Bahamians don’t make a big deal out of breakfast. A bowl of boil’ fish, usually grouper, with grits on the side, is the preferred day starter for a lot of Bahamians. Ruth Glinton, who runs a popular Bahamian eatery on Nassau St, says boil’ fish is her personal favourite, along with a wedge of johnny cake–a type of bread that goes back a long way in island history.
Boil’ fish is easy to prepare. Onions, celery and potatoes are boiled in water until cooked. Then the fish is added and simmered until just done. Often, the whole fish is used– head, skin and all. Some purists use sea water for the broth while others wash the fish in salted water.
If boil’ fish sounds too adventurous, try chicken souse (rhymes with house). “Souse” is an old English word for something pickled, or a person who drinks too much. In The Bahamas, souse is a thin broth with lots of meat. You’ll see many Bahamians enjoying this savoury meal with bone-in chicken for breakfast. It’s also prepared with more exotic meats, such as sheep’s tongue or pig’s feet.
Stew’ fish is another traditional Bahamian breakfast. For this dish the fish is prepared with celery, onions and spices and finished in a thick tomato-ey sauce. Michael Jackson, another Nassau restaurateur, ranks this dish as his favourite. “Most mornings it’s stew’ fish and johnny cake, and some grits if I’m really hungry,” he says, “unless I’m rushed, then it’s grits and tuna,” which is another favourite.
Grits ’n tuna is popular with Bahamians who are counting calories. Tinned white tuna is fashioned into a salad with mayonnaise, chopped onion, chiles and lime juice. These last two ingredients really make this dish. By the time you leave The Bahamas, you will have become a fan of lime juice. A variation of grits and tuna is the equally simple grits ’n seasoned sardines.
In bygone days, Bahamians ate what they could catch at sea and whatever garden vegetables were ripe, and supplemented these with canned foods such as corned beef.
Fire engine breakfast
Corned beef ’n grits, sometimes called “fire engine” because of its reddish hue and spicy flavor, is another popular breakfast combo. It’s the Bahamian equivalent of corned beef hash. The meat is cooked down with chopped onion, oil, thyme, tomato paste and hot red pepper.
Grits, a Bahamian staple, is essentially coarsely ground corn kernels boiled in water and salt. Cooking with ground corn has its roots in Native American-Indian culture, but boiling ground grains is also linked to Africa where millet has been cultivated, ground and boiled since prehistoric times. During the Middle Ages, Europeans ate a porridge made from boiled wheat or millet, known as groat, but that was before they discovered corn.
Bahamians like the white variety of grits as well as the yellow, and prepare them in a variety of ways: thick as mashed potatoes or thin as gravy–or any consistency in between.
Bahamian johnny cake differs greatly from the cornbread of the US southern states. The traditional Bahamian version contains no cornmeal or eggs, and less sugar than cornbread, relying on flour, baking powder, salt and water. But butter, sugar and a touch of nutmeg are sometimes added nowadays.
Versatile johnny cake
Although recipes vary from island to island in The Bahamas, johnny cake is usually firmer and lighter in color than cornbread. It’s believed it was originally called “journey” cake because it was portable and resisted spoiling. Today, it’s used to sop up breakfast leftovers. It’s great with coffee, too, especially with butter and jam.
Like people everywhere, Bahamians are following an increasingly busy urban work schedule. With fast food so available, many don’t eat a traditional breakfast every day. For them, boil’ or stew’ fish has become a weekend thing. Traditional breakfast fare is alive and well, though, and is still the preferred food whenever possible.
“I slip in here for my souse almost every morning,” says a sharply-dressed professional woman hurrying to her office from a well patronized souse house.
If you’d like to try boil’ fish at home, here’s one way to make it. Bahamians prefer grouper but you can substitute any mildly flavored fish such as cod, pollack or sea bass.
2 lbs fish
2 large limes, juiced
2 medium onions, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
6 potatoes, quartered
1 L fresh water.
Bird or goat pepper to taste
Salt and pepper
Cut grouper into three to four oz pieces, wash with salted water and vinegar. Season with pepper, lime juice, salt and set aside. Place celery, potatoes, onions and butter in saucepan with water and simmer until tender. Add fish pieces and a splash more water if needed. Simmer five more minutes or until fish is just cooked, but still firm. Serve with lime wedges and johnny cake. Serves six.
2 lb broiler, skinned and cut into approx 12 pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 clove garlic, crushed
8 whole allspice
Juice from 3 lemons
Salt and hot pepper, as desired
Place first six ingredients in four-quart sauce pan. Cover with water and boil uncovered over medium heat for 20 mins. Remove from heat, add lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and hot pepper. Serves six.
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan, and stir in 1 cup of grits (not instant). Return to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook for about 20 mins. Stir once or twice. When grits are done, stir in salt, to taste. Serve with a dab of butter.
1-1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 14-oz can condensed milk
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp vegetable oil
Mix ingredients in a bowl. Pour into a baker’s pan and bake at 350ºF for 20 to 30 mins or until the top is brown. Top crust with melted butter. Slice in wedges, serve warm and enjoy.
Information in editorial and listings is subject to change at any time.