I feel like it took me a month to really figure out the food situation here…meaning: what is the best way to shop for food and keep the pantry/fridge stocked.
Coming from NYC, we were used to placing an order on Fresh Direct (delivery) once a week and supplementing with little trips to the local grocery store one block from the apartment. I never really did the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods thing because I worked full time and didn’t have time to shop so far from home.
Here in Hopkins, which is a small town, we have grocery stores, vegetable stands and because we live at the resort, we have meat, dairy, vegetable and dry goods bulk delivery each week.
We have two grocery stores in town, but they carry identical goods. All the grocery stores in Belize are run by Chinese families. (When you first arrive here, its quite a conspicuous thing, to have all locals running the restaurants and other shops, but every single grocery store is run by a Chinese family) I’m guessing the imported goods are all supplied through the same pipeline for all the stores. Even when you go to a slightly bigger town, you’ll see all the same brands of imported cereal and snacks as in the small towns, plus a few more options. The grocery stores also stock some perishables like dairy, meat, limited produce.
I believe meat and dairy are delivered once a week in our town, on a recurring day of the week. So, for example, Thursday might be meat delivery day. There is no deli counter where you can get a slice of deli meat. All of the meat is either refrigerated or frozen. You learn a lot about the longevity of food here. The refrigerated meat are the hot dogs and the pre-packaged deli slices (meat with preservatives and an expiration date). The frozen meat are the chicken breasts, ground beef, sausage (meat coming from the farm), but also frozen pepperoni which we were excited to find.
The milk is very similar to what we’d see in NYC. I can buy a 1/2 gallon of milk with an expiration date a week or two out. One difficulty is by the time that expiration date has passed and I have run out of milk, the grocery store has also run out of milk. This is has happened to me twice. There seems to be a 2-3 day lag from when the expiration date passes and the next dairy delivery occurs. I’m guessing the store is keeping tight inventory control, only buying as much milk as they expect to sell each week. We are also in the slow season, so deliveries may be less frequent. Fortunately, there is a back-up. A secondary brand “La-la” is sold which has a much longer shelf life. It is ultra-pasteurized.
The grocery store has a pretty good selection of imported cereal — that craving must be universal. There is also good coffee selection. So my morning is all set! Snacks are a bit different. There are a lot of familiar chips to choose from. But there are mostly unfamiliar snacks of the cracker and cookie variety. The kids miss Goldfish, I miss Ritz. There are a bunch of hard candies of various flavors, but Fay misses a good gummy selection and things like starburst and smarties. I miss things like chocolate covered pretzels. I also miss sesame crackers. Luckily, my sister is putting together a care package with some of these things which will arrive with my mom on her first visit.
There is one aisle dedicated to home goods like dish towels, plastic cups, food containers, flip flops, cleaning buckets and mops. There is hardware in the back. It’s definitely a store driven by demand. You can buy a handful of screws, but they only come in a couple of sizes. You can buy some daily supplies for school (paper, pencils, poster board) but not text books or uniforms. You can buy TP, paper towels, soap, diapers, feminine products, shampoos. But no retail boxes of band-aides. The store clerk will sell you one band-aide for 25 cents though. (There is also a small pharmacy for cold medicine etc, but he also sells individual band-aides)
Obviously some things are not available here because they are too expensive to import or people just don’t want them. If you grow up with “Butter Crackers” you aren’t going to be looking for “Ritz”. However, I’m constantly surprised by what I CAN get and what I CANNOT get. Today I thought about making corn bread for dinner but I searched the entire store and could not find corn meal (and certainly not Jiffy corn bread mix) However, I can find a little packet of onion dip for my awesome midwestern cassserole recipes. I can buy Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, but not tomato soup. Found Spam, but no tuna in a can. I’m guessing, no one with this much fresh fish wants to buy tuna in a can?
There is Jelly here, but not a lot of Jam. I loooooove toast with butter and jam. I found exactly one type of spread that is what I am used to and love — a Dole strawberry jam. Butter is sold in big blocks, not 4 quarters, but its easy to cut into quarters! Blocks of cheddar and bags of shredded cheese are readily available, but Ricotta is hit or miss. I didn’t see Ricotta for the first 4 weeks and then all of sudden, it was there! We had lasagna that night. I’m learning to not make definite dinner plans until I visit the grocery store.
Eggs are sold unrefrigerated (as they should be). Flour and sugar are sold in mostly unmarked plastic bags. The bags say how many pounds and the price. You can discern whats in the bag by the texture and color. For a long time I thought they only had brown sugar here, but I recently found white sugar. I just wasn’t looking at all the different bags.
Two weeks ago I noticed a shortage of flour. This was such a shock to me. In the six weeks I’ve lived here, I’ve been adapting to what’s available. One of my adaptations is to bake more (which is a heavenly adaptation for me). When I bought bread at the store it went bad very quickly. So I like to have flour on hand to make bread on demand, or to make and freeze the bread. There are also fewer sweets selections, so I’ll bake cookies a lot.
