a culinary staple that represents an entire culture, the land from the American southwest all the way to the middle of South America. And ten of them cost us $1.00.

tortillas from Leonel’s

Our adventure to Belize, barely a day old, had already paid dividends.

~ John

The next evening, with our pineapple, some dark rum, and three less than admirable purchased cupcakes, my bride produced a bread pudding we shared with Crystal and her daughter. And here’s the recipe:

Amy’s Pineapple Rum Pudding

November 4, 2020

After tasting the dry, bland ‘cupcakes’ from the corner bodega, I thought I could turn them into something delicious. I crushed pineapple with a meat mallet for our rum cocktail and used the leftover pineapple for this dessert.

Ingredients:

3 each, day -old vanilla cupcakes
1 cup freshly crushed pineapple from the corner stand, (save the juice for a Caribbean cocktail)
2 Mennonite brown eggs
½ cup of Media Crema
¼ cup of evaporated milk
2 tablespoons honey from the Lebanese Hardware store
1 pinch of ground allspice
1 pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of butter
2 generous tablespoons of Belizean Rum

  1. Set the oven to 350°. Prepare 2-quart casserole dish by rubbing with coconut oil, then place the butter in the dish and place that in the oven for about 5 minutes until the butter is melted. Remove the dish from the oven. 
  2. Crush the cupcakes in a medium bowl and add to the crushed pineapple.
  3. Wisk the eggs, creams, honey, allspice and salt, together and pour over the cupcake/pineapple mix. Pour the rum over the mixture and stir. 
  4. Add mixture to the casserole dish and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until set. It will jiggle slightly when you shake the pan. 

Finish with whipped heavy cream or chilled crema. Should serve about six.

~Amy

Enjoy!

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.

Author: ChefJohn

Cook without tattoo, writer without a pen

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