On the busy thoroughfare of Regent Street in Belize City, lies a small food stand, neatly appointed in clean whitewash paint with red trim. Carefully lettered menus adorn the front, and a sign above reads, Caribbean Palms Inn. The stand abuts a larger hotel and upstairs, aromas of stewed chicken and coconut, curl from the windows.
Cue the birdsong and music.
Its upstairs that Miss Dorla and her daughter Shana Banner are cooking away. Each day from 11am to 2pm they serve up lunches for take-away and catering. Dorla is at the same time ebullient and no-fuss; Shana will remember every dish she’s ever sold to you.
Do you like to be called, “Miss Split Pea with Pigtail”? Or how about, “Mr. Cow Foot Soup” ? Its these things that make the shop endearing, a cherry on top of a delectable good-food cake.
Miss Dorla has been in business at the Caribbean Palms since 2003. She learned how to cook living in “the country village.” She uses all-natural food with no preservatives, and shops everyday for her ingredients.
Dorla and Shana can give you a worthwhile earful, sharing their secrets to good cooking:
1.) Brown your brown sugar. When you sauté your marinated chicken, add the oil and place 2-3 heaping tablespoons of brown sugar per whole, cut up chicken. Melt the sugar in the oil and just before it gets too dark or burnt, add your chicken. Cook it as you normally would. This helps to add color to the chicken skin and a bit of crusty texture. Dorla said, “This is old-fashioned cooking, before coloring and chemicals. My grandmother taught me this because you have to eat good-looking food.”
2.) Moisten your rice with coconut milk. Belizeans cook rice by stirring and checking through the whole process. This helps to prevent the rice from burning or sticking to the pan. In the world of rice cookery, there are two camps. There is one that loves to boil the rice and cover it, leaving it undisturbed until cooked through. This can create a desirable crust at the bottom of the pan like in paella; a crispy texture that shows off the prowess of the cook. Then there are those who alternate sauteed veggies, rice and the liquid, creating a creamier concoction, as in risotto.
Rice from Belize falls somewhere in between. Its both tender, with the individual rice grains pronounced, and moist, with the addition of beans and coconut milk. Adding a sprinkle of warm coconut milk, after the rice is cooked, helps to keep the rice soft and moist. Try it the next time you want to cook rice ahead of time. Reheat it, adding a little warm coconut milk, and you will be surprised with the flavor and texture it lends to the dish.
3.) Learn to love dark meat.”Why you wanna eat that dry stuff like the breast. The longer you stay in Belize, the more you better learn to love eating dark meat.” said Dorla. Meat that is closest to the bone has the best flavor. Bones = taste, and if you take that away, you fight a losing battle. Thighs, legs, wings, and necks are the most popular Belizean cuts. Chicken breasts come in dead-last.
3 1/2.) and oh yes, Marinate, marinate, marinate. “Belizeans love spice, not just heat. Marinate overnight and use a lot of it.” said Dorla. She marinates her chicken in Recado – the beloved annatto paste, Malher’s, a garlic, onion, and salt blend, and fresh herbs like cilantro and thyme. She also reserves the marinating liquid, something that is verboten in American kitchens. “I add it back in when I am stewing the chicken. Everything cooks off and reduces, giving you a nice sauce.” Cooking at high heat for 30-40 minutes helps to kill of any remaining bacteria, on both the meat and in the marinade.
Caribbean Palms is open Mon-Sat, 11am to 2pm. Orders can be placed from 7am to 10;45 am. Call 510-602-7023.
Each day has a special, along with standard Belizean specialties like stew chicken, stew beef, rice and beans and stew beans. Try the split pea soup on Tuesdays with a small bit of pigtail. Its downright creamy, earthy and lick-your -lips good.