Belizean food roots in Mexican, Caribbean and Central American influences. At Garifuna Flava, which is a favorite among Belizean ex-pats, the home-cooking reflects an entire culture.
"Garifuna is a group of people that originated from Africa; landed in Belize and they have their food, their own culture and their language," said Yolanda Castillo, owner of Garifuna Flava.
No surprise then, considering the geographical location, that plantains are a big deal. Both green and overripe versions are used in a mashed mound that can be treated like a neutral starch, with the ability to dip into stews. Speaking of which, there are several types: some made with rich coconut milk, peppers and fried kingfish, called falumou ; others, simple, hearty chicken stews.
"Most traditional food for Belizeans is rice - rice and beans. Garifuna people will eat the plantains with coconut..whatever they grow on the land is what they eat..and fish," Castillo said.
Lots of fish. Not just the kingfish in that coconut stew, but also buffalo - a freshwater fish from the Midwest.
"One of the fish that I didn't use to eat in Belize that I eat here is the buffalo. You know it still has nice taste to it," said Castillo.
Castillo likes using it in an appetizer called panadas, very similar to the South American empanada. She sautes peppers and onions with the cooked, flaked Buffalo fish. Paprika adds color, and when the mixture is completely incorporated, a few tablespoons go into some homemade masa dough, that is sealed around the filling and fried. Two sauces arrive alongside: a mild cabbage and a spicier one with habanero chiles.
"The Spanish would eat our food and we [would] eat their food too," she said.
And garifuna is not alone in Chicago. There is another Belizean restaurant called Tickie's Belizean Cuisine, located in Rogers Park.
Garifuna Flava 2518 W. 63rd St. (773) 776-7440 www.garifunaflava.com
Tickie's Belizean Cuisine 7605 N. Paulina St. (773) 973-3919