The local hangout
The sun has slipped south of the horizon and the weekend is waning, but Arawak Cay (also known as Fish Fry), in Nassau, is just heating up. It’s Sunday night — locals’ night — and the oceanside streets are clogged with cars, the sidewalks are teeming with bodies and wafts of steam ribbon through the air. Arawak Cay, a long strip of ramshackle restaurants with clapboard exteriors, illuminated signs, faded rum ads and crackling sound systems, is gearing up for a party. At once food hall, nightclub and community meeting house, it’s where Nassau comes to socialise, dance, unwind. And feast.
“You’ll see the menus are all about the same,” my Bahamian guide Romeo tells me as he leads us through the crowds towards Frankie Gone Bananas, a cheery-looking corner spot. “But the restaurants are all different in small ways. Everyone has their favourite.” We settle at an outdoor table, festooned with a straw umbrella and just steps from a live band, and within seconds an icy local Kalik beer is in my hand.
Romeo means what he says. Some folk swear by cavernous Goldie’s Conch House — a lively place where professional-quality karaoke singers croon between rounds of crisp fritters and battered shrimp. Others prefer Oh Andros, a family-style haunt where a small patio is perfect for low-key chatter. We’ve ended up at Frankie Gone Bananas, not so much for the fizzing, al fresco atmosphere, but because Romeo tells me it has some of the finest fish in the Bahamas.
“The food here is just like home,” he says, ordering the restaurant’s signature grouper, landed just off shore, which he favours for its flavourful white flesh and minimal bones. Taking a steer from our server, Janiqua, I opt for the other house speciality: Cat Island snapper, fried and topped with a tangle of pickled onions. As part of a set ‘dinner’, it will be served with my choice from a long list of sides — sticky, sweet-savoury plantain, macaroni bake and cooling coleslaw. And then, when Janiqua raises an eyebrow at its absence from my order, I hastily add peas ’n’ rice — the classic Caribbean combo — for good measure.
But first, in Fish Fry tradition — as the band music thumps and the crowds blur by — all things must start with conch salad. Conch, a sea snail with a luminous pink shell, is a Bahamian obsession. Its squid-like flesh is prepared in a multitude of ways, from ‘cracked’ (deep-fried) to frittered, but a fresh salad is the ultimate quality test: the softer the raw meat, I’m told, the better the conch. Frankie Gone Bananas’ version doesn’t disappoint. The alabaster conch flesh is tender and yielding, as pillowy as a seared scallop. Tossed with diced onion, tomato, lime and hot pepper, the salad is at once crunchy, creamy, sweet, salty, zingy and hot. Simple and yet refined, it would convert even the staunchest seafood sceptic.
The traditional breakfast
“The name’s Knowles, like Beyoncé,” chef Tomiko Knowles tells me, by way of introduction. Towering above me, he exudes warmth, making me feel instantly at home in his kitchen. It’s early on a blue-sky morning, and before the guests of Kamalame Cay — a small island resort a 15-minute seaplane ride from Nassau — start to file into the window-lined dining room, Knowles is teaching me how to make the traditional Bahamian breakfast of boiled fish.
The name doesn’t sound especially enticing, but the reality is sublime: a simple broth of potatoes, onion and delicate white fish, freshened with lime and chilli. Served with a scone-like bread (known as johnnycake) and grits, it somehow manages to be both hearty and light.
One of the few fresh ingredients that doesn’t need to be imported, fish is a big part of the Bahamian breakfast. A fishy breakfast makes even more sense where Knowles lives. Kamalame Cay is just off the coast of wild and sparsely populated Andros Island, the Bahamas’s largest island. It’s a fishing paradise; dozens of varieties fill its mangroves and rambling barrier reef, one of the world’s largest. And the locally landed red snapper or grouper — delivered so fresh it’s practically still swimming — is all that Knowles will use in his broth.