The shortage lasted for about two weeks. I also looked for flour in Dangriga which is the nearest, larger city. Nothing. I asked a local about it and she said that during these months (rainy season), the demand is smaller so there are not as many deliveries. Also the heavier rain may affect production or delivery. Not a huge deal. I stopped making cookies and started buying pre-made bread again (but freezing immediately). I also bought cake mix and brownie mix. A-ha! I’m kinda a snob when it comes to home-made desserts, but I was so very excited to have boxed mixes as an option.
Fruits and Vegetables
You generally don’t want to buy your fruit and vegetables at the grocery store. You want to buy them from the fresh vegetable stand, which is just down the street. The grocery stores make this very easy to remember by having a few types of produce and the ones they have always seems to be somewhat wilted.
One exception is the apples. I have consistently found the best apples at the grocery store. They keep them refrigerator and only carry the one kind — kind of a gala looking apple but 1/2 the size of what I’m used to.
There are also refrigerated extras of some veggies from the main vegetables rack. When the vegetable stand is not open, sometimes I’ll look through the grocery cooler to see what I find.
One thing that wilts very quickly and is always kept cooled is lettuce. One day I saw a grocery store employee pruning the lettuce. I was slightly horrified at first, to see her sitting outside the store, taking off the browned butter leaves and re-wrapping the head to be sold smaller. But then I realized this is a pretty good idea. Veges are sold by the pound, so if they take off the browned outer leaves and just sell you the good lettuce underneath, you’re only buying the usable lettuce.
Most days, the vegetable stand is open, but Tuesdays are the best. Tuesday mornings, they fetch their vegetables from farms and may even go to Mexico for imported produce (not sure on this one). So by Tuesday afternoon, you can buy the freshest of the week, and will have the best selection. I have even been lucky enough to stumble upon a little carton of strawberries.
This is our little fruit and vegetable stand. It is run by a man named Francisco. He also takes orders for Beaches and Dreams (our resort) and will deliver our produce to us.
Typically I buy bananas, pears, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, potatoes. Just found cilantro this week. They also have spinach, grapes (imported), corn, limes, oranges (better for juice than for peel and eat). Lots of amazing melons (I’m just not a fan of melons in general).
So the one major thing missing is berries. No blueberries, blackberries, raspberries. I’ve only seen strawberries at about 11BZD (which is $5.50 USD). And strawberries are rare because they do not last long in this heat. Obviously the other berries do not even grow in this heat! So I’m starting to understand why cuisine from this part of the world uses a lot of tomatoes, onions and peppers in their dishes. And that is what I am starting to use too. Luckily, I am new to being the chef in the family. Ryan used to always cook for us in NYC, but now we’ve reversed this role so that I am the family cook (another welcome and fun adaptation).
I’m learning to cook with what is available. Which means what you can buy here AND what is in stock (no shortage) AND using foods that stay on the shelf longer so that I have them at home and do not always have to make a market run.
Now, after all this adaptation and learning my kitchen staples looks like this:
- I always have applesauce. Applesauce is my fruit that never goes bad. If the vegetables stand is closed, and my home veggies have gone bad, I always have applesauce.
- I try keep a couple options for meat in the freezer.
- Always have bread slices or bagels in the freezer
- Always have flour, sugar, coconut, rice, pasta, oats, potato chips, almonds, peanut butter in the pantry
- I’ve got cans of cream of mushroom and beans on hand.
- Always buy 2 milks when I go (next time they might be out!)
- Always sure to have shredded cheddar and cream cheese in the fridge.
- Always get pepperoni. This is the best next thing to lunchmeat. All of the lunchmeat we have found has added water and tastes a bit like bologna.
Cream cheese is my substitute for cream when I want to make a creamy pasta. This realization was a mind-blower for me. I cannot find plain cream or half/half at the store. So when I wanted to make a creamy pasta one night I was so sad until I found a recipe online that uses cream cheese. Of course! Must think more creatively!
I end up going to the store or vege stand about every other day to get fresh produce or dairy. I have found it difficult to stock up for much longer than that because the fruit will wilt or I run out of milk, or on the day I go they do not have the fruit I want, so I have to return. I find myself longing for a larger refrigerator and 2nd freezer.
Whenever I visit a larger town I visit the grocery store and the vegetable stand which have more variety in the larger towns. Its always an exciting hunt to see what I can find that I can’t get locally or that magically appears, never having been there before. On one trip to Dangriga, the kids and I actually found a box of 20 goldfish snack bags. We bought the box. We’ve eaten through them and have looked for the same thing again, but have not seen it since.
And one last note regarding drinks. I’ve recently come to love carbonated water (recently, as in after I turned 40). My whole life I’ve mainly drunk tap water and coffee. Those are my two main drinks. When we moved to Belize I was troubled to notice there is not a terrific recycling program in place, so I was reluctant to buy the plastic bottles of sparkling water. BUT, we’ve found a great solution. At the restaurant, we buy a ton of Fanta and Beer and do recycle the bottles. Its old time recycling where the distributer takes back the empty bottles and gives you new full ones. So we have a crate of Fanta soda water in our kitchen that we can refill each time its empty.
Thats it! This was a really fun post to write. I really wanted to get my first impressions down of how it is to shop for food here, because I’m sure they will change as time goes on.