When you close your eyes and imagine a tropical island, Nassau, the Bahamian capital city, isn’t it. Sure, there are scattered palm trees, stretches of sandy beaches, and a faint but constant whirr of blenders mixing up tropical cocktails, but as far as seaside paradises go, Nassau is another animal.
The fish fry is one of the only places in the Caribbean to bar hop and food hop.
Situated just shy of 200 miles from Miami, the capital city of this 700-island archipelago is infinitely accessible from the states. Nassau’s history as a cruise ship hub has welcomed a slew of stateside imports, making the search for "real deal" Bahamian eats something of a treasure hunt. But a quick 10-minute ride west of downtown lands you at the Arawak Cay fish fry, a seaside stretch filled with hand-painted wooden stands, dinged up food trucks, and rainbow-hued standalone restaurants, all with deep roots in Caribbean history.
Kevin Archer, the manager of the Ministry of Agriculture at Arawak Cay, sees the Arawak fish fry as a microcosm of the Bahamas, itself made up of 700 islands. "It’s a great place to get a taste of all the islands," Archer says. "Some stalls are named for individual islands, and each person seasons their food differently — spicy, mild, just right." According to Archer, the fish fry functions as a place for Bahamians to come together in the capital and share the unique flavors of home — and for visitors to sample everything from guava duffs to conch salads, and fish from steamed to "cracked."
What’s Fish Fry?
Dr. Candace Goucher, author of Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food, explains that the Caribbean tradition of grilling local catches over fire pits dates back to pre-Columbian times. European settlers introduced iron cauldrons, along with a thriving fish trade. The European appetite for salt cod was insatiable, meaning that ships were sailing back and forth, and bustling ports emerged on the islands.
"The fish fry is associated with ports all over the Caribbean," Goucher says. Local fishermen began to set up shop at these ports, feeding sailors and the ships’ passengers. Flour was not abundant, but the fish was fresh — so instead of battering the catch, locals would season oil with hot peppers and spices and fry to order.
Nowadays, fish fry fare has grown to include many preparations of conch, grouper, and snapper, along with traditional sides like plantains and rice and imports along the lines of macaroni and cheese. Rum, however, has always been a big part of the equation due to the Caribbean’s brisk sugarcane production.
The fish fry at Arawak Cay followed a similar but much more recent trajectory, says Archer. Back in the 1980s, a group of local fishers were in the market for a stretch of land to sell their fish and conch. Leasing a portion of the cay from the government, the al fresco fish market began to draw locals and tourists alike, all asking for more in the way of prepared food and cocktails. Arawak grew from what was once a couple of seaside stalls into a current collection of 30-plus stalls, stands, and brick-and-mortar restaurants.
As a place that holds mass appeal to both visitors and Nassau natives, the Bahamian government has been assisting with the fish fry’s development since the beginning, and the vendors formed an organization early on. Nowadays, Arawak Cay is an attraction as well as a community hub with a heritage site, year-round parades, live music, and fundraisers. "It’s a festive area where you can come and be festive by all means," Archer says. With so many vendors, he adds, "the fish fry is one of the only places in the Caribbean to bar hop and food hop."
Unlike other islands, where fish fries are a weekends-only phenomenon, the restaurants and bars at Arawak Cay keep a far more tourist-friendly schedule. Given the fact that island time is a very real thing, locking down exact hours is a challenge — but as a rule, places are usually open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday nights are prime time, with everyone open for business and live junkanoo bands, but even during the off-season on weekdays, getting a taste of the fish fry can be easily accomplished with a stroll around the cay.
The Fish Fry Lexicon
Conch fritters: Known for having alleged aphrodisiac powers, these misshapen fried puffs are made with bits of fresh Caribbean sea snail mixed into an eggy batter with a little bit of cayenne and chopped green onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Best-case scenario, the fritters should be a bit creamy inside, like the center of a well-made order of takoyaki. As a rule, these little guys are served hot out the fryer (in other words, given ‘em a few minutes to chill out) with a sunny sauce made of ketchup, mayo, Worchestershire sauce, and hot sauce.
Conch salad: Think of it as a Caribbean spin on ceviche, featuring tenderized cubes of conch tossed with a crunchy fresh veg, chiles, and a blend of citrus juices. Just like Mexican shrimp cocktail, conch salad is oftentimes served with saltines, or even better, buttery Ritz crackers, for scooping.
The fish: Whether they’re in season or not, shrimp and lobster are always on the menu at the fish fry, but locally caught fish are the way to go. Grouper, snapper, and conch are brought in daily and finessed by folks who know how to bring out the best of their catch.
