My host Jeanie, from the seafront budget lodge Jungle Jeanie, is driving me around the Garifuna village of Hopkins, on Belize’s southeastern coast.
She just returned from a trip to Canada the night before, without her luggage, and she’s frazzled. But she understands that I’ve been looking forward to visiting the more African side of Belize and that I’m dying to experience anything that is Garifuna-related.
We’re in her shiny new red pick-up truck that she’s just learning to maneuver, inching along Hopkins’ main road, at times a dirt path and at other times paved.
We pass restaurant after guesthouse after shack. Everything is closed.
Children on bicycles pass us now and then. Some riding with their little sibling huddled in the front. They come out of nowhere, and sometimes it feels as if they’re swaying towards Jeanie’s vehicle.
We continue up the next block and spot some adults, gathered under coconut trees. They look as if they’re having a lazy morning outside their home, still not changed for the day.
“It’s really slow right now, early September is usually this way, I wish you could see when it’s busy here,” Jeanie laments.
Busy means tourist season, and I’m not sure I want to see that, even though I’m desperately scanning the streets for life.
All of a sudden, Jeanie swerves left onto a dirt path, and parks a few feet across from a beachfront restaurant consisting of wooden picnic tables and a thatch roof. She knows the owner, she says, and we should see if she can perhaps teach me something about Garifuna food.
The restaurant is empty, it’s still early – 11:15 am. But the tables and chairs are set up and everything looks clean and ready for patrons.
I spot a sign that reads Laruni Hatie.
“Let’s check with Marva.”
Two women are sitting outside, chatting. One of them happens to be Marva, the owner.
Jeanie introduces me–the writer and photographer for the tourism board.
Marva looks at me and smiles briefly. And then she explains that she’s closed for a month. All she has is drinks.
Jeanie tells her how every business seems to be shut down, and asks Marva again if she’s really not cooking. No, she’s really not.
I decide to interrupt and create my own travel juju. I start telling her about my background. How I was born in Ethiopia, how I was raised and lived many years in West Africa and how I’ve waited weeks to get to to Hopkins and experience the Garifuna or more African side of Belize. That I have no idea if I’ll ever get the chance again. And I only have a day, and yet everything appears to be closed. I look her straight in the eyes as I’m telling her all this. I add that my only intention is to learn about another African-based culture, one that reminds me of my childhood.
Marva is nodding and smiling the entire time as I speak. She looks away for a half-second then looks back at me.
“You could come back at twelve,” she says in a soft voice.
I hesitate, almost afraid to get too excited too soon. Jeanie is surprised too. “So you’ll cook for her? Oh how nice!”
“Yes. If you come back at twelve, I can make some hudutu for you,” Marva added, still looking at me.
Hudutu! I’d heard of the Garifuna dish but never tried it — fish stewed in a coconut milk sauce and served with mashed plantain.
I thank her and ask if I can watch her prepare the meal and take photos. She agrees and reminds me to return at noon.
Making hudut with Marva
When I’m back at Laruna Hatie –which means “by the moonlight” in the Garifuna language – Marva is ready to begin.
Holding two coconuts in her hands, she tells me she’ll grate them first by the table on the beach but after that, she must shower before she starts the cooking. It hits me then that she was still in her floral, sleeveless cotton nightgown.
I’m excited for the experience I’m about to capture. For the next hour and a half, I watch a Garifuna woman cook a traditional Garifuna dish.
The Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) are one of the most fascinating people here in Belize. They are descendants of two groups of people: West Africans and Caribs. Their story began in 1635, when two Spanish ships heading to the West Indies and carrying Africans (from present-day Nigeria) for slavery, shipwrecked near St. Vincent. The surviving Africans escaped and swam ashore to St. Vincent where they settled and lived amongst the Carib Indians. There, the two groups mixed, creating the Garifuna people. The men survived mostly from fishing.
