Whenever I talk to my parents about their lives ‘back in the day’, we always end up discussing food. When it comes to conch, they’d say how abundant it was, that conch shells could be seen from the shoreline and that they ate it so often they got tired of having it. That’s definitely not a complaint you’ll hear nowadays because the strict regulations and annual conch season are there to ensure that we don’t overfish this local delicacy.
The Department of Environment’s (DoE) website reminds us that conch season runs from November 1st through April 30th and we’re allowed to catch “Five [conchs] per person or 10 per boat per day, whichever is less”. This amount may be enough for a family cooking a meal at home, but it is a challenge for restaurants as the same rules apply to them as well. The restaurants who incorporate local conch in their menu will do so in one of two ways; serving appetisers to stretch it a bit further or serving full plates on a “first come, first served” basis until it runs out.
Conch is a very versatile ingredient found across the region, but there are only a few dishes that are truly rooted in the Caymanian way of life. This week’s blog discusses traditional Caymanian cooking methods of conch and the best places to try them for yourself.
Marinated Conch is always going to be better when it’s fresh and locally made because it’s a raw preparation. Typically, when you plan a day out on a boat you’ll dive for conchs and prepare them onboard. Cleaned conch is sliced thin and seasoned with pickkapeppa sauce, ketchup, lime, peppers and onions before being spooned onto a saltine cracker. This is harder to find in restaurants, but a few places do serve it this way including Silverside Restaurant and Hurley’s Marketplace. Some Caymanians don’t enjoy it so heavily seasoned and prefer to keep it light by using only peppers, onions and limes. This is reminiscent of the Bahamian conch salad that has all of the above ingredients plus tomatoes and fresh orange juice. You can find this ceviche-style at casual restaurants like Southcoast or Macabuca, and even a high-end establishment like The Brasserie add their own twist while using produce from their garden.
Stew Conch is one of the most traditional and beloved Caymanian dishes. This dish is a labour of love and involves pounding and boiling conch until it’s tender, making homemade coconut milk and kneading a dough into sea pie (thin flat dumplings). Add all of your seasonings, cook it low and slow, and serve it with white rice, fried plantains and breadkind (starchy vegetables such as breadfruit, sweet potato and cassava). Stew conch recipes are passed down from generation to generation and therefore the best versions can be found in local restaurants like Amelia’s Kitchen, Island Taste, Coney’s Place (located at Country & Western), Ms. Vivine’s Kitchen and Big Tree BBQ.
If you’re interested in trying local conch dishes, this blog will get you on the right path. Be on the lookout for my next blog where I discuss popular conch dishes from the Caribbean and where to find them on island.
By Chelsea Tennant
Chelsea Tennant is the blogger behind the popular Cayman Islands blog, Island Epicurean where readers can find a detailed guide to the Cayman Islands’ culinary culture.