Each year, the beautiful beaches of The Bahamas attract millions of tourists in search of a relaxed island vibe. But as a nation rich in history and culture, the appeal of the Bahamian cays, islands, and inlets should be rooted in much more than its clear blue waters.
The Bahamas is a commonwealth of 700 islands and cays located roughly 300 miles southeast of Florida. The islands were first inhabited by the indigenous Lucayans, then colonized by Spain and Britain before becoming a hub for pirates and privateers. During the American Revolution, many British Loyalists fled to the islands, bringing enslaved Africans with them. When the British parliament finally declared emancipation for the enslaved peoples in 1834, the newly liberated Afro-Bahamians settled on the islands.
This history of diverse ethnic interactions over time has given rise to a melting pot of food cultures, with dishes drawing inspiration from all points of Bahamian history.
“When I think about Bahamian cuisine, I think about all the influences,” says Chef Raquel Fox, the official chef with The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism in Toronto and author of Dining in Paradise, the first Bahamian cookbook to be published in 30 years. “Especially being so close to the US and going back to the 17th and 18th centuries when the slaves brought Southern and African cuisines with them. And I can’t forget the Lucayans who gave us johnny cake.”
Bahamians enjoy various soups and stews like chicken souse and okra soup, prepared using the cooking methods of their West African ancestors, as well as Southern dishes like grits and mac & cheese. Other specialities like guava duff — the national dessert of the Bahamas — are even influenced by British cuisine. The steamed roulade, served with a sweet rum sauce, is a twist on British figgy pudding.
It’s impossible to talk about Bahamian cuisine without mentioning conch (pronounced “conk”), a large mollusk that’s been consumed on the islands for centuries. Conch can be prepared in many ways, but it is most popularly eaten as a salad. Typically made to order with freshly caught conch cured in citrus and mixed with vegetables and chili peppers or goat peppers, it’s best enjoyed on a fisherman’s dock by the sea.
The importance of island specificity
While staple dishes like conch salad are enjoyed across The Bahamas, no two islands will prepare these dishes the same way. This is what Simeon Hall Jr, a chef and food historian, calls island specificity.
“It really isn’t a homogeneous food culture,” he notes. “We are pretty much all the same, but very different from island to island. Our tone is different, our food cultures are different, but it’s all rooted in being uniquely Bahamian.”
Chef Simeon has dedicated his career to raising the profile of Bahamian cuisine and is currently writing a book that explores the country’s food history. As a native Bahamian, he’s adamant that the existence of island specificity means that visitors must aim for experiences outside the main tourist hubs to truly understand the mosaic that is The Bahamas.
The nation welcomes roughly 7 million tourists annually, with many flocking to New Providence Island where Nassau, the country’s capital, is located. Such a high volume of tourists has motivated many chefs in Nassau to simplify traditional recipes or scrapped them entirely to please foreign palates.
“We’ve had to water down our product to present our local cuisine to a large part of our tourist population who are mostly from the Southern US and the East Coast,” explains Chef Simeon. “Many chefs were told ‘Don’t put too much salt, don’t use this or that ingredient,’ and then all those chefs who did that at work took it home. Now there are people in my generation and in those after me who can’t even tell you what authentic peas & rice is anymore.”
Pockets of paradise beyond Nassau
With so much nuance to account for in the island’s cuisine, visitors can’t possibly claim to have truly experienced The Bahamas without venturing outside of Nassau. The islands outside New Providence, known as the Out Islands or the Family of Islands, offer raw, unfiltered experiences with the best of Bahamian food and culture.
“The Out Islands are the gems of The Bahamas,” says Chef Raquel. “The residents are so protective over our food, culture and heritage, and they’re really prideful about maintaining the old school recipes.”
Each of the Out Islands has claimed its specific bragging rights when it comes to food. Eleuthera, an island just east of New Providence, is renowned for its baked goods and the sweetest pineapples in the world. A trip to Andros will delight seafood lovers with their famous land crab dishes; and if you fancy a drink, a stop at Abaco is sure to deliver rum cocktails that pack a punch. Many of the Out islands also host regular food festivals celebrating the most important Bahamian ingredients, to give visitors an appreciation of the unique food traditions on each island.
The culinary adventures to be had while island hopping in The Bahamas are limitless, making this popular vacation spot a foodie’s paradise. For Chef Simeon, the true Bahamian experience awaits the most open-minded and adventurous of travellers.
“There is something that is absolutely unique and memorable about driving around the islands and stopping for some food on the side of the road. You ain’t gonna beat that — that’s The Bahamas.”