You Are What You Eat
Roatan Cuisine Tells Story of Its Many Peoples

December 31st, 2015
by Robert Armstrong

About a million tourists visit Roatan, the largest of the Honduran Bay Islands, every year, most of them on cruise ships. It’s safe to say few if any of them come for the food.

Coco cake: a form of "pot cake," made from taro root, popular on the Bay Islands.

Coco cake: a form of “pot cake,” made from taro root, is a traditional Bay Islands dessert.

Neither the Honduran Government nor the local tourism industry promote the Bay Islands as a cultural destination. People visit Roatan, and the neighboring islands of Utila and Guanaja, for the year-round warm climate, the beaches, the accessible coral reef and the world-class SCUBA diving. More recently, they come because it’s on their cruise ship itinerary. The cuisine offered at most tourist establishments is basically the same as one would find on any other vacation island anywhere else in the world. But those who take the time to look for it will discover a cultural environment here that is in many ways as interesting and diverse as the reef environment offshore. In fact, there is not one island culture but several, and each has left its imprint on the local cuisine.

“We are creole people,” said Deenie Edonia Webster, proprietor of Madah’s Authentic Kitchen, about five minutes’ walk from the municipal cruise ship dock at Coxen Hole. “There’s a big mix.”

Madah (“It’s just island slang for ‘m-o-t-h-e-r,’” she explains) is a sixth-generation islander. Like most people on Roatan who call themselves “islanders,” Madah’s first language is English. She is also fluent in Spanish, the official language of Honduras, and sold tamales from her house before building a restaurant in front four years ago touting “original island food.” Tamales are not an island dish, although she says she does them “in an island-style way.” But she still makes them, because, “People would whip my butt if I don’t. They love tamales to death.”

Madah’s tamales are just one example of how the island’s ever-changing mix of cultures affects how people eat.

The earliest known occupants of the Bay Islands were Pech people, known better locally as Paya (but they don’t like being called that). Christopher Columbus encountered the Pech on Guanaja in 1502, when he claimed the Bay Islands for Spain. Most of the Pech, were wiped out by disease, exploitation and slaving expeditions in the decades following European contact. Those few who remained were removed by the Spanish in the 17th century because they were supplying English pirates who used Roatan as a base for raiding Spanish ships. At that point the island was essentially uninhabited, save for the odd pirate hideout. (Coxen Hole is named for the infamous English pirate John Coxen.)

Garifuna women show a tourist how to extract coconut milk the traditional way at the Flamingo Culture Center in Punta Gorda, Roatan.

Garifuna women show a tourist how to extract coconut milk the traditional way at the Flamingo Culture Center in Punta Gorda, Roatan.

The British built forts and settlements on Roatan a few times during the 17th and 18th centuries, but none of them lasted long. Then in 1797 the British dealt with a revolt by the Garifuna people on St. Vincent, in the Lesser Antilles, by deporting the rebels to Roatan. The Garifuna trace their origins to shipwrecked and/or escaped West African slaves who settled among the indigenous people on St. Vincent in the 17th century. From Roatan they spread along the north coast of Central America, but an estimated 5,000 live on Roatan today – about 5 percent of the island’s population. They are concentrated in and around Punta Gorda, on the island’s east end. The Garifuna have their own language — a patois of indigenous Caribbean and West African tongues, with quite a few French words and smatterings of other languages thrown in. Most also speak Spanish.

The Garifuna claim the title as Roatan’s first people, and Garifuna dance troupes greet arriving cruise ship passengers on the docks. But within a few decades of their arrival they were outnumbered on the island by English speakers. British subjects began moving to Roatan, mostly from the Cayman Islands, around the time Parliament abolished slavery throughout the Empire in 1834. Whites came in search of green fields with their livelihood on the Caymans, based on slave plantations, coming to an end. The freed slaves followed later in the decade and quickly outnumbered their former masters.

