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Adventure and Epicure

Local Dishes
Recipes from Honduras

by Luke Shullenberger

Garifuna Backyard-Oven Allspice Cinnamon Buns

The recipe here, although delicious, is not the real story; the baking process is what’s intriguing. We spent a few days in a Garifuna village (read about the Garifuna people) called Hopkins, full of people beaming with ready smiles and pride in the richness of their culture, if not their material wealth.

Sarita, the "Sweet Bun Lady" as she is known to everyone in town, is no different. She has kept alive a baking tradition begun by her great-grandmother and when we showed up with cameras and lots of curiosity, she was only too happy to let us watch and learn.

She makes a yeast dough with the standard flour, butter, sugar and eggs and flavors it with local allspice and a little cinnamon, but the true magic happens when she bakes it. The oven is a large steel barrel cut in half, and covered with a piece of corrugated roofing. The heat comes from a fire made of coconut husks and driftwood burned down to coals. She places the risen buns in the barrel, rests the barrel on pieces of cinder block around the fire pit and puts the lid on top. The majority of coals are taken out of the pit and put above the lid to top heat the oven and avoid burning the rolls’ bottoms. Fifteen minutes later, sweet, fragrant and perfectly golden brown rolls are taken out and placed on a table to cool. They don’t last long, as people seem to come out of the woodwork to plunk down 50 cents and "get dem while dey hot, man!"

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs. pastry flour
  • ½ lb of sugar (generous)
  • 3/4 stick of butter
  • 1 egg
  • Water
  • 1/2 packet of yeast
  • ½-3/4 tsp. allspice
  • ½ tsp cinnamon

Preparation:

Cream the butter, sugar and eggs in large bowl. Add spices. Dissolve yeast in a little water and add to mix. Stir in flour slowly and add tablespoons of water to form dough. Knead for ten minutes and place in greased bowl in a warm place. Let rise for an hour and knead again for 5 minutes. Form into 12 inch long "snakes" of slightly more girth at one end. Take that end and roll the snake around it in concentric circles. Place rolls on a cookie sheet to rise for another hour. Bake in your own back yard oven or at 375°+ in your oven for 15 minutes or until deep golden brown.

View the Photos


Fish Dumplings in Coconut Achiote Soup

The phrase "fish balls" doesn’t impart much glamour to this wonderful dish, so I used a little artistic license. Not that "dumplings" is much better, but when writing about food, it’s all semantics and esthetics. Something tasty for your palate must be equally delectable to your ears. Although the preparation is essentially like meatballs, the experience of dining on them is sublime.

This recipe actually comes from Tobacco Caye in Belize, but variations can be found all over the Caribbean. I would classify it as Creole or Garifuna cuisine rather than Latin.

The dumplings are egg-sized and come in a generous portion of broth served with tortillas or bread. They are slightly spicy and sweet from the coconut and achiote paste seasoning, and the firm-fleshed white fish and bread combine to make a texture that is the perfect balance of meat-like density and cake-like consistency.

Ingredients:

  • 6 slices of dry bread
  • 1 ½ lbs (3/4 kilo) white fish filets (cheaper, flakier meat is actually better)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp minced ginger
  • ¼ tsp each of coriander, cumin, chile powder
  • ½ tsp oregano

Soup:

  • 4 cups chicken bullion
  • 1-2 cups coconut milk
  • Achiote paste (start with 1 tbsp, add to taste)
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil
  • Salt, pepper

Preparation:

Roughly chop the fillets and add to mixing bowl. Chop the old bread and add it to fish. Drop in the eggs and spices and mix with your hands until all ingredients are well combined. Form into large egg-sized balls and fry in enough oil so that it covers the surface of the pan.

The soup is easy. Mix all the liquids together and heat.

Serve each person two or three dumplings in a bowl and ladle soup over them. Excellent with warm tortillas or dense bread and cold beer.


Sopa De Caracol

This recipe is a testimonial to an old adage, in this case referring to roadside eateries in Central America, “Never judge a book by its cover; you may be pleasantly surprised.” I will tell you from the outset, however, that the daily fare in Honduras is nothing to write home about. With the exception of the wonderful fruit, it’s an uninspiring mix of refried beans, rice, eggs, tortillas, plantain fries, leathery meat, and a few veggies. A standard plate of food will contain four or five of those items with maybe two choices of meat. It’s cheap, salty and fills you up when you’re very hungry.

