Machuca - History & Culture In A Bowl
From the main road that crosses Roatán island from end to end the road leading down to Punta Gorda doesn't look much different from the other dozens of tiny roads branching from it, except for the colorful, hand-painted sign that we'd passed many times on the way home that read "Welcome to Punta Gorda".
We turned to head down the steep concrete road and almost immediately could hear the sound of drums, thumping heavily from below. The road split left and right once we got to the bottom and to the ocean. To the left, wooden frame homes along an earthen roadway, to the right the concrete drive continued along the shoreline.
This was a place we'd wanted to visit from the time we started looking into Roatán but hadn't yet had the chance. For us, this community and it's people are as emblematic of the Caribbean as any place or people we can think of, a rich history dating back hundreds of years and stretching from West Africa to St. Vincent to Roatàn then to the mainland of Central America. A blending and crossing of cultures and the adaptation that comes with a people moving from place to place.
Being passionate about food as we are, we knew we had to get our hands on a bowl of the specialty found in Punta Gorda, machuca, a traditional Garifuna dish consisting of a coconut and fish broth with the day's fresh seafood catch and mashed plantain dumplings.
Though we'd been exploring the island for over a year, we’d not yet ventured to the home and heart of the Garifuna people. We were here now by virtue of a chance conversation the day before with a bartender at the Reef House, who was wearing a t-shirt commemorating the annual April 12th celebration earlier in the year. The celebration takes place in Punta Gorda to commemorate the day the Garifuna were left marooned on the island where they have since flourished. The shirt had the colors of the Garifuna: Yellow, White & Black. Also emblazoned on it was an image of a bowl and the word “machuca” along with a palm tree or two in the background.
While the bartender poured our drinks, we asked about the shirt and machuca. “You gotta go” he said, adding “tomorrow would be the best day." Turns out our encounter on Saturday would lead us to finalizing a visit to Punta Gorda on a Sunday, the day we were told everyone there starts with church and ends with drinks, drums, music and food.
Punta Gorda is the original home of the Garifuna people, a blend of Arawak Natives and West Africans originating from St Vincent and nearby smaller islands. I won't go into too much detail here but the food is so steeped in the history of this community, a dash of it is necessary. (Much more about the Garifuna and Punta Gorda later)
Europeans like to tell the tale of a slave ship, or two, that ran aground on St Vincent in the 1600's. The Africans aboard made it to shore and were taken in by the Arawak natives (also known as the Caribs), where they intermarried to eventually become the Garifuna. The story, as told by African survivors who made it to the island is strikingly different and makes a lot more sense to me given the expertise at sea of the British sailors who would have been taking their stolen cargo to enslavement somewhere in the "New World". Their tale tells of an uprising in which the took control of the ships but didn't know how to sail them, so they ran aground. Most of the rest of the story is pretty similar from both sides from that point forward.
The Caribs and Garifuna were never enslaved though the French and English both took turns over the decades trying to subdue them. Eventually, and again, I'm having to leave so much out, the English rounded up the Caribs and removed them from their homeland and dropped them off on Roatán on April 12th, 1797, where they eventually settled, though many spread from the island to the mainland where they can now also be found along the coasts of Guatemala, Honduras & Belize.
This was the history we had in mind as we set off in search of that meal, the one that we’d heard about but hadn’t yet experienced. The one with ingredients that were the perfect metaphor for the island and for the Garifuna. A dish with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, ingredients from the island and the sea.
The thumping we’d heard on our drive down wasn’t the drumbeat of the drummers just yet, rather a series of large, loud speakers pumping Caribbean Reggae and Reggaeton from a handful of roadside restaurants and bars.
We were a little early for the Sunday festivities and just a little early for lunch, a common occurrence for us. We’d been told that everything ramps up around 2pm and really gets into gear as the afternoon progresses into the evening. Since we were early, we decided to follow the seaside road a couple of miles and see a bit more of the community, the beaches and the oceanside before heading back to the heart of Punta Gorda where we’d park, dine, drink…
The drive was beautiful, how can it not be with these surroundings? A few buildings peppered each side of that drive, most on the side opposite from the water, where the land rose quickly up the hillside, densely covered in lush jungle flora. Little footpaths could be seen winding their way between homes and small cafes and shops along the road and up into the jungle, to the small colorful homes that adorned the hillsides.
When we finally decided we’d gone far enough, or maybe we had just realized how hungry we were getting, we turned back west towards the cluster of restaurants we'd passed earlier.
On our way in we noticed a sign that said “Flamingo Cultural Center” and another beside it that said “My Roots Gift Shop” so we decided to stop in. Neither were open, but we were greeted by a voice from around the corner, "Hi, can I help you?"
This is another story that has to be shortened, and I'm shortening one of our favorite experiences on the island to date, but this would take many words and paragraphs as well and we are working on all of those to get it right! But our greeter was Audrey Flores, the director of the cultural center and a person and face we instantly recognized from an article we'd read just a couple weeks earlier. "Women Who Rock Their Rock: Meet Audrey Flores" - you can read it HERE.
We hadn't planned or thought we'd meet Audrey on this expedition, but it was with complete delight that we did. Plus her sister Nora, her mother Nora, her father Mauricio, family friend Gilbert and traveling teacher Albert.
We met them all because our hugs and conversation eventually ended up in their home next door, then with a personal tour of the cultural center, with a few shots of gifiti and a long conversation about their people, their history, their motivation for the cultural center and their lives in general. It was so fulfilling and enriching - exactly what we've been yearning for. Again, so much more on that later.
Back to the food! We asked where we might find the best and most authentic bowl of machuca in Punta Gorda. They told us there are plenty of good options to choose from, but a small open air cafe Tomato would be our best option that day. It sits right across from the drumming and dancing that were just starting to ramp up but just out of it, so we could enjoy the meal.
We took their advice, headed back down the road and into the cafe. The specialties for the restaurant were posted on the wall beside the bar - we quickly pointed out the machuca..."that, please, and two Port Royals". The beers hit the table quickly and the machuca followed soon after.
Taking a bite of machuca tells the story of the Garifuna people, where they are from and where they are now. The rich broth is a blend of fish stock and coconut milk with hints of garlic, onions and herbs. It's balanced and the texture is almost silky. A squeeze of lime gives it a needed hint of citrus and sour. Large pieces of conch, a lobster tail and a generous portion of fried snapper dropped in whole give it the taste of the ocean and a large mass (almost like a dumpling) of mashed plantains round out the stew and hints at the West African roots of the people who create it. The plantains were very reminiscent of fufu, which we've had in a couple African restaurants in Charlotte.
It was rich and savory, filling but light. It tasted like the oceanside tropical breeze that accompanied it. As we dined we listened to the drummers beating their rhythms in the town "square" across from us and watched the folks from town mingling up and down the road, many in Sunday's finest just after church. I can't imagine machuca can taste the same without all of this around you, the ocean by your side and the tropical heat bearing down.
It's not often we get to experience another culture in such a complete and humbling way, not only for the food and the time in the community in general, but to have Audrey and her family welcome us in so kindly, to show us and tell us so much about their lives and culture and community. We'll be back, and often, but this particular day will forever be a highlight in our lives.