Explore a World of Conch and Caribbean Fare at Norman's Cay
Norman's Cay's conch fritters with guacamole
All photos Sara Ventiera for the Village Voice
Mac 'n' cheese, grits, and potato salad are fixtures of the American culinary lexicon, especially in the South, but they're also big players in Bahamian cuisine. Perhaps surprisingly, there's a lot of crossover between Southern and Low Country foods and those of the Bahamas.
Europeans have long had a foothold on the Caribbean isles. Some researchers believe Columbus landed on what is now San Salvador Island during his first explorations of the New World. Still, the area wasn't settled until the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1670, King Charles II granted the Bahamas to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. During the Revolutionary War, many loyalists fled to the island colony, bringing their slaves with them. "Many of us are now descendants from them," says Julia Burnside, director of the culinary division for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. "I don't think we've really explored the Gullah-Geechee connection as we should have: nuances of speech, the way we look."
As in Charleston, South Carolina, you'll find grits in the Bahamas, although here prepared with a slightly coarser texture than what you'd find in the States — and they'll most likely incorporate conch, the protein of choice.
Conch is a mainstay in Bahamian cuisine. It's also typical fare throughout Florida and the northern Caribbean islands, but in the Bahamas it's prepared in more ways than you'll find anywhere else. There's cracked conch, which is breaded and fried; steamed conch is seasoned with a creole sauce made from onion, peppers, tomatoes, and thyme. Conch salad, marinated in lime juice and piquant bird pepper, a/k/a habanero, is essentially the Bahamian version of ceviche, spicy and refreshing. Conch fritters, made of lofty fried dough, are the best-known form of the shellfish. "No one can prepare conch like a Bahamian," says Burnside. "If you find anyone preparing it and the conch is tender, the conch is palatable, they have been to the Bahamas."
Norman's Cay (74 Orchard Street; 646-481-1229) serves an array of Caribbean food, including conch fritters ($11) similar to what you'd find in the Bahamas, albeit with more dough and slightly less meat. And just as you'd find in Nassau or one of the outlying islands, the fritters are served with a creamy pepper sauce.
The restaurant is named after a small island in the Exumas chain, southeast of Nassau. At the peak of the Miami drug-running days, the island was purchased by Carlos Lehder, co-founder of the Medellín cartel. It was used as a headquarters for his smuggling ring in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Just offshore lies the wreckage of a plane that crashed in the Eighties. Now it's a popular snorkeling and tourist destination with a restaurant (serving plenty of conch) overlooking the water.
Although named after that infamous Bahamian island, the food here is more Jamaican than anything else, with a little fusion. But peas and rice, a staple throughout the Caribbean, is served in a similar preparation to what you'd find in the Bahamas. "Most Bahamians want peas and rice," says Burnside. "It's common throughout the diaspora. It can be arroz con pollo and paella in Spanish countries or jollof rice from Africa. Because we're an island nation, we would likely have seafood in there."
In addition to ample supplies of conch, the Bahamas are loaded with grouper, lobster, and tons of snapper varieties, usually prepared steamed and served, like conch, with creole sauce and a side of pigeon peas and rice. Norman's Cay serves a Jamaican-style whole snapper or lionfish (an invasive species decimating the reefs of the Bahamas and southeastern United States), served fried with escovitch, a vinegary sauce similar to the Bahamian creole sauce.
Caribbean-style mac 'n' cheese
Both the snapper and lionfish are also prepared steamed with peppers, onion, thyme, and coconut milk. On Out Islands like Cat Island and Andros, coconut is often a component in seafood dishes. If you order the lionfish, try to do so earlier in the night, as it's difficult to see the fish — and avoid the bones — once the lights are turned down in the restaurant.
Mac 'n' cheese pie ($6) is also on the menu. As is customary in the islands, it's served baked in casserole form, with a slice of cheese on top. "Prosperity has brought bad eating habits to Bahamians," says Burnside. "It comes from different cultural influences, like the Italians. Jamaica has a motto: 'Out of Many, One People.' We're the same."
If you want to try your hand at making conch salad at home, check out this recipe.
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