Friday, August 21, 2015

Chu'uk Wa. Part 1 of My Personal Belize Food Bucket List

We call Belize The Jewel for good reason. Our country is small, almost exactly the size of the American state of Massachusetts, yet overflowing with cultural and environmental diversity. From rainforests to reefs, yes, of course, but also pine savannas that make one feel on safari, rare isolated cloud forest peaks hidden in the Cockscomb Mountain Range and the inviting cool green of mangrove forests and estuaries. Across the country we find Kriol (Creole), Mestizo, three Maya groups, Garifuna, but also over 11,000 Mennonites in both electricity and non-electricity using communities, a large Chinese immigrant population and villages whose members trace their ancestry back to India, as well as many individuals whose ancestry is an unlabeled mixture of peoples from across the world. The Caribbean coast of Central America has been a melting pot of diversity since the chaos of colonialism began over 500 years ago and in Belize this only adds to the sparkle of our little Jewel.

For a long time British colonial policy discouraged land ownership and farming, yet it continued on a small scale and despite the dominance of British ideals and British food, especially amongst those closest to the colonial system, a diverse array of food traditions survived in this little corner of the British empire. Today some have gained international attention while others are still hidden from the eye of most visitors.

Starting with this post, I'd like to mention just a few of the many lesser known foods and food related activities that I think every Belizean and visitor should know about and experience. Look for Part 2 of my bucket list soon!

Chu'uk Wa: Also called sweet corn tortilla, a name which utterly fails to capture its delicate sweet crispy nature. Chu'uk means sweet or sugary in Kekchi Maya. Wa, corn or food, refers to the main ingredient: corn cooked with lime as if to make regular corn masa for tortillas. This cooked corn is ground together with our local rich brown sugar, giving each wafer a sweetness that only enhances its aromatic corn flavour. A seed pod from the plant chu'uk-pim (otherwise known as "sweet-plant", see in the photo below) is used to stamp a filagree of beauteous labor across the face of a round, hand shaped corn wafer so thin that it is semi transparent. These wafers are hand formed on a leaf from the jungle called waha leaf, which allows the cook to place the wafer face down, leaf up, on the hot comal (cast iron griddle) on which corn tortillas are also cooked. After a second the wafer hardens enough that the cook can carefully peel off the leaf and quickly decorate the uncooked side using the seed pod. This painstaking hand labor requires great skill, and only a few Maya women in any given village know how to make good Chu'uk Wa. Tracking it down can be difficult. My best source for it so far is the King Energy gas station in Big Falls Village, Toledo District, and even there its not guaranteed. These delicate wafers are a great accompaniment to some Maya style hot chocolate, or even alongside a cup of tea or coffee. If they lose their crispiness in our humid climate a couple seconds on a hot cast iron surface will toast them right up again.