With thousands of its citizens living there, Britain briefly declared the Bay Islands a Crown colony in the 1850s. But London renounced its claims to the islands in an 1859 treaty with Honduras, which had gained its independence from Spain in the 1820s. The Honduran flag was raised on Roatan the following year. Authorities mark the anniversary of the “return to Honduras” each April with a parade through Coxen Hole. But many English-speaking islanders refer to it as “the day Queen Victoria stabbed us in the back.” Memories die hard here.

Although the Bay Islands have been officially part of Honduras more than 150 years, their British character and identity has endured into modern times. English remained the predominant language until very recently, when Spanish speakers began coming over from the mainland in large numbers looking for jobs, first in the fishing industry and then in tourism and construction.

Lee Dixon Elwin, proprietor of Dixon's Palapa in French Harbour, shows a photo of his ancestor Uwins Elwin, who was governor of the Bay Islands in the 1850s, when they were briefly a British colony.

Lee Dixon Elwin, proprietor of Dixon’s Palapa in French Harbour, shows a photo of his ancestor Uwins Elwin, who was governor of the Bay Islands in the 1850s, when they were briefly part of British Honduras.

“We are the minority here now,” said Lee Dixon Elwin, a fourth-generation descendent of Uwins Elwin, the first and only British governor of the Bay Islands. Dixon and his wife, Doris, opened a restaurant – Dixon’s Palapa – above their house in French Harbour four years ago.

Citing figures he said the Minister of Tourism related to him from the last electoral census, Dixon said “white English people” such as himself were now just 7 percent of the island’s population. “The black English people are 23 percent,” he said. If the Garifuna (whom Dixon neglected to mention) are roughly another 5 percent, then roughly two-thirds of the island’s residents are, in Dixon’s words, “foreign from here.” A few thousand of those are expatriate retirees, dive enthusiasts, investors and runaways from North America and Europe. But the bulk are first- and second-generation migrants from the mainland of Honduras.

Dixon, like Madah, was born in 1961, and grew up on an island that looked and sounded very different.

“Back when we were kids, all the exchange of business … was in between here, Caymans, Jamaica and Belize. It wasn’t in between here and the mainland of Honduras,” Dixon said. “If it was Christmas Time, you was going to buy all the products from Belize.”

Dixon carries a photo of his illustrious British ancestor around with him and says he is working on a complete family tree. His father, like generations of island men, crewed vessels operating between the islands and the U.S. Gulf Coast. Others worked on oil rigs in the Gulf. (Madah used to cook for islanders working on rigs off Mexico). These seamen brought home with them a taste for Country-Western music and oldtime religion, as well as fried chicken, barbecue and potato salad – all staples of today’s island eateries. Dixon’s restaurant has a small memorabilia display, including old photos of French Harbour and a clipping from a British magazine from 1852 reporting the annexation of the Bay Islands.

Dixon’s Anglo heritage is on display not only on the restaurant’s wall but on its table. In particular, Doris’s baked chicken, served with a stuffing she makes by grating her homemade bread, will undoubtedly remind any American who tastes it of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. The stuffing may be a bit crunchier, because it contains rice. But the flavor is unmistakeable.

“You know where I come to know about stuffin’? That was the tradition,” Doris said.

But Doris’s feast also includes items of distinctly Afro-Caribbean origin. For example, for dessert she served a slice of coco cake, a form of “pot cake” (not to be confused with a pot pie) made from taro root.

“You want to know why it’s called a ‘pot cake?’ Because, how did they make their cake? They’d dig a hole in the ground and put coals in it, and they had their metal pot (Lee described it as like a Dutch oven). They’d put their cake in there and cover it up with banana leaves and then throw the coals on top of that.” The texture is somewhat like bread pudding, but more homogeneous. Islanders also make pot cakes from yucca/casava, sweet potatoes, corn and pumpkin.

Doris actually comes from a Spanish-speaking family on the mainland but moved to the island when she was 11, following an older half-sister who had married an island man. “I was coming to the island to learn English,” she said. She moved in with an island family in French Harbour and seven years later married Lee, the nephew of her adoptive mother. She learned from her birth mother how to make basic Honduran dishes like beans, tortillas and baleadas (sort of a cross between a burrito and a quesadilla). Those items are on the menu at Dixon’s Palapa. But most of what she cooks she learned from her adoptive family and in-laws.

