There is a bona fide Bahamian cuisine, but you'll have to leave the first-class hotels to find it. If you want to dine on authentic Bahamian food, look for the word BAHAMIAN beside the restaurant reviews in this guide. When you see the word INTERNATIONAL, know that this means typical fare likely to be offered anywhere, especially at places such as resorts in Florida.
In some remote places, especially the Out Islands, Bahamian food is the only type of cuisine offered. Of course, the major restaurants have continental chefs, but elsewhere, especially at little local establishments, you eat as the Bahamians eat.
Cuisine, sad to say, is not one of the most compelling reasons to come to The Bahamas. You can fare much better on the mainland, especially in Florida. Except for some notable exceptions, many restaurants serve fairly routine international fare of the surf-and-turf variety. Local seafood dishes consist mainly of grouper and conch. In the Out Islands, you'll likely get one or the other every night. More exotic fish is often flown in frozen from Miami, as is most meat and poultry.
The best restaurants are in Nassau, Cable Beach, Paradise Island, and, to a lesser extent, Freeport/Lucaya. That doesn't mean you can't eat satisfactorily elsewhere in The Bahamas. You can, but chances are you won't be collecting recipes.
Soup -- Bahamian fish chowder can be prepared in any number of ways. Old-time chefs tell us that it's best when made with grouper. To that, they add celery, onions, tomatoes, and an array of flavorings that might include A1 steak sauce (or Worcestershire, or both), along with thyme, cooking sherry, a bit of dark rum, and lime juice.
Increasingly rare these days, turtle soup was for years a mainstay of the Out Islands. It and other turtle dishes still appear on some menus despite the turtle's status as an endangered species. If you have alternatives, choose another dish.
Conch -- The national food of The Bahamas is conch (pronounced "konk"). This mollusk's firm white meat is enjoyed throughout the islands. It actually tastes somewhat bland, at least until Bahamian chefs get their hands on it. Locals eat it as a snack (usually served at happy hours in taverns and bars), as a main dish, as a salad, and as an hors d'oeuvre.
Some people think it tastes like abalone because it does not have a fishy flavor like halibut, but rather a chewy consistency, which means that a chef pounds it to tenderize it.
Every cook has a different recipe for making conch chowder. A popular version includes tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, carrots, salt pork or bacon, bay leaf, thyme, and (of course) salt and pepper.
Conch fritters, shaped like balls, are served with hot sauce and are made with finely minced sweet peppers, onions, and tomato paste, among other ingredients. They are deep-fried in oil.
Conch salad is another local favorite, and it, too, has many variations. Essentially, it is uncooked conch marinated in Old Sour (a hot pepper sauce) to break down its tissues and add extra flavor. This tangy dish is served with diced small red (or green) peppers and chopped onion.
Cracked conch (or fried conch, as the old-timers call it) is prepared like a breaded veal cutlet. Pounded hard and dipped in batter, it is then sautéed. Conch is also served steamed, in Creole sauce, curried, "scorched," creamed on toast, and stewed. Instead of conch chowder, you might get conch soup. You'll also find "conch burgers" on menus.
Other Seafood -- The most elegant item you'll see on nearly any menu in The Bahamas is the local spiny lobster. A tropical cousin of the Maine lobster, it is also called crayfish or rock lobster. Only the tail is eaten, however, and it's not as sweet as the Maine species. You get fresh lobster only in season, from the beginning of April until the end of August. Otherwise, it's frozen.
Bahamian lobster, in spite of its cost, is not always prepared well. Sometimes a cook leaves it in the oven too long and the meat becomes tough and chewy. But when prepared right, like it is at Nassau's famed Graycliff restaurant, it is perfection and worth the exorbitant cost.
The Bahamian lobster lends itself to any international recipe for lobster, including Newburg and Thermidor. A typical local preparation is to curry it with lime juice and fresh coconut, among other ingredients.
After conch, grouper is the second-most-consumed seafood species in The Bahamas. It's served in a number of ways, often batter-dipped or sautéed, and called "fingers" because of the way it's sliced. The fish can also come steamed and served in a spicy Creole sauce. Sometimes it comes dressed in a sauce of dry white wine, mushrooms, onions, and thyme. Because the fish has a mild taste, the other ingredients' extra flavor is needed.
Baked bonefish is also common, and it's very simple to prepare. The bonefish is split in half and seasoned with Old Sour (a hot pepper sauce) and salt, and then popped into the oven.
Baked crab is one of the best-known dishes in The Bahamas. A chef mixes eggs and the meat of either land or sea crabs with seasonings and bread crumbs. The crabs are then replaced in their shells and baked.
Peas 'n' Rice & Johnnycake -- If mashed potatoes are the national starch of the United States, then peas 'n' rice fulfills that role in The Bahamas. Peas 'n' rice, like potatoes, can be prepared in a number of ways. One popular method is to cook pigeon peas (which grow in pods on small trees) or black-eyed peas with salt pork, tomatoes, celery, uncooked rice, thyme, green pepper, onion, salt, pepper, and whatever special touch a chef wants to add. When it's served as a side dish, Bahamians often sprinkle hot sauce over the concoction.
Johnnycake, another famed Bahamian dish, dates from the early settlers, who were often simple and poor. They survived mainly on a diet of fish and rice, supplemented by johnnycake, a pan-cooked bread made with butter, milk, flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. (Originally it was called "Journey Cake," which was eventually corrupted to "johnnycake.") Fishermen could make this simple bread on the decks of their vessels: They'd build a fire in a box that had been filled with sand to keep the flames from spreading to the craft.
Tropical Fruits -- Bahamians are especially fond of fruits, and they make inventive dishes out of them, including soursop ice cream and sapodilla pudding. Guavas are used to make their famous guava duff dessert. The islanders also grow and enjoy melons, pineapples, passion fruit, and mangoes.
Their most famous fruit is the papaya, which is called "pawpaw" or "melon tree." It's made into a dessert or chutney or eaten for breakfast in its natural state. It's also used in many lunch and dinner recipes. An old Bahamian custom of using papaya as a meat tenderizer has, at least since the 1970s, invaded North American kitchens. Papaya is also used to make fruity tropical drinks, such as the Bahama Mama shake. And if you see it for sale in a local food store, take home some "Goombay" marmalade, which is made with papaya, pineapple, and green ginger.
Rums, Liqueurs & Specialty Drinks -- Although rum came north from Cuba and Jamaica, Bahamians quickly adopted it as their national alcoholic beverage. Using their imagination, they invented several local drinks, including the Yellow Bird, the Bahama Mama, and the Goombay Smash.
The Yellow Bird is made with crème de banana liqueur, Vat 19 rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, apricot brandy, and Galliano. A Bahama Mama has Vat 19, citrus juice (perhaps pineapple, too), bitters, a dash of nutmeg, crème de cassis, and a hint of grenadine. The Goombay Smash usually consists of coconut rum, pineapple juice, lemon juice, Triple Sec, Vat 19, and a dash of simple syrup.
Nearly every bartender in the islands has a personal version of Planter's Punch. A classic recipe is to make it with lime juice, sugar, and Vat 19, plus a dash of bitters. It's usually served with a cherry and an orange slice.
If you want a typically Bahamian liqueur, try Nassau Royale. It is used to make an increasingly popular drink, the C. C. Rider, which includes Canadian Club, apricot brandy, and pineapple juice.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.