This week I plunged into the B’s, diving straight into the warm, briny waters of the Bahamas. For a country so small, what a doozy it turned out to be. As it turns out, Brussels is nothing like Nassau, and ingredients that are commonplace in the latter are well nigh impossible to find in the former. After much careful substitution, reading and strategising, I bring you my unique twist on a classic Bahamian dish: deep-fried conch. I warn you – it’s not for the weak-willed or for those scared of strange seafood. It’s served with a less daunting staple of the island chain, rice and beans – or ‘rice and peas’ as it’s known in the Bahamian dialect.
Initially, the Bahamas seems a welcome break – the first island nation covered by this blog, and thus a chance to finally sink my teeth into some seafood. Crab, lobster, fish, you name it – Bahamian cuisine centres around the catches sold fresh every day on the country’s quays and seaside markets. Most iconic of all, however, is the queen conch, a large shellfish with sweet and rather chewy flesh. Conch (pronounced ‘conk’ in the Bahamas) is stewed, eaten raw, minced and prepared in a multitude of other ways. One of the most popular ways to prepare it is to ‘crack’ or batter and deep-fry it. If you’re a literature nerd like me, you’ll first have come across conch in Lord of the Flies, where the shell becomes a symbol of the ‘civilisation’ and order that the stranded boys slowly leave behind them as things get more and more out of hand.
Queen conch is classified, in many parts of the Caribbean, as an endangered species. You’re not allowed to catch it anywhere in the United States, and its export is prohibited in the Cayman islands and quite a few other places. This is probably one of the reasons that I was unable to find conch anywhere in Brussels, much to my disappointment. On the other hand, I did manage to find whelks, a fellow marine gastropod (that’s sea snail to you and me). Whelks used to be fairly commonly eaten in the UK, Belgium, and France, although they’ve fallen out of favour in recent decades. This is particularly true in the British isles, where they’re known as ‘a poor man’s food’. I was about to discover why, although this picture may already give you some indication:
Yes, whelks are not pretty creatures. I’d certainly never eaten them, and wouldn’t have thought to give them a try otherwise. Having heard how similar they are to conch (although apparently slightly fishier, tougher and less sweet), I felt compelled to make turn Bahamian cracked conch into cracked whelk instead. Preparing and eating these was a major adventure…just getting them out of the shells and figuring out which parts were edible presented me with quite a challenge. There were definitely times when they resembled Lovecraft’s Chtulhu, or something from a somewhat less-than-savoury Japanese manga comic. :-)
To accompany these little morsels, I knew I’d be making the classic Caribbean rice and peas that Bahamians love to eat with almost any meal. But Bahamians use pigeon peas, and all my wanderings around Brussels’ multi-cultural Matonge area didn’t deliver the goods. Luckily pigeon peas are said to be very similar to black-eyed peas – in fact, they’re often called ‘no-eyed peas’.
Once I’d gathered the goods, cooking the actual recipes was luckily actually quite simple. Here’s how to do it:
What Did I Need?
For the cracked ‘conch’ (adapted from this recipe):
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup evaporated milk
- 1 tsp salt
- a generous pinch of ground black pepper
- 1 cup flour
- 6 medium conch, or approximately 20 whelks (lobster or scallops may also be used).
For the peas and rice (adapted from this recipe):
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/2 cup pancetta or diced bacon strips
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 large diced tomatoes, or a can of chopped tomatoes
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup of dried pigeon peas, soaked overnight (if you can’t find pigeon peas, you can also use black-eyed peas)
- 1 2/3 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked long-grain white rice (if using brown rice, add slightly earlier in the cooking process)
- 1 sprig fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 fresh red chilli, chopped (optional)
How Did I Do It?
For the cracked ‘conch':
- Remove conch or whelks from shell, and rinse with clean water. Trim any inedible parts of the meat, such as the foot. Pound meat with a mallet or rolling pin until tender.
- Whisk eggs and evaporated milk together.
- Mix the flour, salt and pepper.
- Dip conch/whelk in egg mixture, then roll in the seasoned flour.
- Fry in very hot sunflower or other vegetable oil until crispy and golden-brown.
- Serve with a spicy dipping sauce (optional).
For the rice and peas:
- Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook bacon until brown. Add onion, and cook until tender. Mix in fresh or canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and chilli (if using). Season with salt and pepper.
- Add peas and water to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat. Cook for 20 minutes on low, then add the rice. Cook for a further 30 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed and rice and beans are tender. Fluff rice with a fork.
So How Did It Taste?
OK – cracked whelk is one of those dishes you’re either going to love or hate. If you love seafood and don’t mind fishy smells, it can be quite good. The batter is light, crispy and flavourful. But whelks are definitely an acquired taste – it smells really strongly of fish, and tastes briny. It is also quite chewy, so you really need to pound it with that mallet. It actually tastes like a fishier version of deep-fried oysters, which can be very good indeed. If I had to make it again, I think I’d make it with calamari or another slightly subtler seafood. Joe, as someone who’s never been good with fish, absolutely HATED it – he couldn’t manage more than one. In fact, his quote for the week is:
It’s going to be difficult to come up with a quote for the week. Let’s just say it was challenging.
The rice and peas was much less polarising, but we both found the dish a little bland and unexciting. We agreed we’d make it again, but next time with pieces of chicken, pork or beef to add a bit of pizzazz. Or maybe even more bacon – that adds excitement to anything, right?
All in all, not the best week for the blog, in all honesty. If you have any suggestion for how you’d jazz up rice and peas, or tone down cracked whelk without having to swim all the way to the Bahamas for some fresh conch meat, do let me know!