It comes as no surprise that most Belizeans, when asked to describe their country’s cuisine, will often defer to the more iconic, well-known of foods. Our trademark rice and beans with stewed chicken and mayo-laden potato salad, or fluffy fry jacks, a revered breakfast food, or the oh-so-controversial garnaches (I’m sorry, ketchup and beans do not belong together, and this is a hill I am willing to die on).
It’s all well and fair enough—after all, Belize did not become known within the Caribbean as a “cultural melting pot” for no reason. Our cooking is varied and unique, and hey, maybe some meals get a little more acclaim than others, but none of the attention awarded to our food is undeserved. Okay, maybe a part of it is that we have a brand to uphold.
The only great injustice in this divide comes in the form of golden-brown masa, whatever filling your heart desires and a crunch that is nothing short of balm to the aching soul: the Panades.
Not exactly a celebrity amongst our assorted menus, panades are at least familiar. Many cultures and countries have their own form of savory enclosed foods with hearty stuffing hidden inside—gyoza, beef patties, ravioli, empanadas. Belize is no exception to this, and our very own version of this specific subgenre of food is the Panades.
This crescent shaped pastry, made of fried corn flour, or masa, and a fish, meat, cheese or bean filling, carries memories within it. Young hands learning to knead masa for the first time, popping oil stings that won’t even scar in the grand scheme of things (you yelp anyway), or a mother coming home with a black plastic bag billowing with the smell of something hot and freshly cooked.
Perhaps less dazzling as opposed to their international counterparts and local rivals because of their less than consistent make-up, the Panades’ chameleonic composition is part of what makes it the subject of much adoration. Smokey fish and bubbling cheese, lime and cabbage sauce, sunshine yellow and bright, paprika red. The beauty of Panades is that they’re built this way: meant to be changed and molded, meant to suit an array of different people with an array of different tastes.
So, try the rice and beans. Get yourself a tamal and put ketchup on your garnaches if you so find the need. Brave the cow-foot soup when your adventurous side gets the best of you. We are an interesting people, and so it reflects in our food—don’t be afraid to try everything, because everything is worth trying.
But the next time you find yourself poring over a laminated menu, thinking maybe you’ll just get some chicken nuggets after all, take a chance on our beloved panades. Our got-a-good-report-card food, our eat-big-for-cheap food, our ever-changing, ever-evolving cultural impact in a crispy pastry shaped like the moon.
They may just surprise you.