In 1635, two heavily laden Spanish slave traders sank off the coast of St. Vincent, the African slaves that survived taken ashore and granted refuge by the Arawak and Carib Indians inhabiting the Caribbean Isle. From this unlikely union sprang the Garifuna, an unusual blend of old and new world, with their own unique language, religion, customs and beliefs.
The Garifuna history has been one of diaspora. After co-existing peacefully with French settlers on St. Vincent for more than a century, they put up fierce resistance when English colonists began demanding land. Hopelessly outnumbered, they were easily defeated, the survivors rounded up and deported to Roatan, off the northern Honduran coast. Soon after, they aligned with the losing side of a civil war, and many were forced to move on again. Today, Garifuna villages and settlements can be found sprinkled along the coastlines of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
During the winter of 1995, I spent six months in the sleepy town of Dangriga (located near the geographic midpoint of Belize's eastern coast) living among the Garifuna. Together, we guided sea-kayaking journeys through the clear waters and sandy cays rising along the spine of Belize's barrier reef.
What I remember most, of course, are the people. Their easy laugh and slow pace. The men, often with immaculate cornrows (rebraided after every trip by patient wives), would dive for conch or spear grouper, staying down minutes at a time, returning to the surface without even a gasp. Their balance was so spectacular that they often paddled the kayaks standing up. The women, their clothes always whiter than snow, cooked cassava flatbread in 50-gallon drums that had been converted to beach ovens. The dark nights were marked by frantic drumming and fluid dancing.
The food my Garifuna friends prepared, over coconut husk fires, was unlike any camp fare I had experienced before. The ocean provided an endless supply of fresh fish, conch (nearly always fried in fritters) and lobster tails. Filling the plates were salty plantain fries, johnny cakes, and the ubiquitous Belizean rice and beans, flavoured with fiery habanero.
But my favourite – by far – was the sweet coconut dessert known as tableta. Pappy, slim and dreadlocked, introduced me to the treat early that winter. One afternoon, while our guests dozed in hammocks, he zipped up a tall palm (an incredible feat of athleticism itself) and knocked down three green coconuts. Husking them in a flash with a rusty machete (a skill that evades all northerners, no matter how frequently practised, and one that often leads to grievous injuries), he asked me to grate the soft white meat into a large pot.
Pappy then tossed in a pinch of ginger root, a spoonful of butter and one can of sweetened condensed milk. Carefully balancing the pot atop three conch shells over the embers of a fire, he instructed me to start stirring. And not to stop – under any circumstance – until the mixture turned brown. Then he retired to a hammock and was soon snoring.
I stirred and stirred the thick mixture till my forearms ached, and sweat dripped from my brow, but nothing changed. I took a momentary break, and Pappy, without so much as opening his eyes, hollered, "Don't stop mon, don't stop!"
And so I stirred more. Until I was dizzy; my eyes watering from smoke. Then it happened. The entire goopy mixture, in the space of seconds, turned brown, the sugar caramelizing.
Pappy leaped up, and with wet hands patted the hissing and crackling candy flat onto a cookie tray. Moments later, it had hardened, and we cut it into bars.
The result was ridiculously delicious. So delicious that for the next six months, I made the dessert at every opportunity, never ceasing to enjoy its simple flavours.
I have tried several times to recreate the dish in Canada. Bags of dry, grated coconut are, quite simply, useless. Even the fresh coconuts occasionally found in our supermarkets seem to lack some crucial element. Tableta, its unique taste that whispers of sand and palms and blue waters and acrid fires, must be experienced in the Caribbean. Today, this Garifuna treat has spread far and wide, and one can often find children selling "coconut crisp" at bus stops and beachfront resorts throughout Belize, but with a can of sweetened condensed milk in hand, and some polite pleading, you can have tableta prepared almost anywhere along the Belizean coast - and I heartily suggest, should you visit, you do.
Special to The Globe and Mail