I am always looking for new foods to add to my diet. It is exciting whenever a new and unusual vegetable, fruit, bean or grain shows up at the local supermarket, health-food store, produce stand or farmers’ market. Finding local, native foods that are new to me is one of the best parts of traveling.
On a recent short trip to The Bahamas, the best part of a day in Nassau was spending several hours with a native of the island. We talked about the food he scavenged from “the bush” as a child and what local folks still harvested. We toured a few gardens and preserved wild areas. He drove us around outside the city looking for native fruits growing by the roadside. Though less than 100 miles away from my home in Florida and with similar vegetation, there were several edible plants I had never seen or heard of before.
The dilly fruit was spotted first. They look like old, weathered grapefruit growing on very large trees. Unlike citrus fruits, dilly has a solid interior beneath a hard but thin skin. A few large black seeds sit in the center of the custrard-like pulp and look like over-sized watermelon seeds. The pulp of the dilly is extraordinary, tasting like a baked cinnamon apple with the consistency of stiff pudding. It is a very sweet fruit that is supposed to be high in vitamin-C and fiber. They are absolutely delicious and I am keeping my eyes open for them in Florida.
Another local native fruit we found on the side of the road was the cocoa plum. These look like large berries growing on bushes six to eight feet tall. In late May they were still green or just starting to turn white. Our guide said they turn yellow by mid to late June and are popular with all of the local people. Even when only white these small nickel-sized fruits were starting to get sweet and had the texture of a firm peach or plum. The flesh under the skin is white.
Sea grapes are also a popular food in the Bahamas. These also grow wild everywhere in Florida because of their salt tolerance. In Florida, though, I have never known or heard of anyone eating them. Our Bahamian guide swears they are delicious when ripened to a red color late in the summer. I am looking forward to trying them this year and the Tampa Bay area seems to have a good crop. Sea grapes are supposed to be nutritionally similar to red grapes. They are a member of the buckwheat plant family.
Almonds also grow in The Bahamas. The trees get quite large but they are not grown or harvested commercially. Several people said this was because of the lack of machinery to remove the nuts from the husks and shells. Apparently the only way to do this on the islands is by hand with a rock or a hammer. When I checked on-line, however, I immediately found several manufacturers of almond nut processing equipment. It was fun seeing almonds on the trees within sight of the ocean.
Coconut palm trees also grow well on The Bahamas. They are seen everywhere, scattered around. Fresh coconuts hacked open with a machete for the milk inside are a popular street food. Just be wary when under these tall trees as coconuts are large and heavy and will do serious damage to a head or shoulder if one falls on you.
To get a true feel for any local cuisine, how the people living in a place use the food traditionally available to them, it is important to find the restaurants popular with those people. Where do the natives go when they want a good, cheap and traditional meal like grandma used to cook for them? What is on the menu at these restaurants? What are the local people ordering at nearby tables? What unfamiliar or unusual ingredients and combinations are being used in the dishes?
It is always possible to eat French, Italian or Greek cuisine at any number of restaurants near my home in Florida and also in the larger cities of The Bahamas. McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut are pretty much everywhere on the planet and are certainly not on my list for traveling meals. When I am in a new place, even within the US, I want to try new foods that are unique to that area. These are the foods that are part of the local culture and help define the identity of the place.
The food identity of The Bahamas is interwoven with conch. This was a real treat as conch cannot be harvested in Florida and is only available occasionally from the freezer section. Bahamians harvest conch year round and it is served everywhere in a variety of styles.
We enjoyed the local conch salad most. This is a type of ceviche, made to order from raw conch fresh out of the shell. The conch meat is finely chopped. It is tossed with sweet and hot peppers, onion, tomato, cucumber and pineapple. Lime juice and orange juice are squeezed over the top and served immediately. It is delicious!
Other Bahamian conch dishes include cracked conch and conch souse. Cracked conch is first pounded to make it tender, then lightly battered and deep fried. Conch souse is pounded conch in a spicy stew.
I also had the chance to try whole snapper escabeche. This is a whole small snapper or other fish served with pickled onions. The fish is usually seasoned with jerk spice.
The traditional side dish at all meals in The Bahamas is peas and rice. This is an herbed combination of rice and pigeon peas cooked together. Pigeon peas are not a true legume but grow in pods on trees. Again, quite good and tasty and a nice counterpoint to the generally spicy main entree of jerk or souse. Fried plantains are another common side dish with any meal.
Step outside your food comfort zone when traveling. Explore the local favorites and traditions. You can get the same old favorites almost anywhere these days, so why bother when local specialties and traditional foods are available instead. The local favorites are part of the culture of the place and give insights well beyond satisfying hunger.