A taste of the Caribbean and Garifuna flavors. Guatemala’s tapado is a legacy of history and an explosion of flavor.
Food is like reading a book, it is a wonderful thing, it not only fills one of your basic biological needs, but it also has the unusual ability to transport you to faraway places, intoxicated by its flavors and aromas. When traveling eating the local food is part of taking the history and the character of a place in and understanding a bit more of the culture while sharing a nice time with the locals.
Who are the Garifuna people?
The story on its own is an exhilarating adventure. Originally from South Nigeria, they were shipped as slaves by the British, but as a storm hit their vessel, they skillfully survived the shipwreck and were stranded on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.
There, they were welcomed by the Caribs, a group of people who had Arawak ancestry from mainland South America, around the Orinoco River. As part of their integration, they intermarried with the Caribs and created a new ethnic group. As St. Vincent was later taken by the British, the Garifuna were displaced to the island of Roatán, near the coast of Honduras. There they later made a pact with the Spanish and moved on to the mainland where they still reside.
Equally, their dishes maintain a millenary heritage that was born out of the collision and blend of various cultures. Eating a Garifuna plate is like eating a bit of their history and culture. They are masters at processing cassava into ereba (cassava bread), or manioc, which for the under trained enthusiast can prove to be poisonous.
They incorporate rich flavors like coconut milk, plantains, cilantro, and seafood. What is there not to like?
The Garífunas are an old and proud Carib people, descendant from a South American indigenous community, the Arawak, and African slaves brought over by Spanish ships as early as 1635. Today, there are thought to be about 100,000 people who identify as Garífuna, living mostly in Caribbean-bordering countries and islands, but as far away as New York City. They have preserved strong Afro-Caribbean traditions passed down to new generations through dance, drum music, artisan crafts and of course food.
What is tapado?
One of the unique dishes that Guatemala has to offer is the exuberant and delicious tapado. If you are familiar with Guatemalan cuisine, you would know that Guatemalans are big on stews and retain some of their Mayan heritage by utilizing maize and beans in their concoctions. And most stews incorporate similar ingredients and spices (tomatoes, onion, garlic, tomatillo, etc). Tapado, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.
Taking a trip to Izabal and walking through Livingstone, greeted by the friendly Garifuna kids and cheeky grandmas, the experience is only complete with a big bowl of tapado.
So what is tapado? It is the brilliant and harmonious mixture of luscious seafood cooked in a savory coconut broth. How can this work? It simply does, and it is mouthwatering delicious.
Although it is a stew, the dish is extremely hearty, filling, and eats like a meal. The rich coconut seafood broth makes this soup creamy but still light. Plantains thicken the broth, and crab, fish and shrimp make up the body of the soup.
Serve with a side of coconut rice which is made by simply boiling your rice in a half and half mixture of coconut milk and water. It is a relatively simple recipe. Using fresh fish (mangrove snapper) as the seafood component to the stew but it is very common to use a variety of seafood like squid, crab, shrimp, sea bass, or even shark. If you have access to fresh, reasonably priced crab meat, add half a pound of it to this dish. Other tapados include whole blue crab, shell-on shrimp, and clams in the shell.
Cooking it is an experience of its own and leaves a lot of room for experimentation, which makes it fun to share with friends or family on a sunny day. Some ingredients, like the amount of seafood, can vary depending on your preferences, but most of them you can find anywhere.
With an abundance of impossibly fresh seafood and locally grown, tropical produce from bright green plantains to coffee-brown coconuts it is no wonder that food on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast is distinctive for platos típicos (typical dishes).
The big difference between this dish and a fish or seafood chowder is that instead of cream, flour or milk, the creaminess is achieved with fresh coconut milk and plantains.
Tapado (ta-paa-do) is one of the more popular garífuna dishes, consisting of seafood, bananas and plantains all swimming in a spicy, coconut milk-broth. Many restaurants and local stalls sell this fragrant concoction in Lívingston, where Guatemala’s largest population of Garífuna resides. If a trip east is not in your plans, try out the recipe below to bring the flavors of the Caribbean to your kitchen. Garífuna National Day is November 26; this celebration of Garinagu heritage and culture is where you are sure to find tapado and other traditional foods sold by the buckets.
However you come by it, tapado will quickly become as vivid in your Guatemalan memories as tortillas or frijoles volteados.
- 3 large fish heads
- 3 filets white fish (with firm flesh)
- 1 lb shrimp
- 1 lb scallops
- 1 lb clams
- 3 crabs
- 5 cloves garlic , chopped
- 3 plantains (unripe)
- 3 green bananas
- 1¼ lb cassava
- 2¼ cups coconut cream
- 1 bunch cilantro , chopped
- 1 cube bouillon
- In a large pot, place the fish heads and cover them with water.
- Cook the fish heads with the garlic for about 25 minutes covered and over medium heat.
- Add the bouillon cube and the salt at the end of cooking.
- Remove the fish heads from the pot, extract all their flesh with a fork and plunge it into the broth.
- Add the rest of the seafood, except the shrimps and fish fillets.
- Cook for 15 minutes.
- Peel the green bananas, plantains and cassava, cut into small pieces and add to the broth.
- Add the fish fillets, shrimps and coconut milk.
- Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
- Sprinkle with chopped cilantro before serving.