We were sitting in a tacky beachside stand with Pepsi logos plastered on everything in the coastal town of Omoa, just over the border from Guatemala. On a Monday, with all the weekend Honduran tourists back in San Pedro de Sula, the industrial city of 500,000 a 40-minute drive away, the beach town was empty. Even during the high season, on weekdays this town is quiet. There was only one other table of diners.

You will find that these places only stock a couple of menu items during the week, making it pointless to look at the menu. Just ask them what they have. Fried chicken and Sopa de Caracol were the only options. JP, unfamiliar with caracol, chose the chicken but I decided to give it a try, anyway. It was an excellent choice. Large meaty chunks of conch, al dente in texture and sweet in flavor, came in a soup of chicken broth, coconut milk, garlic, chiles, cilantro and a pinch of fresh ginger and cumin. Diced tomatoes, onions and carrots added extra flavors and textures. With a beer, warm corn tortillas and merengue music on the stereo, it was a fabulous meal despite the legendary Honduran sand flies feeding on me.

Ingredients:

  • ¾-1 lb conch cut into large chunks
    (substitute large clams, scallops, or any sweet shellfish)
  • 6-8 cups chicken bullion
  • 3 cups coconut milk
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 minced chiles (use your own judgment here)
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 tsp minced ginger
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1 diced carrot
  • 1 diced medium sized onion
  • 1 diced medium sized tomato
  • Salt to taste

Preparation:

Put bouillon in stockpot on high heat and turn down to simmer once it boils. Add diced veggies, cover and let simmer for 10 minutes. In a pan, sauté the garlic, chiles and ginger in a little oil on medium heat until garlic turns translucent (30 sec.). Add conch meat and sauté for 2 minutes, then turn off heat. Add meat to stockpot along with the coconut milk and cumin. When liquid begins to simmer, turn off heat, add the cilantro and serve.


Bay Island Mango-Glazed Chicken

Utila Bay Island, Honduras is the setting for this one. If you step back 300 years you would be rubbing elbows with the original Captain Morgan and his merry band of cutthroat pirates who holed up in Utila Bay. This island was the staging grounds for raids on Spanish forts and galleons up and down the coast of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Abundant rumors of buried or sunken treasure are surely apocryphal but there is a different variety of leftover Spanish loot that you should be able to get your hands on with ease: the golden flesh of mangos. People tell me that the mango is not indigenous to Central America, that it was brought by the Spaniards and then proliferated wildly. On the island of Utila alone you will find 15 different varieties, one of the broadest selections in the world. All are fabulous.

This recipe comes from an ex-pat Idahoan and legendary fusion chef from the Bay Area named Dave Ayarra, who stumbled onto the island some five years ago on a treasure hunt of his own. All chefs worth their salt know a winner when they see one and this recipe spoke to him: a puree of overripe mangos laced with thyme, ginger, sherry, garlic, a twist of lime and a touch of chile de arbol ladled over a whole chicken and baked to the color of the late afternoon sun. The chicken juices infuse the mango sauce pooled in the baking pan and are spooned over each serving. I imagine that Captain Morgan, with a ship’s hold full of salt-cod and moldy potatoes, would have traded a chest full of doubloons for a plateful.

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 4 medium sized mangoes
  • 1-2 tsp dried thyme
  • 3-4 tbsp sherry
  • 2 cloves minced or crushed garlic
  • Salt and pepper to season chicken

Preparation:

Season the chicken with salt and pepper; place in roasting pan. Peel mangoes, slice off flesh and puree in blender with thyme, garlic and sherry. Ladle over chicken and bake at medium heat.


Utilan Green Curry Prawns

In all art, classic forms and pure design are the foundations upon which all subsequent works are built and then judged. However, creative local visionaries, influenced by their unique regional heritages, are the ones who push the artistic envelope and become the defining pop icons. Cuisine is no different. Classic French, Italian, Asian and Indian cuisine will always be revered, but fusion cuisine will inherit the earth.

