It’s Day 3 of our family vacation in the Bahamas, and so far, I’m not impressed by the conch.
I want to love it. The exotic-sounding conch, with its ostentatiously horned, pink-fluted shell, is the national dish of this beautiful chain of islands. And naturally, like so many culturally important foods, it’s also considered an aphrodisiac. So I keep trying it. I’ve had conch salad, conch fritters, cracked conch and conch chowder. At two restaurants. With the exception of the fritters, in which the conch is minced or pulverized, the conch in every dish has been tough and tasteless, like choking down rubber bands. The conch salad, especially, always seems so promising: A fresh, cold, ceviche-style salad tossed in a light lime-and-orange-juice dressing with fresh tomatoes and chilies. But no. Yuck.
And then, a couple of days later, I find out why.
“Conch has to be tenderized before you work with it. Otherwise, it’s like chewing rubber,” says Alanna Rodgers, founder of Tru Bahamian Food Tours. We’re at a stop on the “Bites of Nassau” tour when Alanna tells us that the rubber-band factor is a sign of how adept a Bahamian chef is with conch.
The 11 of us on the tour, including my husband, Brian, and 5-year-old daughter, Chloe, are gathered around a long wooden table upstairs at Van Breugel’s Restaurant & Bistro, a power-lunch kind of place popular with politicians, lawyers and offshore bankers. The waitress brings us the restaurant’s take on conch chowder, and she seems to read my mind when I wonder whether Chloe will like it.
“No, no, no! This will be too spicy for her!” she says, giving a bowl of chowder to everyone but Chloe.
“This is for the baby!” she exclaims with a lilting accent and a big smile, plopping a massive bowl of vanilla ice cream, topped with hot fudge and a cherry, down on the table in front of Chloe’s face.
Van Breugel’s conch chowder is indeed spicy, but delicately so, with a coconut-curry broth and hints of sweet Thai basil, instead of the dish’s traditional tomato base. The chowder is delicious, and finally, thankfully, so is the conch.
By now, a couple of hours into the food tour, it should come as no surprise that the conch chowder here is wonderful. Millions of people visit the Bahamas every year, but few of them will actually taste authentic island cuisine, Alanna says. It’s a fate that won’t befall us. Alanna has promised authentic, off-the-beaten-path Bahamian food, and she delivers on this four-hour tour that winds its way through downtown Nassau, largely eschewing tourist-thick Bay Street in favor of side roads and family-run eateries.
Before we set off, Alanna fills us in on a bit of history, because the story of Bahamian food is laced with colonialism, piracy and slavery.
For years, the Bahamian islands were deserted, or nearly so, after Christopher Columbus arrived and the Spaniards decimated the native Lucayan people with disease and slavery. Later, the Bahamas became a haven for pirates, who flocked to its shallow waters and 700 islands’ worth of hiding places. The British eventually cracked down on Blackbeard and his ilk and established colonial rule. But for generations after the pirates were run out of town, the Bahamas was still a magnet for illicit activity: A base for Confederate blockade runners during the American Civil War, a bastion for rumrunners and gangsters such as Al Capone during Prohibition, and a pipeline for cocaine trafficking in the 1980s.
Slavery continued to stain the islands after the Spaniards left. British Loyalists brought their slaves with them when they fled the American colonies during the American Revolution. When Britain intercepted slave ships after it abolished the slave trade, it liberated and relocated captured Africans to the Bahamas. Still more slaves escaped to the Bahamas from nearby Florida.
All that history shows up in the people — most Bahamians are black descendents of slaves — and in their traditional foods, from the pigeon peas in “peas ’n rice” that found their way from Africa to the Caribbean via the slave trade, to that staple of the American South, macaroni and cheese.
Influences of West Africa and the American South are especially evident on the tour’s first stop, a nearly 30-year-old restaurant called Bahamian Cookin’.
Bay Street might be crowded under the shadow of massive cruise ships and the crush of tourists who haggle at the Straw Market, sip daiquiris at Junkanoo Beach and snap pictures with Royal Bahamas policemen in front of the pink-hued buildings in Parliament Square. But it’s strangely quiet just a few blocks away at Bahamian Cookin’, where we dine on a typical island lunch, Bahamians’ biggest meal of the day.
“If it does not have both rice and meat included, it’s not considered a proper meal,” Alanna says.
Lunch here certainly fits the “proper meal” definition. Our plates are mounded with savory, fall-off-the-bone steamed chicken, sweet grilled plantains, crispy conch fritters with a spicy dipping sauce, coleslaw, peas ’n rice and a square of rich, casserole-esque macaroni and cheese made with evaporated milk. The restaurant is dimly lit, but it’s brightly decorated with yellow-and-white fish-print curtains made of a batik fabric called Androsia, and oversize beaded headdresses from Junkanoo, a Bahamian street parade reminiscent of Brazilian Carnival.
