“No, no, no” the waitress said forcibly removing the fork from L’s tightening grip. “We don’t do it like that.”
We are sitting at Sip Sip, the dune-top lunch spot on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, and, up till now, everything has been perfect. The view from the terrace is right off a postcard, the temperature is just right, the Kalik is ice-cold, the kids are behaving. And, to top it all off, our timing is bang on; we are about to have boil fish, the Bahamian classic that Sip Sip only serves on Sunday.
The terrace is packed and it’s easy to imagine how the lively chatter gave the restaurant its name (sip sip means gossip in Bahamian), although I think the ample bar just inside could be another reason. Another sip of Kalik and the food arrives – a steaming bowl of broth with onions and peppers surrounding a beautiful piece of meaty grouper. The requisite johnny cake and bowl of grits on the side. I can smell the lime already. The server moves deftly through the maze of guests and the food is in front of us.
Time to eat.
Except we don’t know how. Or, at least L doesn’t.
In the end I thought the waitress was firm but fair. If L had only loosened her grip, there wouldn’t have been that moment of white-knuckled arm wrestling as the fork was pried from L’s hand. That’s what caused the sudden silence as everyone turned to watch. We the free entertainment for a moment until the waitress, victorious, pocketed the fork and showed L how to use her spoon to scoop a little of the grits into the broth and then break off a piece of the spoon-tender grouper.
“That’s how we do it.”
I could hear the sip sip around us as the other diners returned to their meals, disappointed the show was over. I held up my own spoon of boil fish with a grin. No northern rubes on my side of the table.
The boil fish we had at Sip Sip was simple, bright and delicious. The dominant flavour of lime gave it a citrus lift that added to the freshness of the fish. There was a bit of peppery heat, a hint of onion and, really, that was it. We all agreed that, except for the near brawl, it was the best lunch we had on the island. It was the first meal I tried to recreate when I got home to my own kitchen.
Boil fish is very easy to make and is most often served for breakfast or brunch with grits and johnny cake. I used halibut because I couldn’t find grouper. It was just fine.
I think there are as many recipes for Bahamian boil fish as there are Bahamian cooks. You can add sweet peppers, omit the potatoes, add more hot peppers or substitute lemon for lime depending on your tastes or what you have on hand. There are no rules. Many recipes call for goat peppers, which are commonly used in the Bahamas. I used a Habanero pepper because that’s what I had on hand. Almost any fiery pepper would work just as well.
Bahamian boil fish
2 Pounds firm white fish like grouper or halibut
1 Medium Onion, thinly sliced
1 Celery stock, thinly sliced
2 Potatoes, cubed
1 Hot pepper, finely chopped
Juice of 2 limes
2 cups water
1 tablespoon canola oil
Salt to taste
Boil the potatoes in the water and lime juice until they are almost tender (10-12 minutes). Meanwhile, sauté the onions and celery in a little oil until soft. When the potatoes are tender, reduce the heat so the broth is just below boiling and add the fish, hot pepper, onions and celery. Salt to taste and simmer until the fish is just cooked through (approx. 10 minutes). Enjoy with grits and johnny cake.
Serves 4 to 6