David Ayarra is the best chef on the island of Utila. Among the standard grill houses, Latin comedores, and eclectic Euro cafes, Dave’s Stingray Grill stands alone. Its diverse and multi-lingual flavors turn rustic and hearty fresh fish steaks, local produce, beef and poultry into vibrant and savory dining experiences. Take a look at his background and you’ll understand. His grandfather ran the Hiawatha Hotel in Hailey, Idaho, where local big game and southwestern ingredients met European savoir-faire and were served to Hemingway, Clark Gable and other Hollywood high rollers. Dave himself cut his teeth cooking in Idaho, moved to San Francisco, apprenticed with an Austrian Grand Chef and a Chinese wok master, then embarked on a stint as a legendary caterer of his own designs. His long-time dream to set up shop on a tropical island came true five years ago.

I walked into the kitchen one afternoon to smell his pureeing a concoction that perfumed the air with an incredible multi-layered aroma - spicy, sweet, pungent, and smoky. The recipe had come to him all at once in a vision, he told me. Praise celestial intervention! Praise prawns, julienne veggies, coconut milk and the thick spice paste elixir that bonds them all together!

All the spices and ingredients in this recipe are locally grown, if not on the island of Utila itself, on mainland Honduras. Thai, Sri Lankan and Indian curries move over; a sassy new sister has arrived. Charred jalapenos, cherry chile peppers and capsicum (bell) peppers pureed with mango form the bulk of this paste. The seasonings blend smoky, spicy, earthy and sweet: pan toasted cumin seeds, black peppercorns and coriander seeds mixed with pan roasted garlic, pounded cilantro root, oregano, ginger, lime peel and a dash of soya sauce. The resulting paste is viscous, the color of fecund jungle earth and when diffused in coconut milk, the layers of flavor that pass over your tongue develop in stages like a Polaroid. Serve with tropical weather and very cold beer.

Curry Ingredients (for 6):

  • 2 jalapeno chiles (red and green)
  • 4 "seasoning" peppers (cherry, serrano, anything small/medium size with mid-grade heat)
  • 2 medium-sized green capsicum (bell) peppers
  • 2 cloves pan roasted garlic
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 8-10 black peppercorns
  • 6-8 coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp whole leaf oregano
  • 3 root sections of cilantro plant (only the bulb, minus tendrils and stalk)
  • 1 knuckle of ginger
  • Pulp of one large ripe mango
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1 ½ tbsp soya sauce
  • Peel of ½ lime
  • Salt to taste

Curry Preparation:

Char the three types of peppers over open flame until the skin blisters. Cut out the seed pods. Roast garlic cloves with skin in cast iron pan. Toast the cumin seeds, peppercorns and coriander when garlic is nearly done. When the seeds begin to pop, add the oregano and take off the heat. Pound the cilantro root with a flat knife. Peel the garlic and add with all above ingredients to processor along with the mango, ginger, oil, soya, lime and salt. Puree.

Sauté the mixture over low flame until the oil begins to separate from the paste and it gives off a rich aroma. Begin the next stage of the recipe:

Prawns and Veggie Saute Ingredients and Preparation:

  • 1 ½ lbs of veined "16-20" (medium) shrimp
  • 1 cup cubed pineapple
  • 3-4 cups julienne carrots, jalapenos, Napa cabbage, etc.
  • 2 cups rich coconut milk

*optional: season with fish sauce and Thai basil

Turn up the heat to med/low and add the vegetables and pineapple to the pan. A minute later add the shrimp and the coconut milk. Adjust to desired thickness with corn starch and either ladle over rice or serve in separate bowls.


Yucca Pie

In the poorer regions of Honduras yucca root is a staple crop. It grows anywhere: leached out soil, muddy riverbanks, even in sand. It’s a lifesaver to those living on land where nothing else will grow. In addition, it need not be germinated from seed; merely plant a stalk or branch from another bush and roots will start to grow. Amazing plant.

Alas, yucca on its own fails to be a gustatory treat. In soups or boiled and served with a sauce of some sort it is OK, like a highly glutinous potato. It takes a bit of creativity and savvy to whip up anything special when the main ingredient is yucca, so check out this desert recipe.

