The Garifuna Diaspora Celebrates 223 Years of its Cuisine

How chefs, culinary historians, and cookbook writers are keeping their centuries-old diasporic culture alive.

Garifuna dish of hudutu
Hudutu baruru with falmo, a coconut-based seafood stew. .

Serious Eats / Wes Güity and Milton Güity

Many dishes comprise the world of Garifuna cuisine, but hudutu, a velvety ball of mashed plantain that’s served with soups and stews, is probably its signature. Called hudutu baruru when made with both green and ripe plantains, it has a soft, dense texture, and sometimes a subtle sweetness. It might be served with takini—a stew of cabbage, warm spices, and king fish—or falmo, a seafood broth enriched with coconut milk and flavored with black pepper, garlic, and onions. But no matter how it’s served, it’s the dish closest to Yolanda Castillo's heart.

The head chef and co-owner of Chicago’s Garifuna Flava, Castillo developed a love for cuisine at an early age. It was in her native country of Belize that she learned the secrets to making hudutu, falmo, and takini—among other dishes. Those recipes were some of the mementos she brought with her when she moved to the US. "My mom would teach me and guide me; she showed me the traditional way of cooking our Garifuna cuisine," she says. (The business has survived through Chicago’s COVID-19 shutdown by offering delivery; it’s raising funds via GoFundMe to support staff.) Today, Castillo is one of several Garinagu—plural for Garifuna—keeping the culture alive, not only by maintaining and celebrating the traditions of their cuisine, but by sharing that cuisine with a wider audience.

A plantain being peeled.

Serious Eats / Wes Güity and Milton Güity

The Garifuna origin story is a complex one that involves attempts to enslave, imprison, exile, and displace the Afro-Indigenous community. Though the exact year has been debated, historians believe West Africans escaped slave ships that wrecked off the coast of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the 1600s. While residing in St. Vincent, these West Africans and their descendants mixed with the Caribbean island’s Arawak and Carib populations, forming the community now known as Black Carib, or Garifuna in the Arawakan language. After a treaty passed control of St. Vincent from France to Britain in 1763, the already active Black Carib resistance to colonial powers intensified. Fighting continued for years. Ultimately, 5,000 Garinagu were exiled to Roatán, the largest of the Honduras’ Bay Islands, on April 12, 1797. The roughly 2,000 that survived the journey eventually migrated to mainland Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Forced migration influenced Garifuna culture in many ways. In hudutu, you see the influence from West African fufu, a ball of mashed cassava and green plantain. Though Africans knew cassava (or yuca), they learned how to grate and dry it from Indigenous communities in the Caribbean. The Garinagu eventually adapted that process to make a crisp, cracker-thin bread called ereba or casabe. (Similar recipes can be found in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, among other locales.)

Today, Garinagu claim a unique history that places their identity at the intersection of West and Central African, Indigenous, and Caribbean traditions, which is then layered with local and national cultures along Central America’s Caribbean coast. The Garifuna diaspora also has a foothold in the United States, especially in Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Houston, and New York City, the latter of which is home to the largest Garifuna population outside of Central America. Though its history isn’t widely known, Garifuna influence crosses cultures and transcends borders.

Chef Yolanda Castillo in her kitchen at Garifuna Flava, Chicago.

Courtesy of Garifuna Flava, Chicago

After migrating from Belize to Chicago in the mid-1980s with her husband, Castillo stayed true to her roots, gathering family members around her table for lavish meals. Not a single visit occurred without someone complimenting Castillo on her ability to put a modern spin on her mother’s traditional Garifuna recipes.

"My husband would always say, ‘One of these days, I'm going to open a restaurant for her,’" Castillo says, with a laugh. A few years later, Rhodel Castillo made good on his promise.

In 2008, the couple’s restaurant, Garifuna Flava, opened its doors on Chicago’s southwest side. In addition to Garifuna cuisine, Garifuna Flava serves up Belizean staples like rice and beans, stewed chicken, garnaches—a deep-fried corn tortilla topped with refried beans, onions, cabbage, grated cheese, and other toppings—and panades, a deep-fried, cornflour patty filled with fish or refried beans, and served with a condiment made from cabbage, peppers, and onions. In 2011, Guy Fieri pulled up with his Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives crew to invite Garifuna Flava to Flavortown. The exposure attracted many new fans, some of them coming from outside the US.