“This is the most down-home, traditional stop on our tour,” says Alanna, and after this huge meal, I can’t believe we have five more tasting stops to go.
As we leave, Bahamian Cookin’s owner, Cookie, says goodbye by handing each of us a glass of iced switcha, a sweet Bahamian lemonade, to sip on as we walk. Outside, it’s sprinkling, or as the Bahamians call it, “sprying,” so Alanna pulls plastic ponchos from her messenger bag for everyone in the group.
“No thanks,” I tell her, turning down the poncho. After all, it’s 85 degrees outside, and it’s only sprying.
From the down-home cuisine of Bahamian Cookin’ we move onto its polar opposite: The regal opulence of Graycliff, a historic estate-turned-hotel that packs a little bit of every kind of culinary decadence: one of the Caribbean’s first five-star restaurants, a chocolatier, a cigar factory and a 250,000-bottles strong wine cellar filled with rare vintages from around the world. It’s also a hotel, where lush gardens, tucked-away courtyards and a mosaic-tile swimming pool give hints of its past life as a home to British royalty.
“I always feel like we don’t do it justice when we’re here only for a few minutes,” Alanna says as she leads us through the estate’s lavish grounds and into a small room near the cigar factory where we sample Sands beer, a crisp lager that’s brewed in the Bahamas. For Chloe, there’s iced “fever grass tea,” a bush medicine that’s a tasty blend of ginger, sour orange rind, brown sugar and “fever grass,” a.k.a. lemon grass.
Chloe apparently feels fine because she turns up her nose at the fever grass tea but gratefully accepts the delicately handpainted truffles in the chocolate shop, where we can’t decide which is our favorite: the bright-green white chocolate Key lime pie truffle or the dark chocolate truffle with caramel and Bahamian sea salt.
By the time we leave Graycliff, it’s more than sprying outside; we’re in the midst of a full-on tropical downpour. I reluctantly accept a poncho and we press on. We practically run past Government House through the rain to our next stop, Van Breugel’s, home of that redemptive conch chowder, and then to the shop Pure Caribbean, where we sniff and sample specialty spice blends, goat-pepper and sweet mango hot sauces, and a guava jam that Alanna says she always brings as a gift for friends when she travels abroad.
Our next stop is the most unexpected one on the tour: The Greek restaurant Athena, where we meet the exuberant, “Opa!”-shouting owner, Peter, who’s created a little slice of Athens in the Caribbean. The Greek dressing on the restaurant’s tomato salad, made with honey and fresh dill and oregano, is outstanding. Alanna reminds us that thanks to ol’ Columbus, the Bahamas no longer has an indigenous culture. Instead, it has soaked up the cultures of the people who came to call the islands home. For the Greeks, it was the sea sponge industry that caused a mini-migration in the 1880s.
Our last stop is the Tortuga Rum Cake Co., a large shop packed with wall-to-wall rum cakes in such flavors as banana, pineapple, coconut and chocolate. We try small bites of the bright yellow, original-flavor cake, which is sweet, slightly sticky and heavy with the taste and scent of rum. But that’s nothing next to the rum-soaked confections that Bahamians make at home, Alanna says.
“It’s quite common for a baker to pour a whole bottle of rum over the cake after it’s out of the oven,” she tells us, making me long for an invitation to her house the next time she’s baking.
As everyone says their goodbyes and heads back to their resorts and cruise ships, I think that Alanna’s probably right when it comes to tourists and Bahamian foods. Don’t get me wrong: I love parts of being a tourist, and I will unabashedly take clean beds, poolside piña coladas, WiFi and all the other resort comforts of being on vacation. But when it comes to food, to understanding the real taste of a place, resorts just don’t cut it. I’m so glad I know this. Otherwise, I would still hate the conch.
Pecci is New Hampshire-based freelance writer. She blogs at burningdownmykitchen.blogspot.com.
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Atlantis Paradise Island
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Behemoth resort on Paradise Island, about 10-minute drive from downtown Nassau. Rooms from about $167, depending on time of year.
British Colonial Hilton Nassau
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Beach hotel in downtown Nassau. From $199.
Authentic Bahamian cuisine including conch fritters, Bahamian macaroni and cheese, and steamed chicken. Entrees from $12.
Van Breugel’s Restaurant & Bistro
Charlotte Street South
European-inspired bistro fare. Entrees from $14.50.
Tru Bahamian Food Tours
Walking and tasting tours of Nassau. Adults, $69.
Ardastra Gardens, Zoo
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The Bahamas’ only zoo. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. $18, $9 for ages 4-12, free for age 3 and younger.