With all the snow we’ve gotten this winter, the idea of getting away somewhere tropical and warm is more appealing than ever.  Although we weren’t able to escape this year, we did just that a year ago to celebrate our birthdays.  We rang in 2009 at Jaguar Reef Lodge, an all-inclusive resort in Belize.

The resort was wonderful.  The excursions blew us away.  The food…not so much.

Don’t get me wrong.  Most of the dishes we ordered were tasty, and the portions were certainly generous.  But I was hoping for something a little more authentic than chicken nachos and conch fritters, so I found myself selecting the menu items that seemed to be closest to the kinds of dishes a local might eat: rice and beans with stewed pork, grilled fillet of snapper with fruit salsa, etc.

Even so, authenticity seemed to elude me.  I was getting my fill of Belikin beer (regular and stout, thank you) and seasoning my meals with a healthy dose of Marie Sharp hot sauce, but I was eager to see what a local meal really looked like.  So I borrowed a bike from the resort one afternoon and headed down the road to nearby Hopkins Village.

It was there, in Hopkins, that I finally experienced a truly local dish: the Garifuna fish stew known as hudut.  I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but everything about the experience was unique.

What is hudut?  Find out after the jump.

Hudut is a traditional Garifuna dish of fried fish (usually snapper) cooked and served in a broth that blends coconut milk, onions and peppers.  Mashed plantains are usually served with the soup and are meant to be stirred into the broth to thicken the dish.  Combined, the broth and plantains have a deep sweetness that balances with the heat of the pepper.

And who are the Garifuna?

The Garifuna are a culture of West African and Carib descent that developed on St. Vincent in the 17th Century.  When the British took control of St. Vincent from the French in 1763, they forcibly relocated the Garifuna to Honduras.  From there, the people have spread along the Caribbean coast to Belize, Guatemala and some of the nearer islands.  Today there are Garifuna diaspora in cities throughout the United States, chief among them New York and Los Angeles.  Garifuna cuisine is heavily influenced by its African roots, and it seems that dishes with shared names vary from region to region.

When I arrived at Hopkins, I rode from one end of town to the other and back again, taking everything in before settling on a place to eat.  It wasn’t exactly a tough choice, as there were only a handful of establishments open.  Some catered to the tourist crowd, with menus resembling that of Jaguar Reef Lodge.  But I was intent on trying the local cuisine, so I turned my attention to a structure that was little more than a dining room with a kitchen in the back.

Innie’s Restaurant promised “the best food in Hopkins,” so I figured it was as good a place as any to check out the hudut. I placed my order and watched for a little while as the woman in the kitchen went to work.  It wasn’t exactly an open kitchen, but she didn’t seem to mind as I watched her mash plantains and fry snapper.  I sipped a bottle of Coke, marveling again at the sweeter, more satisfying taste that came from real sugar instead of corn syrup.  After about ten minutes, my soup was ready.

I had read about hudut beforehand, so I knew that the plate and bowl in front of me were two separate components of the same dish.  Everything in front of me would end up in the same bowl, but first I had some work to do.

I reached for the fish, planning to remove the bones and leave the snapper meat behind.  Unfortunately, the fish was still hot from the frying, so I soon found myself dunking my burnt fingertips into the soothing coconut milk broth.  When things cooled down a bit I finished removing the bones (there were quite a few).  I added in some of the mashed plantains, making sure to crumble them as they went in to avoid large clumps.  Stirring the fish and the plantains in with the onions and pepper strips, I finished the dish and prepared to dig in.

I had grown accustomed to the tangy heat of Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, so I fully expected to be underwhelmed by the flavors in the hudut. In fact, they were terrific.  Smooth and silky, rich and warming, the dish had a subtle heat from the strips of pepper and a cool, sweet taste from the coconut broth and the plantains.  The fish provided a nice contrast of texture, though it seemed to fade into the background of the dish’s flavor.

I made short work of the dish and then retrieved my bicycle from outside the dining room.  It was time to get back to the resort.  Dinner would be ready soon.