Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but normal food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with what is produced from good old terra firma is what makes the world go around.
PTSD is rearing its ugly head for most of the people on our lovely island as we watched Hurricane Dorian blast the Abacos and Bahama islands. Parts of St. Maarten/St. Martin experienced what the people on the Abacos have just lived through – and will live through for many months to come. I say parts of our island, for there is one major difference between SXM and most of the Abaco, the majority of all those islands are low lying. Imagine entire islands lying as low as Sandy Ground, Grand Case and French Quarter!
Just what is the history of these islands?
Called the “Abaco Islands”, the main islands of Great Abaco and Little Abaco have many smaller barrier islands called cays. To the north are Walker's Cay and Grand Cay. To the south are Spanish Cay and Green Turtle Cay. Great Guana Cay, Scotland Cay (which is private), Man-O-War Cay, and Elbow Cay are other inhabited islands. (There are many little islands that are not inhabited.) These islands lie to the north of the Bahamas some 180 miles east of South Florida. Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Elbow Cay.
The Abaco Islands are limestone and rather low-lying. They are protected on the ocean side by the third largest barrier reef in the world. The cays are mostly green with mangroves and white-sand beaches.
Records of the islands go back to the days of Columbus.
The first inhabitants were the Lucayans. These people were a branch of the Taínos who inhabited most of the Caribbean islands at the time. The Lucayans were the first inhabitants of the Americas encountered by Christopher Columbus. The Spanish started seizing Lucayans as slaves within a few years of Columbus’ arrival, and they had all been removed from the Bahamas by 1520. After the extermination of the Lucayans, there were no known permanent settlements in the Bahamas for approximately 130 years.
The first European settlers arrived in 1783; they were Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. These original Loyalist settlers made a modest living by salvaging wrecks, building small wooden boats, and they did some very basic farming.
Spain laid claim to the Bahamas after Columbus’ discovery of the islands. An Italian explorer moved about the islands in 1499-1500. The first map of the New World showing the islands was printed in 1500. A Spanish explorer landed on Abaco in 1513. The English maps of the area in 1590 and 1592 show the islands – a Dutchman who explored the Abaco islands made a map in 1630.
The Spanish were based in Cuba round 1593 and deemed the Bahamas as unprofitable and treacherous to navigate! Not surprising because they kept getting shipwrecked on the many uninhabited reefs/islands. British ownership of the Bahamas was established by treaty in 1783 – Great Britain ceded East Florida to Spain and received the Bahamas in return.
About 1500, Loyalists left New York and moved to Abaco in August 1783 when a call was put out in the Royal Gazette in New York City, during the summer of 1783.
Apparently, there were many disputes over food distribution so some of the settlers moved on to other outlying islands. Conflict between disgruntled settlers and the officials responsible for helping became a constant feature of life on the islands.
Sea island cotton was first sown by the settlers in 1785 and, although both 1786 and 1787 produced good crops, the 1788 crop was blighted by caterpillars.
By the early ’90’s, the Bahamas started the process for becoming independent and leaving Britain. The Bahamas became independent in 1973. These islands have experienced many tropical storms – just like us. Some of the storms became nasty hurricanes.
In 1932, they experienced a category five, but they have never had anything linger as long as Dorian. Dorian was worse than Irma, and that – coupled with the fact that these islands are so low lying – means it has been a devastating outcome, especially from the sea surge, which in some places came in at almost 23 feet deep.
The local cooking traditions have been influenced by the folk who originated in England, America, Africa, and other Caribbean countries. There are Chinese, Japanese and Asian influences too. The locals add spices but the dishes are not that hot/spicy.
Seafood plays a huge part in the diet of locals: conch (they call winkles), grouper, lobster, sea bass – they catch a lot of great fish in their waters. Vegetables and fruits, chicken, you name it, they usually can get it. What they don’t have in the outlying islands are huge supermarkets like ours. They don’t seem to have a problem, of course, as they are adept at cooking stunningly fresh dishes with what is available.
Conch seems to be the most enjoyed seafood of all: they pickle it, make soups and stews from it, fritter it and even eat it ceviche style. Boiled conch is usually served with a great variety of side dishes. One delicious dish is made with conch pepper, potatoes, carrots and onion. Conch is even mixed with chicken in some dishes. Perch and northern red snapper; crabs are baked with eggs, lobsters are fried and added to various salads. You’ll find wonderful grilled shrimp sandwiches.
Local people enjoy eating tacos with red lionfish and drinking cocktails with rum.
Grouper cutlets, a shrimp salad and fish with porridge (a traditional dish of the islanders). Typical side dishes are rice and peas, especially for fish dishes; a wonderful local soup is made with onions, water, lime juice, celery, pepper and meat – all boiled together for a short time so the vegetables are still a bit crunchy; and of course, they eat a lot of breadfruit.
In the Abacos, mac n cheese, schnitzel, ham hocks, and fried chicken are popular. Desserts often take the form of fruit, especially in fruit salads. Mangos, guavas, pineapples, and papayas are plentiful on the islands. English rice pudding and coconut cake are enjoyed – and ever present is the Johnny cake. Being of English descent, many of the locals enjoy “tea” as the English do – you will find high tea served on these islands. The preferred coffee is strong Columbian or Brazilian coffee.
Goat meat, iguana, sheep tongue raised on island along with the farming of cabbage, green peas, chili peppers, cassava, corn and cucumbers; the list is endless – but it will be a long time before many of these islanders can go back to raising and growing their own food.
1 LB conch meat (3-4 conch)
Juice of 1 small orange and 1 small lime
Juice of ½ lemon
1 small onion, finely diced or a small bunch of spring onions finely sliced
1 small tomato, diced small
½ green bell pepper, diced small
Minced hot chili (depending on taste, habanero, jalapeño, etc.)
½ tsp sea salt to taste
Slice the cleaned conch meat thinly, then dice small.
Place conch (about 3 cups) in a glass bowl.
Add citrus juices, onion, tomato, bell pepper, chilis and salt.
Cover with plastic wrap, chill for 1 hour up to 3 hours.
On Nassau is an area much like the lolos on SXM. Here, locals order “Scorch” – a simpler and very spicy version of the salad – just conch, onion, juices, salt and hot chili.
Fish Tacos – There is nothing nicer than fresh fish tacos. Use either crisp corn tortillas or flour tortillas. Serve with lime wedges.
1 cup sour cream
2 TBL mayonnaise
2 tsp chipotle purée*
2 TBL lime juice
1 tsp minced garlic
*Purée whole, canned chipotle peppers, and the adobo – freeze leftovers in ice cube trays.
Combine all ingredients and salt to taste.
3 large red, ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 small red onion, diced
1½ TBL serrano pepper, finely diced
1 TBL lime juice
3 TBL chopped cilantro/culantro
Combine above ingredients, add salt to taste.
2½ TBL mahi-mahi fillets (or white fish)
2-3½ TBL adobo, taco or other Southwest seasoning blend
12 (6-inch) white corn tortillas
½ small shredded purple cabbage
1 cup Chipotle Cream
2 cups Salsa
Feta cheese, crumbled
Rub fish fillets with seasoning blend.
Cover and refrigerate 1 hour or more.
Preheat oven to 350 °F.
Preheat gas or charcoal grill.
Oil grill grate, grill fish 7-10 minutes on each side, allow to rest 5 minutes, slice into strips.
Heat tacos in preheated oven till warm.
Assemble spoon chipotle cream sauce in tortilla.
Add strips of fish.
Top with salsa, shredded cabbage, avocado and crumbled feta cheese.