About a century later, in 1763, the British invaded St. Vincent and tried to enslave the population to plant sugarcane. While the Garifuna tried to resist, many were killed by the British and the rest were exiled to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. From there, the Garifuna migrated to mainland Honduras, and then settled in several Central American countries, including the southern Caribbean coast of Belize, an area largely unoccupied by the British at that time (when Belize was known as “British Honduras”). Legend has it the first Garifuna arrived in Belize on November 19, 1802. To this day, November 19 is celebrated as a national holiday in Belize, recognizing it as Garifuna Settlement Day.
The interesting thing I’ve noticed, is that while Independence for Belizeans is on September 21 and the entire month is celebrated, the Garinagu don’t really join in in a big way, because they have their own national holiday and month for celebrations (November). They also were never enslaved by the British; in fact, they were never enslaved by anyone.
In Belize, the Garinagu are found mostly in Dandriga, Hopkins, Barranco, Placencia and some villages near Placencia, such as Seine Bight.They retain many of their West African ancestors’ traditions, from the drumming to their spiritual practices; but they speak a unique language (I’ll be sharing more about the Garifuna culture soon in another post).
Most of the Garinagu people I’ve met have striking West African features. I look at Marva and I see the similarities.
Marva is actually getting started. She’s cracking each coconut with a machete, holding them over a container as the water gushes out. Then, she split them open in two halves.
She goes inside the restaurant and comes back, an empty glass in hand. She scoops a little coconut water into it and brings it to her lips. It’s the only way to know if the coconuts are good, you taste the water. She nods, satisfied.
The first hard part begins: grating the coconut using a hand grater. It looks easy but trust me, it’s not. She’s pressing and rolling, over and over.
After two halves, she decides she needs some male muscle. She calls for her son in Garifuna. He comes out, a six-foot tall teenager, and starts helping with the grating. In just a few minutes, it’s done and we have a bowl full of grated coconut. Yum, I could just eat it as is.
We’re not done yet outside. We have to get milk from the grated coconut, that’s what the dish will be cooked in, a coconut milk broth.
Marva pours some coconut water on the grated bits, and starts “washing” and squeezing, over and over.
She sifts the mixture, and then starts over with more cups of coconut water. I ask her how much of the water she used, but she can’t remember because it’s so instinctive. It looks like about five to six cups to me. She tells me you have to wash the coconut three times.
While she keeps squeezing and pouring the milk out, Marva and I talk about the Garifuna culture and language. She tells me that Hopkins is one of the few true Garifuna villages left in Belize, where all the inhabitants speak Garifuna, other than the foreign guesthouse owners. She mentions how many of the younger Garifuna of today don’t speak their language. It’s not taught in school, but mostly, they’re embarrassed to speak it. One day, the language might well disappear if no one finds a way to pass it on to the children. I tell her the same is true of many Ethiopian kids who are born overseas, in the Americas – they don’t speak Amharic because their parents never taught them, and because American pop culture competes for their attention.
Finally, we have a bowl of coconut milk on one side, and grated coconut left over on the other side.
Marva tells me now, she’s going to shower and she’ll be back soon. Her house is behind the restaurant.
While she’s gone, I take in the view beside me for a while and then go sit by the restaurant.
I’m still gazing out at sea when Marva returns.
She grabs the milk bowl and we head inside to her kitchen. She tells me how she’s just returned from Chicago on vacation and well, her kitchen is usually more organized. It seems fine to me.
I notice some green plantains on the ground, next to… a mortar and pestle. I haven’t seen one of those since my days in West Africa. This is going to be the real deal.
Next to the stove, Marva has some boiled green plantains ready in a bowl, and some chunks of snapper in another.
She pours three quarters of the coconut milk into a pot and puts it on a low fire.
We step outside to the back, where she picks somethyme from her garden. Back in the kitchen, the thyme goes into the pot. Then, garlic, green pepper and chopped onion, and finally some okra. She salts everything and tells me it has to come to a boil. But you have to stay with it, so it doesn’t curd. Tricky.
