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Bahamas: Tucking in to conch

One of the Caribbean's most iconic dishes, tucking in to conch is an experience to remember — whether it's as crispy fritters or in a citrus-sweet salad

Bahamas: Tucking in to conch
Preparing conch salad. Image: Alamy

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Pinder chooses his weapons and goes to work — first with a hammer and then a sharp, slender knife — tapping and jabbing at the shell until something slippery drops out. The glistening white lump, about the size and shape of an ox tongue, is far from appealing, but I have faith; thousands of Bahamians can’t be wrong.

Although I’ve always been aware of the conch, I’ve only ever considered it as a shell, one that moonlights as a sort of trumpet, and never thought about what’s inside. But this mollusc — pronounced locally as ‘conk’ — is a culinary staple in the Bahamas, used in the likes of soups, salads and fritters, in both homes and restaurants. So, less than an hour after arriving in the 35C-plus heat of Nassau, I’ve made my way to McKenzie’s, a laid-back cafe with a pink-and-white candy-striped facade and a terrace overlooking the busy harbour. It’s one of several similar joints flanking the entrance to the bridge that connects the capital’s downtown area with the hotel enclave of Paradise Island.

After extracting the white lump from its shell, chef Pinder peels it, trims off the parts that tend to be used as fishing bait rather than eaten, and ostentatiously slurps up a thin ribbon he’s removed. The spinal cord, he tells me with a laugh, is an aphrodisiac: “It gives you an extra 25 minutes.”

Once several conches have been skinned, scrubbed with salt and rinsed, Pinder finely chops them and adds them to diced peppers, onions and tomato. Next, he squeezes the juice of several lemons, limes and oranges over the top. And that’s it: conch salad — a Bahamian classic.

The first taste to hit my palate is the citrus: sharp but balanced out by the sweetness of the peppers and a touch of salt. The conch itself has a very subtle flavour that’s ever so slightly sweet, and a surprising texture: tender with just a hint of rubberiness.

With its lightness and use of tangy citrus-cured seafood, the dish isn’t a million miles from ceviche, a Peruvian favourite that in recent years has found itself on restaurant menus across the UK. But there’s another way to serve this seafood that’s even closer to home. Over at Drifters, one of the waterside establishments that makes up Nassau’s ‘fish fry’ epicentre, Arawak Cay, I watch with owner Ricardo as his chef, Cleo, prepares cracked conch. The conch is ‘cracked’ (tenderised using a meat mallet or, as some chefs here prefer, a frying pan), before being battered, deep-fried and served with rice and peas. It’s the Bahamas’ answer to fish and chips, Ricardo tells me. In fact, it’s such a staple, there’s even an annual conch-cracking festival on Grand Bahama island.

Cleo bashes the peeled and cleaned seafood until it’s flat and has broken into a few separate pieces, which curl up into little tendrils when they hit the hot oil of the fryer. A few moments later (“three minutes max,” according to Cleo) the cracked conch is ready to be dished up with a shake of parsley flakes, a wedge of lime and a couple of other essentials: “Bahamians must have their ketchup and hot sauce,” Ricardo says, passing over the sauces. I pick up a piece with my fingers — no standing on ceremony here — and have a taste. The batter is soft and light, the seafood inside perfectly tender; I can see why the dish deserves its yearly celebration.

Yet, it’s the flavour of the conch salad that I find myself thinking about later. It’s a dish that truly smacks of tropical climes. By chance, I’m able to try it again before I leave the Bahamas; on a boat trip around the Exumas — a smattering of islands and cays to which every soft-white-sand-and-crystal-clear-water cliche applies. I watch as the boat’s skipper leaps overboard, fully clothed, with a snorkel mask on, and resurfaces a short while later, clutching a fresh conch from the ocean floor.

Once there are several kelp-covered shells piled up on the stern of the boat, we drop anchor by a pristine sandbar and a conch salad is whipped up in minutes by another member of the crew. We eat it from paper bowls, standing thigh-deep in the vividly turquoise water. The food may not have come from a professional kitchen, but the setting is unbeatable; this has to be the best lunch spot in the Caribbean.

 

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)