“I do mixed things,” she said. “But my cooking is more inclined to the island cooking, because there I was finished raised up.”

Deenie Webster serves island breakfasts (not to be confused with the "tipico" breakfast, which is an import from the mainland) at Madah's Kitchen in Coxen Hole.

Deenie Webster serves island breakfasts (not to be confused with the ubiquitous “tipico” breakfast, which is an import from the mainland) at Madah’s Kitchen in Coxen Hole.

“Island cooking,” as both Doris and Madah down the island in Coxen Hole would likely define the term, includes such staples as baked chicken; stew chicken; stew beef; fried, stewed or sauteed fish (escabiche); conch soup; picked crab; stewed pig feet and fried pork; usually served with green or ripe fried plantains and coconut beans and rice. It reflects the cross-fertilization of approaches the island’s different cultures have taken to the readily available ingredients, such as seafood, coconuts, bananas, plantains, basil (pronounced bah-SLAY), lemon grass (called “fever grass” because of its use in traditional island medicine) and mutton peppers (similar to a habanero).

“Every island people cook basically the same food but just different spices,” Madah said. If there is a difference between the cooking style of the Afro-descended islanders and caucasian islanders, she said, it is that, whereas the relatively better-off people like the Dixons (whom she collectively calls “the Joneses”) could sail to Belize to buy things for their Christmas dinner, black island people, like their slave ancestors, made do with what they had.

“People in them days was very poor,” said Madah, who says she got everything she knows about cooking from her grandmother. “They invented their own stuff.”

An example, she said, is tapado, a stew made throughout the island from seafood, pork, bananas, plantains and other ingredients, with a coconut milk base. “They just put everything in one big pot and cook it,” Madah said. “We was never known to write down recipes.” Madah makes tapado at her restaurant every Saturday.

Like Texans and their chili, island cooks all have their own unique tweak on tapado. Friends and neighbors go in together to procure the ingredients and throw them all in a big pot over a fire in somebody’s backyard to cook all day, then divvy up the product to take home. Today islanders buy salted pigtails at the supermarket to put in their tapado. But in the old days, Madah said, islanders would preserve their own pork from pigs they kept in backyard pens (many still do) by salting, drying or pickling it, then cut off just a small piece each time they made a batch of tapado.

“The stove was a stove made up of mud,” Madah said. “I’m planning to make one, just to show the people what we used to use in the days gone by.”

“Tapado” is actually a Spanish word. The traditional island name for the dish is “coconut rundown.” But it reminded Hispanic migrants of the sopa de tapado they ate on the mainland, served with rice. So now everybody calls it “tapado.”

“They changed the names of our food,” Madah said. “My great great grandmother used to call it ‘coconut dinner.’ And then my great grandmother called it ‘serry.’” (pronounced seh-RAY)

Making "machuca."

Making “machuca.”

The Garifuna on Roatan make a similar dish known as machuca, which usually contains no pork and more seafood and is served with a paste made from green plantains that are mashed in a wooden contraption that looks like an old-fashioned butter churn.

“It’s the dish we sell most of here,” said Tomás Martinez, co-proprietor of Garifuna Living Food in Punta Gorda. Martinez comes from a Garifuna community on the coast but moved to Roatan 38 years ago. His wife, Dulia Gonzalez, was born on Roatan to a Garifuna father and a black English-speaking mother. They’ve had a restaurant on the spot about 35 years. There are three or four other beachfront restaurants in Punta Gorda selling Garifuna food, but Martinez says theirs is the oldest and uses all-natural ingredients made to order in the traditional way. They extract their own coconut milk, for example (Gonzalez says the canned coconut milk will give you diahrrea) and grate their own casava for casava bread, a Garifuna staple that has a texture somewhat like thin styrofoam until soaked in water or gravy to become spongy.