“The most important thing,” he says, dropping sliced onions and potatoes into a pan of salted water, “is that the broth is crystal-clear. If it’s cloudy, Bahamians won’t eat it.” The secret to clarity, he tells me, is to boil the veg first, adding the fish at the end so it gently cooks but doesn’t break up. If you want to keep it clear, it also helps to be light-handed with the ‘pepper’ (the Bahamian name for hot sauce) during the cooking process. “I like a lot of heat in mine,” admits Knowles, stirring in a ruby dollop before spooning the broth into a bowl.
The aroma of coconut-stewed grits, freshly baked bread, lime, chilli and onion has filled every corner of the kitchen, awakening my senses. It’s robust, animated, wholesome. You might call it an ideal start to the day.
The food trucks
Dripping in hot pepper mayo, topped with crunchy pickles and coddled by a fluffy bun, the Crispy Bird Sandwich — served from an Airstream caravan on Nassau’s Cable Beach — is certainly delicious. But then again, it would be, because it isn’t just any old chicken burger — it’s been created by Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, famed for his Red Rooster soul food restaurants in New York’s Harlem.
The Bahamas is home to a growing fine dining scene that’s unique in the Caribbean. In addition to his food truck, Samuelsson has a restaurant in Baha Mar, serving up locally caught seafood and dry-aged steaks. Nearby, in the glossy Rosewood Baha Mar hotel, French chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud The Bahamas restaurant is turning out truffle-laden dishes and beaujolais wines. “I’ve been all over the Caribbean,” he tells me over a coffee on the balmy Café Boulud terrace, “but I love the conch here in the Bahamas. Sometimes we serve it as a crudo in the restaurant.”
Meanwhile, over in Downtown Nassau, Graycliff Restaurant (part of the Graycliff Hotel) has one of the world’s most impressive wine cellars, with large-format Cristal champagne from the 1990s and a 1727 bottle of rheingau with a price tag of $200,000 (£147,000).
Back at Samuelsson’s food truck, I peruse the menu — alongside the Crispy Bird Sandwich, you’ll find conch and salt cod fritters, jerk sticky wings with rum caramel and plantain waffles. And, of course, icy Bahamian beers. A meal from a celebrated chef for about a tenner? It’s a prospect that makes the notoriously pricey Bahamas feel suddenly more affordable.
Samuelsson’s truck is one of many excellent street food options in the resort complex of Baha Mar, each one the antithesis of a drab hotel buffet. Having finished gobbling my Crispy Bird Sandwich, I’m now eyeing up the sopes from the Mexican food truck next door. Further along the shore, there’s poke — stuffed with blushing chunks of yellowfin tuna — and another outpost selling ice cream sandwiches. Who said resort food was boring?
John Watling’s Distillery
The rum distillery
Buena Vista Estate is part of the fabric of Nassau. Erected over 225 years ago, this imposing, palm-fringed pile — veranda-wrapped, with shutters and manicured lawns — is an echo of another era. But with a complex history as a sisal estate, it’s no temple to the past. In fact, it’s home to innovation: John Watling’s Distillery opened in the space less than a decade ago. Here, co-owner Pepin Argamasilla makes some of the most exciting new rums in the Caribbean.
“Rum isn’t about the terroir of the sugarcane — it’s all about ageing and blending,” he tells me, gesturing towards his barrels, piled in a dark hangar, where the Bahamian air creeps through the windows, slowly working its magic. Thanks to the combination of sea breezes and tropical heat, spirits rested in Nassau can age more than twice as fast as those in cooler locations. Pepin’s six-year-old rums, for example, theoretically have the same depth of character as a 15-year-old Scotch whisky. “They wouldn’t taste quite like this if you made them anywhere else,” he notes.
Pepin, a sixth-generation rum-maker and master blender, is fastidious about his processes. All his distillates — produced from Caribbean sugar cane molasses — are filtered through coconut charcoal, then aged for between two and eight years in former bourbon or sherry barrels before blending. Pepin is interested in keeping things small-scale. Everything is hand-blended, hand-bottled, hand-labelled. Industry conventions are questioned; creativity is welcome.
It’s this approach that led him to create his first single-barrel rum, bottled at a punchy 66.2% ABV cask strength — well above the industry standard of 40%. “People have a hard time placing it,” Pepin tells me, as we stroll to the tasting bar across polished floors in Buena Vista’s front room. “They sometimes think it’s an armagnac.”
