With June temperatures soaring and my energy sapped from the humidity, I thirst for a glass of the popular local revitalizer - a frothy mixture of seaweed and milk. Although some may cringe at the thought of the concoction, much of the English speaking Caribbean tosses Gatorade aside for an energy-restoring seaweed shake. Of course, if you happen to tell someone in Belize that you feel like having some seaweed, expect mischievous smiles and curious stares. The highly sought after seaweed elixir is said to be "good for the back", boosting virility, vitality, and verve. When seaweed is on the menu, expect a long night to follow.
Today is beautiful and a great day to be in the water, and it's harvest day anyway, so I pull on my snorkel and fins and set out in search of some seaweed. The weed is really a type of red algae (Eucheuma isoforme) that grows freely in shallow, calm waters around islands and patch reefs. The plant resembles underwater tumbleweed with yellow, rubbery branches stretching in all directions. Like all sought-after wild organisms, seaweed stocks close to the mainland have been severely depleted in recent years making the plant even more valuable. My interest in this alga began when I witnessed a bag of dried seaweed sell in less than five minutes at the Dangriga Town central market. The origin of the seaweed culture and popularity is unknown and only recently has the product received international attention as a cash crop for the countries with endemic populations. The turquoise waters around Belize just happen to be perfect nesting grounds for the algae, so with that knowledge and an eager local market, my love affair with seaweed began.
I retrieve seaweed from a farm off the shores of the Twin Cayes in South Water Caye Marine Reserve.
Here, a non-profit group called Dangriga Development Initiative (DDI) has launched the first seaweed farm in Belize and the second in all
of the Caribbean Sea. The idea for a seaweed farm came when the
Belize Fisheries Department established the marine reserve and local
residents and fishermen of the region suddenly found themselves in a
conservation zone that limited their normal fishing activities. With
rising fuel prices, traveling beyond the immediate borders
of the reserve has had growing financial implications for the fishermen of the region. DDI was originally formed in 1995 with the intention of assisting the independent farmers of the Stann Creek District in an agriculture industry dominated by larger citrus and banana producers. The large-scale production of this commercially viable product has become a supplementary source of income for the residents surrounding the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. DDI plans to help interested residents establish plots around their immediate residencies and then buy the dried product for local and international sale.
In an hour, I have filled
three flour sacks with seaweed from the DDI base plot and am off to my
bathtub where I will soak the plants overnight. Forgoing a shower for one
night is a small price to pay when preparing a tonic that will help so
many bad backs. The following day, I stretch the weed around my balcony so
that the sun can take over for a few days. The sun will drain the color
from the plant and dry it down to only 15% of its original wet weight. Essentially, three thirty pounds sacks will yield ten pounds of dried seaweed. As I wait for the sun to do its part, I head to the local restaurants, ice cream parlors and bars to pre-sell the product. The day is warm, people lethargic, demand high and my supply is reserved in short order.
Besides suspected potent
aphrodisiac qualities, seaweed has been used as a natural remedy for a
variety of ailments throughout much of the Caribbean. Said to cure
headaches, fatigue, and the common cold, seaweed has become a premier
ingredient in beverages, ice cream, cakes, and breads in the home and in
restaurants. Seaweed is even said to alleviate the symptoms of menopause,
glaucoma, tuberculosis, arthritis, and worm infestations. As a delicacy
that cures, the plant has gained a reputation and value that maintains a
strong local market. Local peddlers of the popular seaweed beverage can be
found all over town as both children and adults alike rush
toward the tinkle of the seaweed man's bicycle bell.
Once dried, I call upon my questionable culinary skills for the final stage of preparation. I've now spent
three days with this seaweed and am eager to rid my apartment of the
smells of dried algae. Transforming the plant into liquid form is the most
popular method of seaweed preparation. First, I boil a couple ounces of
the dried seaweed to break down the starchy branches. When the
plant has been reduced to a thick soup, I add evaporated and
condensed milk to taste. After a dash of fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, and
vanilla, the entire concoction goes into the blender with ice. The frothy
mixture that follows is usually spiced with a little brandy or rum
(depending on the level of virility, vitality, and verve that you'd like
to inspire within). For extra flavor, slices of mango, blackberries,
pineapple, banana, raisins or peanuts can be added to the blender. I
prefer to stick with the original; I do not want the potency of my blend
to be compromised.
In a few hours, satisfied customers will grin with delight as the magical properties of this local elixir courses through their veins. If you've never sampled seaweed, try it and see what it does for you. I cannot promise you that seaweed will make you jump higher or run faster, but I can promise you that in Belize, a person with a seaweed shake will have many friends.July 2002