FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN, IN THE BAHAMAS
I fell in love again, in The Bahamas! It wasn’t too long ago when I fell in love with escargot while dining at an obscure, family-owned restaurant in the outskirts of Paris. Now, edible snail has once again captured my heart and my taste buds. This time it is the sea snail, or conch (pronounced “conk”), the giant knobbed, pink and white shell fish which has been a symbol of The Bahamas for centuries.
Second in popularity only to the escargot for edible snails, the conch meat is eaten raw in salad recipes or cooked as fritters, in chowders and gumbos. All parts of the conch meat are edible.
In The Bahamas, there is even an Annual Conch Festival in October/November each year. Local restaurateurs compete for the best and original conch dishes, judged by a panel of international chefs. Free sampling of the dishes follows, and there are other competitions, events and music well into the evening, making this a very popular event for both islanders and tourists.
THE BAHAMAS EXPERIENCE
Upon disembarking at the Port of Nassau, the Bahamian capital, most of our fellow cruise passengers headed for the Atlantis resort, choosing to pay big bucks to lay on luxurious beach towels or under curtained cabanas. Not us. We chose to skip the resort experience as well as offers of taxi or horse-driven carriage tours, let alone persistent vendor calls for moped rentals. Instead, my German friend Sylko and I explored downtown Nassau on foot, crisscrossing its narrow streets, constantly on the lookout for cars that were moving on the left-hand side of the direction of traffic.
We spent a couple of hours admiring picture-perfect, old unoccupied buildings that sharply contrasted with modern edifices –many of them financial institutions. We walked past one of many pink-colored buildings, this one with its facade re-decorated in commemoration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60th year of crowning.
I was surprised to see not one, but two restaurant signs that are–or were– evidence of Filipino cuisine influence in the island. One sign said “Little Philippines Restaurant” and the other “Cabalen” a word that means “from the same town” in one of the Filipino dialects. Both restaurants had “closed” signs which meant that they were either closed for the day or for good.
Like most good-behaving tourists, we ventured into the straw market building (which reminded me of the old Waikiki market place in Hawaii) where rows and rows of vendor stalls overflowed with woven baskets and bags, wood carvings, costume jewelry and other knick knacks. If you have been to this market, you know that vendors won’t give you any time to browse their wares. They greet you with “Which one do you like, I’ll take it down for you and I’ll make you a good deal!”
After taking a short beverage break of Starbuck’s coffee (yes, they’re everywhere!), we decided it was time to explore the local cuisine.
With directions from Nassau’s friendly tour ambassadors, we passed the public beach area (Junkanoo beach) and headed towards The Fish Fry, a cluster of restaurants known for their Bahamian-style seafood menus. With little hesitation, we entered the first restaurant that we encountered, the Water’s Cafe. It wasn’t quite lunchtime so we found ourselves to be the only customers, which worked quite well for my inquisitive mind. Our server, Bahamian-born Natasha, engaged us in long conversations, sharing with us some history, culture and most importantly, valuable tips and information on local cuisine.
Before arriving in The Bahamas, I promised myself that if I had the opportunity to try only three local foods, it would be the conch salad, peas & rice, and chicken souse.But then, after seeing the restaurant menu, I knew I had to try the conch fritters as well. Sylko opted for the fixed lunch combo consisting of steamed conch with crab rice and plantains. I chose to go a la carte, picking items from the appetizer section of the menu. On my order list: conch salad, corn fritters and peas & rice.
Natasha patiently–no, enthusiastically– walked me through the ingredients and preparation procedures for all three of my menu choices. I knew from having prepared ceviche before that the conch salad is prepared with raw meat and is mixed with onions, tomatoes and green peppers along with fresh lime juice which partly “cooks” the conch. The restaurant’s version was a tad too spicy for me but nevertheless still delightfully mouth-watering!
The deep-fried conch fritters balanced the spiciness of the conch salad. Prepared much like many fritter dishes, the conch fritters oozed with the excess frying oil and the crunchiness of the flour batter. The special sauce that I could swear was a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise perfectly complemented the dish.
Finally, Natasha brought me the bowl of peas & rice — the peas being pigeon peas. It helped me finish the full serving of my conch salad.
Earlier, before Natasha took our order, she had recommended that we try the local beer, Sands, which we did. By the end of our meal, Sylko and I had consumed three bottles apiece, unless of course either of us lost count. Again, the beer was the perfect beverage companion to our meal, it being light, with less carbohydrates and calories.
Unfortunately, Water’s Cafe didn’t serve chicken souse. Prior to my visit to Nassau, I had tried preparing this signature Bahamian dish, just based on research of Internet food sites. I had mentioned this to Natasha who quizzed me on the ingredients I used and my method of preparation.You can imagine my excitement when she told me that my version of the dish was exactly how the locals would prepare it!
After that hearty meal, it was time for a short nap, and what better place to have one than in the white sand beaches of The Bahamas! So we headed back to the Junkanoo Beach and spent the rest of the afternoon laying on the warm sand, listening to nonstop music played by a local DJ stationed up on a makeshift wooden stage, watching impromptu dancing by tourists and locals, and cheering for our favorite contestants in a hula hoop contest.
Soon it was time to head back to the ship to catch the late dining seating. But a Bahamas visit ain’t complete without having a tall glass of the Bahama Mama. Mai Tai is to Hawaii as Bahama Mama is to The Bahamas! So we headed to a local bar & grill to have our taste of this true Caribbean cocktail made of its signature mix of two kinds of rum, Nassau Royale, grenadine, pineapple and orange juice. It was truly a nice cap of a fun-filled day off the cruise ship.
As we made our way to our giant cruise ship, I couldn’t help myself from humming that popular Bahamas promo tune… “Oooh la la la oooh la la, it’s better in The Bahamas.”
COMING SOON ON MY BAY KITCHEN: Recipes for Bahamian Peas & Rice, and — assuming I can procure fresh conch in the the Bay Area — conch salad and conch fritters. ALSO, Florida’s key lime pie!