As regular readers of this blog will know, I like to eat weird foods. I especially like to eat weird and unusual foods when I am on the road. Sampling the local edibles is one of the great joys of travelling for me. I’ll eat it all, be it puffin burgers in Iceland, BBQ in Texas, haggis in Scotland, jellied-eel in London, or spider kebab in Beijing.
And now to this list I add the humble conch salad, in The Bahamas.
As the name suggests, the key ingredient in this dish is conch (pronounced “konk”, not “konch”), a large tropical sea mollusk of the genus Strombus. Which is another way of saying that conch is basically a giant edible sea-snail. It lives inside of a beautiful pink-lipped spiral shell, but is itself kind of ugly to look at – a muscly blob of meat, sort of like a thick calamari tentacle. Once washed and cleaned conch is eaten raw or cooked, and is apparently packed with protein and other nutritionally good-for-you things.
The conch is native to the warm waters of the Caribbean, and was originally found throughout the region. Nowadays, however, due to pollution and overfishing, it is teetering on the edge of oblivion. Everywhere, that is, except in The Bahamas, where conch is still found in abundant quantities, and the local stock is being carefully managed so as to ensure the long term survival of the species.
Necessary, I guess, because eating conch is something of an obsession in The Bahamas. They love their conch so much that it is even proudly displayed on their national Coat of Arms. Seriously, what’s not to love about a country that honors its favorite food in this way?
In any case, all of this explains why The Bahamas is the only place on earth where you can experience the joy of eating a conch salad.
So, what is it?
Well, the basic conch salad involves raw conch that has been pulverized and tenderized with lemon and lime. It is then chopped into very small pieces, and mixed up with equally fine-chopped bits of onion, green pepper, tomato and goat chili. It is then seasoned with salt and a really spicy white pepper, and doused in more lime and lemon juice.
Conch salad is always made fresh to-order. It is always hand-chopped. And it is always hand-chopped by machete. No, I am not exaggerating: your conch salad will be made by someone wielding an eight inch weapon you’d normally only see used by a gardener trimming the hedges.
More than that, skilled conch salad makers will chop up the ingredients in a frenzied fury, often while chatting amiably to you and without ever looking down. It is terrifying to watch, and nothing short of miraculous that no-one inadvertently lops off a finger or two. But that I suppose is all part of the charm of conch salad – not just a food, but also edible theatre.
Conch salad is available everywhere in The Bahamas. It is on the menu at just about every tourist restaurant, but the real deal is found at the roadside stalls where conch salad is dished up to enthusiastic locals. Every conch salad vendor will have his or her own secret recipe – different proportions of conch to vegetables, different seasonings, extra ingredients, unique chopping styles – all in an effort to create “the best conch salad”.
Like at Dino’s Gourmet Conch Salad at Love Beach, which is a small open-air timber shack across the road from a boat ramp where fisherman bring conch in to shore. Here they reputedly make the finest conch salad in all the land. Most fortuitously, Dino’s also just happens to be located about 500 meters from my front door. Not surprisingly, therefore, I have become a bit of a regular.
Dino’s signature salad is “the Tropical”, where finely chopped mango, apple and pineapple are added to a regular conch salad, and fresh orange and chili is added to the regular lime-pepper dressing. The whole thing is thoroughly mixed by hand, then piled into a big juicy mound on a white plastic bowl, garnished with wedges of pineapple, and topped with an artful swirl of tenderized conch.
What you get is a seafood salad that is cold and refreshing, slightly chewy from the conch, and floating in a soup of lemon-lime-orange-chili juice. When you eat it your mouth explodes in alternating bursts of salty-citrus and hot-peppery flavors. It is addictive beyond imagining, and once you start, you can’t stop until you have scooped up the very last of the dregs in the bowl.
Seriously, if a place could have a taste, then conch salad would be the taste of an island.
Anyway, last Sunday I wandered down to Dino’s in the late afternoon, as the sun was setting, to pick up some takeaway conch salad for dinner.
I had been to Dino’s quite a few times before then, but never on a Sunday. Which, as I discovered, is evidently the night to go there: on all previous visits I’d had the place virtually to myself, but now it was packed. A traffic jam was blocking the road, and more than thirty people were milling about on the sidewalk out front.
The crowd was entirely local – parents with kids, big burly guys sipping beers, teenagers dressed to the nines. That is apart from me, and a few Chinese workers from the nearby Baha Mar construction site (see my previous post on the Chinese presence in The Bahamas). One especially drunk fellow, for reasons known only to him, was staggering around handing out bananas to all those waiting.
Orders were being written down by a small bloke whose dreadlocks probably weighed more than him. He pinned the orders up onto a string, with colored pegs. Eventually, each order would be picked by one of the six salad makers lined up behind the counter, who would then proceed to make each salad. This seemed to happen entirely randomly – some orders being filled after five minutes, others after fifty minutes – and there appeared to be no rhyme or reason as to when. It is what they call “island time”, so I settled down on a high-stool to wait my turn.
And, to watch the conch salad show. Each salad maker was wearing blue food-prep gloves, and was brandishing the customary machete over a brightly colored chopping board. All around the salad makers were boxes piled high with fruits and vegies – mountains of green peppers, yellow lemons, green limes, pineapples, mangoes, apples and bright red chili. At the back were buckets of cold water overflowing with huge chunks of fresh white conch. So it was like a color bomb had gone off inside of the shack.
The sound system had been cranked up to maximum, and was blaring out a steady stream of eighties favorites: Eye of the Tiger; I Will Survive; Walking on Sunshine. People were singing along, especially the salad makers, who were also swaying to the beat as they chopped.
Eventually my order got picked from the peg-line, and a tall wiry guy began chopping up my salads. I think he must have had the fastest chopping action I have ever seen, his machete flying up and down in a lightening paced blur. Yet he seemed totally calm, was singing and dancing all the while, and started chatting with me. “Where are you from, man?” he asked in a heavy island accent, staring directly at me. I could barely look back, so convinced was I that he was about to amputate his own thumb.
When my salads were almost ready he looked up at me again and asked: “Are you feeling lucky tonight, man?” I must have looked confused because he pointed to the little scrap of conch he had laid out on his board, and was now curling into a decorative garnish for the top of my salad. “Bahamas Viagra!” he said with a wicked smile. Apparently the locals believe that this part of the conch is a powerful aphrodisiac. “It will keep you going all night”, he added, as he handed me my salad with a wink.
So try to imagine the scene if you can: a sidewalk packed with local Bahamians, laughing and singing while they wait for conch salad. Behind the salad-making counter it is organized chaos – colors and sounds and mayhem as people stand in a line, singing and dancing and casually swinging machetes about. One of whom is also dishing out tips on how to improve my sex life. And all the while helpers scurry to and fro, grabbing blobs of conch and pieces of fruit and vegetables, and then placing them down fearlessly on the chopping boards, within centimeters of the flying blades.
“This is not a food stall,” I thought to myself, “but actually a Bahamian street carnival”.
I love it when a bizarre food turns out to not only be non-toxic, but also utterly delicious, and then comes wrapped up in a unique cultural experience to boot.
It’s what travel memories are made of.