This entry is a perfect illustration of my inability to keep anything simple. Somehow, I can take a gloriously easy and compact dish like falumou and find a way to make it difficult and time-consuming. “Why would I use canned coconut milk when I could positively tear my hands apart while making it from scratch?” I said to myself. Nice work, chief!
Ehhhhhhhh but first, a few quick details about Belize:
Belize is home to three major ethnic groups, each with their own distinct culture and cuisine. The Maya/Mestizo group encompasses a cooking style that most in the U.S. would recognize as classically Central American – corn-based specialties like tortillas, tostadas (garnaches) and tamales, a variety of beans, and even something akin to tacos called panades. Even though all of these dishes sounded really good, I was afraid of cooking any of them and possibly painting myself into a corner… there are a LOT of countries that eat this stuff, you know?
The next group, the Kriols, have a variety of dishes that are not very different from what much of the Caribbean eats – beans and rice, lots of fish and bushmeat (iguana being one…) and a heavy reliance on coconut. Their main dish, known as Boil-Up, is something like the ubiquitous and infinitely varied “pepperpot” stew found throughout the islands of the Caribbean – a bubbling cauldron of eggs, fish, pig parts, lots of starchy things like plantain and yam, and even tomato and cocoa. Again, a little too close to things I’d be making for other countries, though I love the idea of eating something called “Boil-Up”.
The last ethnic group, and the one that I chose to represent Belize in my project, are the Garifuna people. A compelling mix of native Caribbean, Latin, European and West African (oral history even goes so far as to trace the African lineage of these Belizeans to one slave ship from Nigeria that wrecked on the island of St. Vincent!), the Garinagu (that’s the plural form of Garifuna) really kindled my interest, especially once I read about their most famous dish, falumou – fresh fish poached in coconut milk, and served with mashed plantains (which is basically an analogue of the African staple of fufu).
My first step was the completely unnecessary and even slightly haughty task of making fresh coconut milk. Why not, right? I unloaded all of my spite, and malice, and will to dominate on four mature coconuts (that means the dark brown ones with the stringy hairs all over them) with a hammer, and then not-so-carefully separated the meat from the shells with a sturdy serving spoon.
After washing my blood off of everything and tending to my rent flesh, I broke out the blender and, in batches, loaded it with coconut meat and enough hot water to lubricate the blades. I ended up with this:
After straining this mash through some cheesecloth, I left the liquid to settle and refrigerate.
Now I had to prep the hudut, or pounded plantains. When they say “pounded” they really mean “pounded” – they are traditionally prepared by being boiled, placed in a big wooden mortar on the floor and then given the business by a strong adult wielding a huge wooden pestle. It can take hours to get the right consistency.
I do not possess such a monstrous mortar and pestle. Luckily Yolanda Castillo, the Belizean chef at a Chicago restaurant named Garifuna Flava, has posted a video on her website that shows a shortcut to the same consistency – the food processor. If you think about it, the pounding is really just tenaciously isolating the plantains’ fibers, separating them and breaking them down into a gooey, starchy pulp. Some careful pulses in a Cuisinart will achieve the same result, like so:
With my accompaniment ready, I got to work on the falumou. I was so thankful to have a dish that, for once, seemed to cook itself. All I needed to do was put some things (a few okra pods, my homemade coconut milk, an onion…) in a pot and turn on the gas. While red snapper is a beloved fish in Belize and in most of the Caribbean, Garifuna Flava also uses kingfish, native to Belizean shores. So I used a little of both: the meaty tail section of a red snapper and a couple of thick kingfish steaks, ringed with opalescent grey skin. And, as is my wont, I decided to “bus’ a peppah”, so I slit the bottom of a whole habanero pepper and tossed it in.
On their own, these foods are a bit monochromatic. I mean, we’re talking simple dishes – comfort foods, really. Just a few flavors stand out: coconut, fish, capsaicin heat and starchy, even funky fruitiness. But together… damn. What a satisfying match. If I had to do it all over again I would have gone a little longer in my “pounding” of the plantains, but the small lumps did not change the overall stomach-warming awesomeness of the dish.
Garifuna women are said to use magic, or obeah, in order to maintain control over the men in their lives. They believe that this magic will help them keep their husbands in love with them. I don’t really know why they would go to all that trouble… a constant supply of falumou seems like it would be enough to keep any dude around.
Now you go:
3 green plantains, peeled
1 yellow plantain, peeled
2 tsp salt
1 gallon water
Boil plantains in salted water for about 30 minutes, or until soft. Drain and let cool.
In small batches, pulse in a food processor, adding small amounts of cold water if needed to loosen up. Repeat with the rest of the plantains until you have a soft, smooth paste. Taste and add more salt if desired. Form into an attractive mound.
Serve at room temperature with falumou.
4 cups canned coconut milk (OR coconuts (to make 4 cups coconut milk) OR
2 lbs. red snapper or kingfish, whole or in steaks
1 onion, halved
2 cloves garlic, crushed
8 okra pods
1 habanero pepper, left whole but slit at the bottom
2 bay leaves
salt & pepper
Bring coconut milk, onion, salt, pepper and bay leaves to a boil in a large pot. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the fish pieces. Stir gently and often to prevent the coconut milk from clumping or scorching.
When fish is cooked (app. 25 minutes), remove the fish pieces from the pot and place on a serving plate. Bring the remaining coconut milk gravy to a boil and reduce until it clings to the back of a spoon. Pour over fish pieces and serve hot, with hudutu baruru.