Nosing the rich bronze liquid, I’m hit by a wave of intensity: floral, citrussy, fruity and honeyed. As I sip the complex pour, it feels less like armagnac, and more like I’m consuming the liquid sunshine of Nassau.
In the foreground, white steps, cutting through thickets of jade foliage. Beyond, a roll of surf, spreading thin like cellophane, a transient veil over coral-hued sands. And, as the soundtrack, a gentle shake, shake, shake. Bartender Rodney Woodside is mixing drinks for lunch service at The Dunmore.
“These are so popular, I batch-make the base in advance,” he says as he fills my glass with golden liquid. Rodney is fixing a goombay smash, the signature Bahamian cocktail, and a particular favourite here on chichi Harbour Island.
While every bar has its own iteration, the ingredients are consistent: pineapple juice, orange juice and a medley of rums: white, gold, coconut. Swish them about, pour into a glass and top with a ‘floater’ — a slug of dark rum that bleeds into the rest, creating an enticing ombré effect. “On Bryland,” Rodney says, using the slang name for the island as he slides the glass across the polished bar, a fan circling lazily behind him, “the goombay smash floater is always Myers Rum. It’s just the way it is.”
One sip, and I can see why Rodney makes so many goombay smashes. It’s fruity and sweet, but with a very adult backbone. I can imagine how easy it would be to lose an afternoon to a few of these. Or perhaps, given the punchy alcohol content, to just one.
Bahamian boiled fish recipe
by Tomiko Knowles
Takes: 1 hr 15 mins
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
1 large white onion, thinly sliced
1½-2 limes (to taste)
450g skinless and boneless snapper or grouper fillets
butter, to serve
For the hot pepper sauce (optional)
450g fresh hot chillies (such as habanero, scotch bonnet or goat pepper)
2 red bell peppers
450-700ml white vinegar
For the Johnnycake
360g plain flour
50g white granulated sugar
3¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
115g cold unsalted butter, cubed
160ml whole milk
For the grits
260g coarse cornmeal
420ml unsweetened coconut milk
700ml fish or vegetable stock
85g unsalted butter
1. Heat oven to 180C, 160C fan, gas 4.
2. First, make the hot pepper sauce, if using; otherwise skip to step 3. Place all the ingredients in a blender, adding the amount of vinegar that suits you — using less will give you a thicker, hotter sauce; more will make it runnier and less potent. Blitz until you get a smooth consistency.
3. Next, make the johnnycake. Mix the flour, sugar, bicarbonate of soda and salt together in a large bowl. Work the cold butter into the dry mixture using your hands — you want the mixture to resemble rice grains.
4. Pour in the milk and mix to form a soft dough, then turn out onto a floured work surface and knead lightly until smooth. Leave to rest uncovered for 15 mins, then press into a greased 23cm square baking tin and bake for 20-25 mins, until golden around the edges. Set aside until ready to serve.
5. Meanwhile, make the grits. Add the coconut milk, stock and a pinch of salt to a medium-size pan and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, then slowly stir in the cornmeal. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 40-45 mins, stirring regularly, until cooked through.
6. When the grits have 20 mins to go, add 1L water to a large pan and place over a medium heat. Add the potato, onion and the juice of 1-1½ limes to taste, reserving ½ lime for serving. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 8-10 mins, until the veg is cooked.
7. Add the fish fillets and cook for 5-7 mins, until just cooked through. Stir through a spoonful of your hot pepper sauce, if using.
8. When you’re ready to serve, stir the 85g butter through the grits and slice the reserved ½ lime into four wedges.
9. Divide the fish and broth between four bowls and garnish each with a lime wedge. Serve with the grits and hot pepper sauce on the side, along with slices of the warm johnnycake and plenty of butter for spreading.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly non-stop to Nassau. Onward flights to Andros are available with LeAir or Coco Bahama Seaplanes. For Harbour Island, take a ferry from Nassau with Bahamas Ferries, or fly to Eleuthera island with Pineapple Air and transfer to Dunmore Town via a taxi and boat ride.
More info: bahamas.com
Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller
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