British-Inspired Bahamian Dishes
The island capital erupted last month with the annual celebrations of Bahamian Independence from Great Britain – not quite as big as last year’s 40th anniversary but national pride was still very much in evidence – the flag colours of black, aquamarine and gold flying on every car, exploding in fireworks and sported by the crowd at the infamous Tattoo parade by the Royal Bahamas Police Force Marching band, resplendent in their bleach white colonial uniforms under an azure sky.
41 years of independence from the crown, but British culture is still quite apparent. You see it everyday in the traffic – right-hand drive on the left hand side is a fine Bahamian skill to master. You see it in the pressed black and white uniforms of schoolchildren, the Royal red post boxes, the historic colonial buildings of downtown Nassau, including the grandiose Government House – official residence of Lady Pindling, Governor General of The Bahamas, newly appointed by Her Majesty the Queen.
How much British influence is there in everyday Bahamian food?
I feel like its everywhere – macaroni cheese, potato salad, pork chops, tea and cakes, hot souse (clear broth based soup) in the middle of summer!? It seems like we British still have a lot to answer for…
But that’s just my opinion. I wanted to find out more about British-inspired Bahamian foods, so who better to speak with than Alanna Rogers, Founder & President of Tru Bahamian Food Tours a young company on a mission to offer visitors a truly authentic local culinary adventure:
(Alanna) That’s a complex question and one that can’t really be answered neatly.. One of the central tenets that we try to communicate throughout our Bites of Nassau Food Tour is the fact that since The Bahamas has no distinct indigenous population, it is really a melange of many different subcultures. So no one group has claim to this land over another. Throughout our history you will find influences from Africa, Lebanon, Armenia, from the Chinese, Greeks, Canadians, all sorts of Europeans including the British of course, as well as Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians and so on.
So to answer your question about British influence in food, it’s actually more of a hodgepodge. There are certain foods such as Hot Cross Buns which are served exactly they way they are in the UK still to this day and many other ex-colonies like Australia for example, but you have other examples which are somewhat iterations of the original dish such as Guava Duff – the fruit (while much different as a filling choice) in the Duff is steamed as is the dough (from hence the word Duff) in the same way as a Figgy Pudding in the UK was prepared or even a Suet Pudding.
Then there’s Johnny Cake, which didn’t come directly from the British but came via the arrival of United States slaves that were brought over with the Loyalists in the 1780s following the British/American War of Independence. Johnny cake is essentially a dense loaf made flour, butter, water, milk and a touch of sugar– it used to be called Journey Cake because slaves could travel long distances with it since it kept well and could easily be made on an open fire.
Also the use of pigeon peas in dishes such as Peas ‘n’ Rice comes from the United States South. There are countless other examples but my point is, in summary, Bahamian cuisine represents an amalgamation of cultural influences based on the course of our history.
How about Tea Culture?
Yes, tea culture in The Bahamas is by no means as prolific as it is in the UK, or even as it once was here in our islands, but you will still find a few places throughout the country where you can enjoy High Tea. Of course Government House itself hosts the People-To-People Experience Tea Party sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism which is an outstanding event to attend.
Again its very similar in some ways but its also different because in addition to the classic English Tea, these Tea Parties also feature Bahamian Bush Teas, which brings in the whole Bahamian Bush Tea culture which was brought to the Bahamas from Africa. This culture originated from the lack of access to doctors and medical facilities in many of the Out Islands, so they used what was in their natural environment to create potions and elixirs for healing. I’m not sure if some of the establishments in London are serving Five Fingers Tea and Neem Tea (laughs) but its certain that tea is much more popular in the Bahamas than coffee for instance.
Any other dishes with British influence? How about Macaroni Cheese, Potato Salad, Souse?
Once again these are dishes that you will find throughout the Caribbean and not just in The Bahamas in some shape or fashion. It’s the same with Hot Patties, which are sort of a street food or a treat, which we imported to our culture from Jamaica (Pattie is a play on the Cornish Pasty).
Souses and also stews and the use of dumplings are very much a British influence and also Pea Soup is big in Bahamian culture. You’ll find other soups, which don’t even have a name per se but just have a lot of meat and vegetables and dumplings all thrown together. Even Pigs Feet Souse and Sheep’s Tongue Souse came from these same origins – the reason they became delicacies was when people had to be frugal and eat every part of the animal.
So once again, I think there is similarity in terms of method and presentation but the ingredients in these dishes have evolved over the ages.
If there’s one dish you would choose to celebrate Bahamian Independence, which one would it be?
Probably Guava Duff. With respect to English associations, one could argue it’s classic English pudding, just Bahamianised! It’s made even sweeter with fresh guava and a creamy rum sauce. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
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Alanna’s Recipe for Guava Duff:
12 medium guavas, peeled
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice, ground
4 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
Peel guavas, cut in half and remove seeds. Dice the fruit and strain to remove juice. Save juice to flavor sauce if desired. Put fruit in saucepan with water to cover; add sugar, cinnamon and allspice. Simmer until fruit is soft. Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening. Stir in milk and egg to form a soft dough. Knead until smooth. Roll out like a jelly roll on a floured board. Place ½ of the guava pieces on the center 1/3 of the dough and fold over 1/3. Place remaining guava on folded dough and fold over the other 1/3 and seal edges carefully. Wrap dough in a cotton or linen bag, or foil, tie the top securely and put into a large pot of boiling water for 1 hour or more if necessary to set Duff. Serve with GUAVA SAUCE
1 cup confectioners sugar
¼ cup butter
1 teaspoon boiling water; dash of salt
2 tablespoons brandy or rum, or to taste
Cream butter until soft but not melted. Beat confectioners sugar in gradually. add boiling water, salt and brandy or rum. Beat until smooth and fluffy. Makes 1 cup