Our good friend, Dona Elma Bodden, hails from Raista, a Miskito Indian village on the inner shores of Laguna Ibans in the Mosquito Coast region. Her kitchen is locally renowned. The tourists who come to tour the Raista Butterfly Farm, the staff of the NGO Mopawi (internationally funded non-profit group that helps with local development projects in indigenous communities) and a few locals all dine there regularly. I asked what sort of “cuisine” could possibly be made with yucca and she delivered. This is a variation on pumpkin pie: dense, sweet, chewy and wonderfully flavored.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup flour

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 2 cups grated yucca

  • 2 sticks margarine or butter

  • 2 cups coconut milk

  • 2 tsp baking powder

  • 1 cup of coffee

  • 3/4 tsp vanilla

  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

  • 1/4 tsp allspice

  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg

  • 1/4 tsp salt

Topping for pie:

  • 1/2 stick butter

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 3/4 cup powdered milk

  • 1/2-3/4 cup water

Combine flour, salt and baking power. Cream butter and sugar; add spices, coconut milk, and coffee. Mix in dry ingredients. Pour into greased, floured baking pan and bake in a 375° oven until it solidifies and turns golden brown on top.

For the topping, melt the butter, then add sugar, powdered milk and water, stirring while heating. Cook until thickened. Pour over top of pie.


Pescado Frito con Tajadas
Honduran Fish and Chips

A fellow epicurean adventurer recently regaled me with his favorite joke in which the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the European culinary community are sorted by ethnicity. The gist of the jest was that dining in Hell would merely consist of shifting each national into a role in Satan’s kitchen that emphasized its one egregious shortcoming. Thus, the restaurant was replete with German wine, French waiters, Italian cashiers and accountants and English cooks.

Unfortunately, many Honduran establishments have combined the above into one package deal. A trip to your average roadside comedor will fill you up without lightening your wallet, but you’ll get no wine with your bad service, unsophisticated salty fare and creative accounting on your bill.

When looking for a cheap savory meal, take a tip from the Brits, who look to fish and chips as a bright star in a bleak universe. The Garifuna-run restaurants do it best with the fresh catch of the day, fried whole and served with thick cut plantain fries, a delicacy head and shoulders above mere spuds. Unlike in the UK, where deep frying is the only way to make pasty codfish and potatoes taste good, the Garifuna begin with a head start. Red snapper filets or smaller ones fried whole come with half-ripe plantains, firm with a touch of sweetness.

Ask around for a comedor (eatery) until you find what you’re looking for. Serve with a squirt of lime, liberal amounts of chile sauce and cold beer.

Que Rico!

Ingredients:

  • 4-6” snapper filets (2 per person)
    or
    8-10” whole fish (1 per person)
    or
    Any firm white-fleshed fish

  • Thin batter made from flour and water

  • Corn starch or fine ground corn meal

  • Fresh ground pepper

  • Salt

  • 1 ½-2 semi-ripe plantains per person (green ones also good but less sweet; look for partly yellow ones), sliced at an angle to produce longer, tapered, oval shapes

  • Enough oil for ¾ -1 inch depth in thick iron skillet for deep-frying

Preparation:

Heat oil on med-high until it just starts to smoke. Fry the plantains first until just brown on edges. Season fish with salt and pepper and dredge the fish in corn starch/meal before dipping in batter. Fry until deep golden brown.

Serve with lime wedges and your favorite chile paste/sauce. Plantains are good with ketchup, but better with mayo. Trust me!


Stewed Chicken in Coconut Milk

This cooking technique is ubiquitous all over Central America. The meat turns out tender and flavorful, falling off the bone easily into your tortilla.

This particular combination of flavors is the work, once again, of Dona Elma Bodden, my favorite Miskita chef from the village of Raista in the Mosquito Coast (see Yucca Pie). Stewed chicken is always savory but rarely interesting in Honduras, so when you come across a preparation with distinct Caribbean pizzazz like this one, you take notice.

It’s simple rustic fare, but the meat, flavored with coconut, garlic, peppers and achiote, is soulful. Serve with coconut rice or tortillas. AND cold beer.

Ingredients:

  • Medium sized chicken parts (legs, wings, breasts, etc.)

  • 2-3 cloves diced garlic

  • Diced bell peppers

  • Diced chile peppers

  • Diced onion

  • Salt, pepper, dusting of cumin

  • Achiote paste or paprika (optional)

  • ¾-1 cup coconut milk

  • 1 heaping tbsp shortening

  • 1 tbsp sugar

Preparation:

Put the shortening and sugar in a thick-bottomed large stockpot over medium heat and cook until it starts to boil and becomes the color of cafe au lait. Season the chicken with salt, pepper and cumin. Add to pot. Throw in garlic, peppers, onion, achiote and stir. Cover the pot and let simmer and stew for 15 minutes. Add the coconut milk and cook it down until the sauce thickens. Serve.


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