I may have gulped slightly as I stared down the bowl of “sheep tongue souse” on my breakfast table. I had tried most of the other unusual traditional breakfast dishes during my years of travel to the Bahamas; this visit I was determined to leap out of my comfort zone with this ultimate proof of the “semi-Bahamian” status bestowed by locals on past visits.
In Your Bucket Because…
- When in the Bahamas, eat like the Bahamians.
- There are those rumors about aphrodisiac effects…
- Great for adrenaline foodies.
Boil’ Fish, Chicken Souse, and Johnnycakes
Years ago, subsistence Bahamians ate what came from the sea, their “yard” (garden), and, to supplement, tin cans. That explains why dishes such as boil’ fish, stew’ fish, chicken souse, conch souse, and tuna and grits (just wait, it gets even stranger) became embedded in Bahamian morning tradition.
For a cold pizza breakfaster such as myself, breakfast in the islands has always been the departure from everyday American life I anticipate most. It all began with the chunk of steaming johnnycake and plate of “fire engine” (more about that later) I tasted on my first trip to Grand Bahama Island some 20 years ago.
You can find traditional Bahamian breakfast throughout the islands, even in Nassau. For whatever reason, Grand Bahama Island – home to Freeport, Lucaya, and scatterings of old-time village settlements – excels at it. Perhaps it’s because it’s less touristy than Nassau. Especially on weekends, locals indulge in the breakfasts they grew up with.
“We eat it just like you guys would eat pancakes and eggs,” said Freeport native Nako Brice.
How Do They Make That?
Why children and some adults refer to corned beef and grits as “fire engine” has even Bahamians guessing. Some say it has to do with the quickness of its preparation; others, the tomato sauce that binds the minced canned meat, onions, and green peppers together.
As for johnnycake, its name is a corruption of “journey cake,” short cakes colonials carried on long trips. The Bahamian version does not follow the rules of other West Indian flat, pan-cooked johnnycake. It’s baked in long loaves and has the coarse texture and sweetness of cornbread. It is the quintessential accompaniment to the most trademark Bahamian breakfast of all, boiled (a.k.a. boil’) fish.
Seafood still figures importantly into the Bahamian diet, even at breakfast time. Boil’ fish is a limey broth soup with the fish – bones, skin, and sometimes even the head – still intact. (It’s a matter of pride and a test of Bahamianism how well you can clean meat off bones; Bahamians can do it using a soup spoon.)
“From small you start eating it as soon as you learn to pick bone out of fish,” said Brice.
Restaurant cooks prefer grouper, but snapper or any catch of the day will suffice. Purists use sea water in the broth, others simply wash the fish with sea, or at least salted, water. They then season it with lime juice and hot pepper, and cook it with onions and potatoes.
The salty-tart-fishy result is said to cure hangovers. It cured a stubborn cold the first time I tried it. For an extra dose of recovery, add more heat. Authentic Bahamian restaurants such as Geneva’s Place in Freeport (a restaurant named after its cook is always a good indication) serves lime wedges and a bird or goat (habanero) pepper on the side.
Stewed (stew’) fish makes different use of the day’s catch, smothering it in a thick, tomato-based sauce. Stew’ conch is a less common variation.
Conch also appears in souse, another ubiquitous breakfast concoction in several guises. Prepared much the same as boil’ fish, souse can feature chicken (most common), pig’s feet, mutton, or even “sheep tongue.”
I grew up, a dairy farmer’s granddaughter, eating pickled cow’s tongue, so once I got past the early-morning queasies, I actually relished the sheep tongue souse. Although imbued with the slightly gamier flavor of sheep and a hint of allspice, it swept my taste buds back to my childhood.
Around grits, other traditional dishes revolve. Besides corned beef, you’ll find tuna, fried bologna (called “sausage” on the menu), or sardines.
Bahamian women, especially those “watching their figures,” favor tuna ‘n grits, which is tuna salad (seasoned with lime and chiles as well as onions and mayo) on a plate with grits.
It’s surprisingly tasty though I suspect not as light as the women would like to believe. Lighter, by far, nonetheless, than the stews and sweets – coconut tarts and (sweet) potato bread – that tempt at the breakfast table.
On weekdays, busy work folk often catch a quick starter meal from mobile kitchens in the back of SUVs or cars or call ahead for take-out from Geneva’s Place, Mary Ann’s Restaurant, and other places that cater to locals.
Famous Lucaya beach conch stand owner Billy Joe admits he only occasionally indulges in traditional breakfast, and that’s usually when he goes home to Cat Island or when he buys something from “May,” who sells breakfast out of the back of her car near the airport.
Yet even in Port Lucaya Marketplace, the heart of today’s Grand Bahama Island tourism, most of the restaurants serve Bahamian breakfasts along with American, including Zorba’s Greek Café, Le Med, and After Deck (which also goes native with pancakes in coconut and guava flavors).
It seems more and more tourists are taking the dare, perhaps inspired by Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmerm, and other television food warriors. Even trendy restaurants such as Chibah coffee shop and Willy Broadleaf at Grand Lucayan list a Bahamian breakfast special each morning.
Wherever you relish the culinary wake-up call adventure, Bahamian breakfast serves up a hearty helping of old-island times that has survived as a bond with Bahamians’ sea-salted past and a link for intrepid visitors to the essence of island cuisine and lifestyle. Johnnycake, fire engine, souse… it may sound like a Dr. Seuss breakfast (hold the green eggs), but in the islands, it’s a sound-bite for a home-cooked jump-up to the day.
- For more information on travel and food in the Bahamas, check out The Bahamas: A Great Destination written by Chelle Koster Walton and published by Countryman Press.
- Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, 242-352-8044
- After Deck Restaurant, 242-373-8657
- Chibah Cafe, 242-374-4163
- Geneva’s Place, Freeport, 242-352-5085
- Le Med, 242-374-2804
- Mary Ann’s Restaurant, 242-352-8875
- Willy Broadleaf, 242-373-1333
- Zorba’s Greek Cafe, 242-373-6137