Cracked: Somewhere in between the breading found on fish and chips and tempura, this island take on batter uses a lightly seasoned egg-and-flour mix. The battered fish is then deep-fried and served with calypso sauce or tartare.
Fried: If heads and tails aren’t your thing, stay far away from fried. This preparation is basically a whole fish slid into the deep fryer and just cooked through. Served with a couple of juicy lime wedges, it’s the simplest of fish fry preparations, as well as the one that lets the quality of the fish do the talking.
Steamed: Wrapped in foil, this island iteration of en papillote sees filets tucked into pouches with tomatoes, onions, and peppers along with a bit of thyme and citrus. Cooked in its own juice, the fish-filled foil envelope is opened at the table, making for a bit of steamy flair.
Snack: Fish served minus the sides.
Dinner: Fish plus a choice of sides.
The sides: Macaroni, potato salad, plantains, and peas and rice make up the bulk of fish fry sides. Custardy and cut into square wedges, the Caribbean take on mac and cheese runs more mild than cheesy. Potato salad is a solid bet, with some versions tinged yellow with mustard and bits of hard-boiled egg. Fried plantains are pleasantly pliant and sugary enough to sub for dessert. Pigeon peas are the legume of choice around these parts, served with spiced rice or grits.
Guava duff: Similar to a Chinese-style Swiss roll, this favorite dessert rolls a sweetly spiced cake dough around guava jam. Instead of baking, the dessert is steamed, lending a soft and spongy texture.
Bahama Mama: While it might be available on more than a few chain-restaurant cocktail menus, sampling the Bahama’s namesake cocktail in its natural habitat is a must. Buzzed up in a blender, it’s a beachy blend of coconut and white rum, grenadine, pineapple, and orange juices finished with a float of dark rum.
Goombay Smash: Named for both a goatskin-topped drum and the music that’s made with it, this drink rarely makes it off the archipelago. Like most regionally specific libations, this one comes complete with a backstory involving a protective proprietor and a secret recipe. These days, this heady blend of pineapple, orange, apricot, and every rum under the sun is served on the rocks and available all over the island.
Sky Juice: Rum might be de rigueur for most island drinks, but Sky Juice, a.k.a. Gully Wash, makes a solid case for a decidedly less tropical base spirit. On paper (or on the hand-painted menu board), the combination of fresh coconut water, condensed milk, and gin is a head scratcher. But shaken together until frothy, poured into a Styrofoam cup, and topped with a shake of cinnamon or nutmeg, the ingredients are transformed into a creamy concoction that elevates the sweet creaminess of the coconut and milk combo with bright, herbal notes of gin shining through.
Beer: The Bahamas is home to several breweries, with Kalik (pronounced "click") and Sands being the most readily available and always icy cold. With a citrusy tartness, Sands clocks in at a slightly higher ABV, while classic Kalik drinks like an ideal beach lager.
How to Tackle the Fish Fry
At first glance, the number of options at Arawak can be daunting. The best game plan for battling mental fish fry fatigue is to treat it like a progressive dining experience, grabbing a cocktail here and a bite there instead of opting for a full, sit-down meal at one location.
Sky Juice King
All good meals begin with a cocktail, and this coral-colored stand makes a mean one. Sky Juice comes in tame 16-ounce cups or a dangerous 24-ouncer. Teetotalers will be pleased to know that the King offers "leaded" and "unleaded" (i.e. no booze) versions of the Bahamian fave. Shady picnic tables provide seating if you feel like staying for a few rounds — Styrofoam cups make it clear that open containers are welcome.
Keen-eyed observers might recognize this bi-level restaurant was the site of a notorious grease fire on an episode of Top Chef All-Stars. Infamous TV incidents aside, Twin Brothers sets itself apart from the rest of the fish fry vendors with a fully functional website and a reservation line. If you’re planning on heading to Arawak Cay with a less than adventurous crew, this place (and its killer daiquiris) will keep everyone happy.
Looking out to the tail end of Paradise Island, the dining room here is tranquil and breezy, especially during daytime hours. While it’s a relative newcomer to the Arawak scene, the kitchen here turns out classic Bahamian fare that’s served with a real sense of place and pride.
Goldie’s Conch House
This technicolor oceanfront operation is a fully immersive conch experience, where the entire life cycle of the sea snail can be taken in. Plucked from the sea, extracted from pink shells, tenderized, cooked, and brought to the table, a pile of discarded shells is always visible from the dining area.
Caroline Russock is the editor of Zagat Philadelphia and the founder of Beach Graze, a new site devoted to exploring the best of Caribbean cuisine. Torrell Glinton is a freelance photographer based in Nassau, Bahamas.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
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