Few tourists head to Belize specifically for the food, but that doesn’t mean the country is a gastronomic backwater. The fresh seafood is a particular joy. Vibrant Caribbean and Spanish flavors infuse many dishes, and chefs have rediscovered Belize’s Mayan culinary heritage. We had a delightful time taking a Mayan cooking class with Clarita at Ka’ana. Cooking over a wood fire, we learned to make tortillas from scratch; tamales with chicken in a sauce of garlic, tomatoes, cilantro and achiote; and atole, a warm, rich drink of corn masa thinned with cinnamon-infused water.
It’s quite likely that the cinnamon in our atole came from a farm in Belize, which has a climate well-suited to growing a range of spices. While staying at Belcampo Belize, we made an excursion to a spice farm that we toured on foot and by golf cart. Our guide showed us cardamom plants, peppercorn vines and vanilla orchids, as well as allspice, nutmeg, tamarind and cinnamon trees. For anyone who has never seen these spices outside of a grocery store, the tour is fascinating. I was especially interested to learn how the Maya chewed fresh allspice leaves to numb their mouths for dental work. The leaf does indeed have numbing properties, but chewing one left me with a renewed appreciation for Novocaine.