Martinez, who spoke to us in Spanish, said the Garifuna cuisine on Roatan differed significantly from that on the mainland, which he said had been more Hispanicized. “On the coast they make the food any old way (pupupuya),” he said, “whereas we here have a special touch (toque) for the food.”

Machuca is widely recognized as the signature dish of Garifuna cuisine. However, the word “machuca,” like “tapado,” comes from Spanish. The Garifuna word for the dish is gudutu (pronounced hoo-DOO-too). Some islanders also call it fufu, after a West African dish that is made not with plantains but with yams. But ask anyone on the island and they’ll tell you it’s “machuca.”

The “Spanish people,” as English-speaking islanders still call them, have contributed more to the local cuisine than just vocabulary. The típico breakfast served everywhere on the island, consisting of scrambled eggs, refried beans, ham or chorizo, cheese and tortillas, is all mainland. Tortillas also accompany most island lunches and streetside barbecues. But it wasn’t always that way.

“I would never say that the tortilla is a part of our food culture,” Madah said. “We used to make something similar. It was called ‘flo blo.’ … It was done with coconut milk instead of water. … It was thick. I would say roughly about an inch, inch and a half thick. … We did it in an iron frying pan of which I still have, from my great grandmother. I still have her old iron frying pan.”

A traditional island breakfast, Madah said, included either flo-blos or fritters (a fried bread similar to a Belizean fry jack, also called “flitters” but now better known by the Spanish name “fritas”) served with fried beans, fried fish or stewed chicken or ham and vegetables. But hers may be the only restaurant on the island where one can still find such a breakfast, and if you want the flo-blo, you’d better order them in advance, because she doesn’t make them every day.

The survival of old-style island cooking is threatened not just by demographic changes on the island but by the increased availability and popularity of modern convenience foods. “It has become out of style to go to the bush,” said Alfred Arzu, a Garifuna community leader. (“Go to the bush” means to live a traditional lifestyle.) Arzu hopes tourism can help revive interest in the island’s traditional culture and cuisine.

Dugart Ebanks slices green bananas, to be fried and served with pig feet and stew chicken, every Friday night in Roatan's West End.

Dugart Ebanks slices green bananas, to be fried and served with pig feet and stew chicken, every Friday night in Roatan’s West End.

Of course, for tourists to appreciate Roatan’s traditional cuisine, they must be able to find it. Most tourists don’t venture far from the cruise ship ports, the all-inclusive resorts or the tourist enclaves of West Bay and West End. Madah’s Kitchen sometimes does a brisk business when there’s a cruise ship in port, but few non-cruise visitors know where to find it. Elvia Ebanks and her family serve stew chicken and pig feet with fried green bananas and fresh lemonade in front of a mini-market in West End every Friday evening. But most of her customers are islanders who get their plates to go because there are no tables. Jendelyn Johnson serves island lunches most days from a parking lot across the street from West End’s First Baptist Church. Only the occasional tourist drops in. Russell Island Style Restaurant in Dixon Cove is close to the Mahogany Bay cruise ship terminal used by Carnival ships. But you will have to take a cab to get there.

Martinez of Garifuna Living Food in Punta Gorda, a 40-minute cab ride from West End, said the manager of El Boske, a new tourist complex in West End, recently asked him to do a Garifuna food promotion there one night a week. But he said his wife nixed the idea, thinking it would cut into their business in Punta Gorda. “Not for all the money in the world,” she said.

Dixon’s Palapa is in the heart of the historic waterfront in French Harbour. But it’s far off the beaten path for tourists. Lee Dixon, who is president of the patronato (neighborhood association) for the area, is trying to change that.

“We’ve just embarked on selling French Harbour as a fishing community,” Dixon said. He began putting up signs and historical markers in November to facilitate walking tours and plans to bring in an old fishing boat. A Culture House opened in 2015 across the road from Dixon’s restaurant, but it attracts few visitors so far and keeps irregular hours.

“There are good cooks on this island, the English as well as we Garifuna,” said Martinez. “I’m not going to say they’re the best cooks in the world. But the flavor they give to the food … you know what I mean?”

For the moment, though, it appears only the more adventurous tourists will find out what he means.

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