The most iconic dish of Garifuna cuisine is hudut, a whole fish in coconut soup served with a large ball of mashed green bananas. The mash is similar to West African and Caribbean fufu and gets prepared in a large Native American mortar and pestle the Garifuna brought from South America by their ancestors. During cultural holidays, you might even catch Garifuna women pounding away preparing hudut in South LA. The dish is topped with a chile habanero, then eaten by tearing off pieces of the ball of green bananas and dunking it into the soup.
Among the numerous communities found throughout South Central LA, one that’s slightly lesser known is the Garifuna. A diaspora of people descended from Africans and Native Americans, Garinagu have endured adversity and discrimination since they were exiled from their homeland of Saint Vincent to Roatan in the late 18th century by the British, after which they faced struggles for land rights in their adopted homes throughout Central America. Today, Garinagu live in coastal villages throughout Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean, as well as in big American cities like and New York City, Chicago, and here in Los Angeles.
In 2015, Winston Miranda opened the city’s first-ever Garifuna food truck, Saraba, to help bring the community to light in greater LA. “Blacks here consider us foreigners, the Belizeans and other Central Americans act superior to us, and we sometimes experience the same racism from whites that African Americans go through because most of us are black,” says Miranda, who operates Saraba in Gardena and around South LA. Miranda learned how to make the traditional foods of the Garifuna and Belizeans from his great-grandmother and mother, then attended the Art institute of Seattle to study culinary arts.
Garinagu are descended from African, Carib, and Arawak people, and are considered some of the last descendants of the Amerindians from South America who explored and populated the Caribbean islands. Though about half a million have immigrated to the U.S., they’ve resisted assimilation. In LA, there are about 100,000 people who call themselves Garifuna, according to Rony Figueroa, vice president and founder of Garifuna American Heritage Foundation United (GAHFU). Their cuisine combines Native American techniques, Central American ingredients, and the local dishes of their adopted homes. Miranda is from Belize, but his food truck’s dishes are intended to specifically preserve, educate, and share Garifuna culture.
In the five years since opening, Miranda has beaten the odds as a business operator. Historically, Garinagu have resisted a formal restaurant economy, preferring to sell food at home without regulation. Even in Garifuna enclaves in Central America, restaurant ownership is rare, and the cuisine is kept alive in underground eateries and at community events. When the pandemic and protests against police violence and racial injustice allow, Miranda will take over the beloved Ella’s Belizean Cuisine on Western Avenue. This part of South LA has many Belizean restaurants serving Belizean and Caribbean cuisine, as well as cultural events presenting Garifuna dishes like hudut.
Tapou, a fish, green banana, and root vegetable soup, and the thicker, almost gravy-like bundiga, made with fish, okra, and green banana in coconut milk, are both popular dishes from Garifuna villages. Tahara, named for the mashed green bananas baked in their own leaves, is eaten with fried fish as a typical Garifuna breakfast. Miranda rotates through these dishes daily, and any of the dishes can be preordered upon request, but there are always Belizean plates on the menu too.
“Two times a month I donate meals for the health care workers at the hospital in Torrance where my mother works as a nurse, doing 200 orders of jerk chicken or curry chicken,” said Miranda. Many Belizeans studying abroad go to college in Jamaica, and over the decades, Belizeans have fallen in love with the spicier jerk chicken as well as Jamaican popular music styles. Miranda loves to make these Jamaican dishes, which he also cooks in the truck. There’s alway rice and beans, or “ricenbeans,” as the menu has it, in Belizean Kriol, a lightly sweet rice and red kidney beans cooked in coconut milk. He tops them with a protein like fry fish or stew chicken (there’s no past or future tense in Kriol), and the essential potato salad. And then there’s boil up, the weekend Belizean Kriol anthem, a pork-seasoned pot of assorted root vegetables, flour-based boil cakes, pig tail, fish, and hard-boiled egg, with canned tomato sauce to top it off.
Those familiar with the cuisine of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula will recognize the antojitos (little snacks) from Belizeans that were once part of the Mayan empire. From the Mayan Belizeans, these dishes come from many of the cultures that make up Belizean gastronomy. Miranda makes panades, which are like smoked fish, beans, and cheese empanadas stuffed into an orange-tinted corn tortilla, colored by red recado (achiote paste); garnaches, a fried corn tortilla topped with refried beans, dried Dutch cheese, and shredded cabbage; and salbutes, a fried, puffed corn tortilla layered with shredded chicken and vegetables. Belizeans dress their food with a relish of onions and habanero, or bottles of Marie Sharp’s (a Belizean hot-sauce brand). On garnaches, ketchup is the standard.
Still, Miranda is most passionate about his Garifuna plates, which are important for the Garifuna in resisting both erasure, the loss of land rights in Central America, and the risk of fading away, according to Cheryl Noralez, president and founder of GAHFU. “We are not Afro-Caribbeans, or African Americans. We are Garinagu. Our ancestors come somewhere from Africa, but our identity, our language, music, food, and traditions here in America, and everywhere, is Garifuna,” she says.
“We are an indigenous culture, but people here would consider me African-American, until they hear me speak Spanish — then they think I’m Cuban,” says Miranda. “Outside of the USA, when they see our [Garifuna] flag, or the Belizean flag, we get respect.” Punta, a music style created by the Garifuna, and their warrior dance, called the Wanaragua, are both part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage. But the Garifuna can be targets of racism and are in danger of police brutality. “Our young people are out there marching and fighting for their rights,” Miranda says.
“Many young people have moved on from our food.” says Noralez. “They don’t listen to punta, and they identify more with African Americans.” Now is the time to consider this cuisine, which has surfaced outside the community on only a few occasions over the past few decades, and bring attention to the Garifuna, a vital and rich community in Los Angeles.
Saraba Truck. 732 W. 130th St., Gardena, 310-403-7292. Saraba will soon begin traveling around LA and will eventually park in front of its future permanent location in Exposition Park on Western Avenue. Follow them on Instagram for details.