While slowly stirring the pot, Marva tells me how she runs this entire restaurant by herself.She cooks, she serves, she does the shopping. All of it. When it gets beyond busy, her son and husband help serve customers. But otherwise, she’s a one-woman shop. And she shows me her tight kitchen, no bigger than for one person at a time and with one tiny window.
Once a year, in the summer, she gets to go away to the States and vacation. Then she comes back and has another month off. It’s the only way to keep going, she says, to travel and rest your mind. I couldn’t agree more.
As the mixture simmers and slowly heats up, Marva adds the fish, piece by piece. She pushes each piece farther in, soaking it in the milk.
Now she says, it’s time to go mash the plantain. She rinses out the mortar a couple of times and she points to the outside. “It’s better to do it by the door, where there’s some wind because it’s too hot in here. This is the hardest part!” She smiles. Oh don’t I know it! I used to watch the women do this in Ivory Coast, while the men relaxed somewhere around the house.
Marva drops the plantain in until all of it is inside the mortar. She sprinkles some salt on then grabs the pestle and starts pounding on the plantains, in deliberate movements. “You have to really mash it, it’s hard.
After a few minutes, I decide to help her and try it myself. I start pounding, and I’m amazed at Marva’s arm strength. I’m nowhere near the energy she put into it. “Harder,” she says, smiling again.
I give it my all, for about ten minutes that felt like one hour. Marva takes over some more. Another fifteen to twenty minutes go by. She goes back to the stove, to check on the broth. It’s boiling and is pretty much ready. She takes the plantain to the kitchen, and starts preparing my plate.
I’m starving. It’s almost one thirty and we started at noon. African food, never an easy task!
I sit on one of the benches outside and Marva brings my lunch and a fork.
“Normally, we eat with our hands,” she says.
I tell her that where I’m from (Ethiopia), we eat with our hands as well. I give her back the fork and start digging. I grab some of the mashed plantain, dip it in the coconut sauce, grab a slice of coconut-drenched and okra-spiced snapper and let it all melt in my mouth. I’m not overwhelmed by the coconut flavor, and the mashed plantains absorbed the spice and flavor from the broth. Hmmm… delicious. It takes me right back to my days in West Africa. Days of fufu and plantain.
I get halfway through my plate and I wonder how on earth I’ll stay awake for my drumming lesson that’s in 15 minutes down the road at the Lebeha Drumming Center, the only in-village activity still open in slow season.
I would need at least an hour to digest the hudut. The breeze blowing across Marva’s restaurant is torturing me with temptations of sleep. Where’s my hammock?
But there’s no sleep for the wicked.
When I go inside to pay Marva and head out, she tells me she normally charges BZ $15 for a plate of hudut (that’s US $7.50 dollars). “But for you, just $10 is fine,” she says, smiling.
I’m stunned. Not only she went out of her way to cook some hudut for me while on vacation, but she wasn’t charging me extra for the demonstration. Nope, she was giving me a discount. I was so touched that I gave her double her regular price, wishing I had more money on me to even triple it.
But the truth is she showed me true African hospitality, welcoming me into her kitchen and her culture, and there’s really no price you can put on that.
If you’re ever in Hopkins, make sure to stop by Laruni Hatie for some authentic Garifuna meals, and tell Marva I said hello. The restaurant is located just one block before the Lebeha Drumming Center (and everyone in town knows where that is). It’s also the only Belizean (and Garifuna)-owned restaurant in Hopkins with a beachfront view. The breeze under the coconut trees is to die for; if I wanted to swim, this is where I’d spend my day.
To make hudut like Marva, follow the directions above and use the following:
2 lbs of sliced fish, seasoned
1 clove garlic
4 leaves thyme
salt & black pepper to taste
About 4 green plantains, boiled (before mashing)