"I have a map on the wall in the restaurant. It's amazing to see how many people from around the world have been here to taste our Garifuna food," she says. There are markings for visitors from South America, Canada, and across Europe.

"Garifuna food, in particular, tells us a Caribbean story and a Central American story," says Pablo Joseph López Oro, a doctoral candidate in the Department of African and African Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. "It gives us an opportunity to really think about the generational history of Garifuna migration."

López Oro, whose work focuses on later generations of Garifuna immigrants, has vivid memories of his grandmother’s pan de coco (coconut bread). When he’d wake up on weekends to his mother frying fish and preparing stew, he knew that meant family members were on their way over for hudutu and good conversation. "Garifuna food is incredibly valuable to my memories, even my own identity as a third-generation, born-and-raised-in-Brooklyn, Garifuna person. Food connected us back to Honduras in a way that was really special."

When she was growing up in San Juan Tela, Honduras, Isha Gutierrez-Sumner, a Garifuna actress and dancer, recalls feeling embarrassed about her daily diet, which differed from what the local mestizos were eating regularly. "Eating Garifuna food in the village, it wasn't a glamorous time," she says. "It wasn't a source of pride."

At 15, Gutierrez-Sumner migrated to Houston, and later moved to New York for a career in dance and acting. When she ventured out to neighborhood restaurants to try new cuisines, her interest in her personal history piqued when she noticed similarities between Garifuna cuisine and dishes from other coastal communities.

Nostalgia for her homeland and a desire to see Garifuna cuisine elevated and celebrated led Gutierrez-Sumner to launch a Garifuna food platform and catering company. She’s spent the last five years traveling to and from Honduras, consulting with elders and documenting their recipes for a forthcoming cookbook titled Weiga, Let’s Eat! Photographers Milton and Wes Güity joined her to capture dishes and step-by-step techniques in stunning images. (Now that the book is complete, she’s weighing her options between traditional publishing and self-publishing.) Recipes cover a lot of ground and include Garifuna fried fish, a variety of coconut-based breads, and sweets like peteta, a sweet potato pudding, and dabledu, a candied cookie flavored with coconut and ginger. Coconut is used in many Garifuna dishes, enriching everything from broths to rice and beans to desserts.

"Nothing ever goes to waste," notes Gutierrez-Sumner, of the community’s ingenuity and agricultural knowledge. She recalls how her great-great-grandmother taught generations of her family how to be efficient with ingredients. "She was savvy. She knew that if she grated the coconut and she squeezed the first milk out of the coconut without adding water, that was going to be her butter," shares Gutierrez-Sumner. "She knew that once she added water, the water that she added at first was literally the water that came out of the coconut, so she squeezed that into another pot... that's going to be the second milk that she uses for baking. And then the third [pressing] is where she adds warm water to make sure that all the oils from the coconut are coming out. Then she'd have three buckets of milk"—all of which would end up in meals and sweets.

These days, some Garinagu use canned coconut milk in their home recipes, because for a cuisine to survive, the diaspora must adapt. Though hudutu is traditionally a very labor-intensive process, involving the use of a large mortar and pestle to pound the plantains into a textured mass, Castillo uses a food processor to speed things up. The more hudutu she’s able to make, the more she’s able to sell—increasing the likelihood of introducing the cuisine to a wider, ever-hungry audience.

"I think people are really committed to making hudutu a household name," says López Oro, referring to the dish and the urgency many Garinagu feel about preserving their history, in part, through their cuisine’s most famous dish.

"We just celebrated 223 years of the preservation of Garifuna food," says Gutierrez-Sumner, of the April 12 anniversary. "It has not gone anywhere. It's not going to go anywhere. And we need to continue to preserve it and share it with others, because it's a beautiful part of our culture."

June 2020