I have mentioned Belize in several posts. Our family is fortunate to have a house on the beautiful island of Ambergris Caye off the eastern coast of this wonderful country. This lush, tropical area has quickly become our second home – a place where our children and grandchildren often visit to play in the coral sand and join us for huge family meals “al aire libre” (outside).
We recently spent three weeks in Belize and, recalling a favorite trip from ten years ago, decided to travel inland to the town of San Ignacio, the capital of the Cayo district in Northern Belize. As soon as we headed away from the coast the terrain became more rugged, green and mountainous. My excitement increased as we neared this teaming city. San Ignacio is more highly populated than Ambergris Caye – and I was hopeful that its food culture would be equally extensive.
One of my favorite things to do in any new city I visit anywhere in the world is to go to the local farmers market. When we arrived in San Ignacio, I spent three hours there and it was the real deal with farmers’ produce, local foods, and other odd products for sale. Baby clothes in every color of the rainbow hung on wire hangers in outdoor stalls. Other vendors were selling various items from used tires to American paperback novels. But it was the produce that really caught my eye. The fruits and vegetables were bright and fresh and a fraction of the price of similar produce on Ambergris Caye.
I spotted a funny looking fruit at one of the stalls called Pitaya or dragon fruit. I learned from the locals that it grows on a cactus type plant with flowers that bloom overnight. Pitaya is covered in a bright red skin featuring thick scales and its creamy pulp resembles a vibrant pink pudding spotted with vanilla bean flecks. My new friends at the market explained to me that it is best sliced in half so that you can scoop out the pulp, or one can carefully peel the skin and slice the flesh into pieces.
I had the opportunity to taste this odd-looking discovery later that day. After our morning at the market we headed to Chaa Creek, a gorgeous resort in the mountains featuring thatched roofs and dark mahogany furniture perfect for lounging. Before renting a canoe to paddle down the river, we decided to grab a quick snack. Lo and behold, we were served some Pitaya as part of the fruit platter! The taste is sweet and somewhat bland, reminding me a bit of kiwifruit. Despite Pitaya’s relatively delicate flavor, its fluorescent, reddish pink appearance really jazzed up the otherwise ordinary presentation. And I recently learned that it’s the hot new thing in the culinary world. The New York Times Food section even dedicated a story to the ravishing dragon fruit!
Canoeing down the river back to town took about two hours. We ate a late dinner at Ervas – an authentic restaurant right off the main drag in San Ignacio. We enjoyed listening to locals chatter at nearby tables as we sat outside and feasted on spicy conch ceviche laced with fresh lime and a simple grilled snapper. Once we finished dinner we strolled down the road to dance at a local night club. I was, by far, the oldest female there. Young girls twirled around us as the music blared loudly from dilapidated speakers. Their partners threw them into the air, dancing wildly to the frantic beat of the local music. Even though I felt like a fish out of water, I decided on the spot that women my age should keep dancing and canoeing and having fun as long as we can!
I wish I could convey the tastes and smells we enjoyed in the market in San Ignacio. Luckily – it’s easy to recreate the fresh and exotic flavors right in your own kitchen. Below is my rustic recipe for Pico de Gallo (which translates to “rooster’s beak”). I use it as a dip for tortilla chips, as a condiment for tacos and a lovely accompaniment for meats and fish.
Pico de Gallo
Makes 2 cups
- 4 small vine ripe tomatoes or same amount of cherry tomatoes (about 1 lb.)
- Marie Sharps habenero hot sauce-to taste for hotness
- 10 sprigs of cilantro
- 1 large garlic clove
- 1/4 large purple (Bermuda) or white onion
- Juice of 1 medium sized lime
- 3/4 tsp salt
Cut tomatoes into a ¼ inch dice. Place diced tomato into a 6 cup ceramic bowl. Shake in some Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce. Roughly chop the cilantro (stems and all) and add to the tomatoes.
Next, cut the onions into a ¼ inch dice and peel and smash the garlic with the flat part of your knife. Put the onions and garlic into a fine strainer, and run cold water over it to remove the bitterness. Shake well and add to the tomato mixture.
Taste and season with lime juice and salt, and let stand at room temperature so the flavors blend. Remove the smashed piece of garlic before serving.
Note – it doesn’t keep that well because the lime and salt cause the tomato to become watery. If you plan to keep it longer, remove the seeds before you chop the tomato. Fresh lime and fresh garlic prevent the growth of bacteria.
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If you every find yourself in San Ignacio – I strongly recommend you check out Erva’s restaurant. You won’t be disappointed!
And if you’re looking for a lovely place to stay – Chaa Creek is hard to beat.
Please check out more at Wanderfood Wednesday!