Aug, 2016: When people think of Caribbean holiday destinations, the Corn Islands probably aren’t at the top of the list. We fell in love with them though, especially Big Corn. After some less than inspiring visits to the Caribbean, the Corn Islands actually restored my faith in this magical part of the world. From low expectations, we found the lovely laid back locals, the ramshackle but gorgeous coastline and the abundance of fresh, quality seafood to be rather inspiring…especially in the kitchen.
70km off the coast of Nicaragua, this twin set of islands are a little rough around the edges but provide an authentic glimpse into Caribbean culture. Little Corn sees the most tourism and is best equipped with a range of accommodation and restaurant options along with a couple of dive schools. On the other hand, Big Corn is much more local and the commercial hub of the two. Along with some besties from Australia, we initially planned for only a few days but ended up staying1.5 weeks on Big Corn and a few days on it’s little brother. We did nothing but laze in hammocks, eat amazing food and take the odd dip in the ocean. It was bliss.
Cooking the Corn Islands: Big Corn first impressions
I had only ever really associated the Caribbean with turquoise blue water gently lapping up against coconut fringed, white sandy beaches. Good food wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Still, as we drove around Big Corn during our first day or two this impression started to change. Fishing boats in all shapes and sizes bobbed in the water, 100’s of wooden lobster pots sat piled in front of houses and hand painted signs offered fresh baked coconut bread for sale. Old women swung gently in their rocking chairs while selling fresh pineapples from their verandahs. Every few days an open air butcher would pop up selling freshly killed meat and a dude would do daily laps of the island selling fruit and vegetables from a trailer towed behind his motorbike. The local taxi drivers gave us the inside word on cheap, fresh lobster and I got lucky when a local fisherman walked past with a fresh King Crab in his bag ready to sell. I think it also helped that we were staying in ramshackle little bungalows where when you took a step back from the kitchen bench you were looking straight at that turquoise Caribbean water.
Cooking the Corn Islands: Baking whole fish in a sandpit beach oven
At some point my mate Nick and I decided that we wanted to attempt baking a fish in a sand oven on the beach. After a bit of trial and error we worked out the overly convoluted system to purchasing fish from the cooperatives and with a 5kg snapper in hand we set to our mission. We dug a pit just above the waterline about 1m (L) x 0.75m (W) x 0.5m (D) and then built a fire around coconut husks and drift wood. The fish got cleaned in the sea and then rubbed with salt before being stuffed with lemon, ginger, garlic and knobs of butter. Finally we wrapped the whole thing up with multiple layers of banana leaves and tied it with string I made from the fibres of the banana leaf (see below for a few tips on cooking with banana leaves). As the sun went down we lowered our prize into the oven pit, covered it with another layer of banana leaves and sand, and then sat back to wait. With the sound of waves in our ears and a cold beer in our hands, we couldn’t have been more at peace with the Caribbean.
Alas our first attempt at sand baked fish was a bit of a fail with the oven not being nearly hot enough. Unperturbed, we bought some more, smaller fish and made a second run at it a few nights later. This time round, we made our oven a little bigger, lined it with rocks and built a bigger fire with more wood and coconut husks. The rocks proved key to holding in the heat but we were let down by not sourcing enough young banana leaves to wrap our fish with. Despite multiple attempts at wrapping our little fish, the leaves kept breaking apart and in the end we opted for the cheats method of aluminium foil. While slightly disappointed at lacking the authenticity of the banana leaves the aluminium foil was way easier to use. 45 minutes later we opened our roasting hot beach oven and triumphantly pulled out our perfectly cooked little snappers. They were delicate, fragrant and damned delicious.
Cooking the Corn Islands: making Corn Island coconut milk
While we never got to try our sand oven a third time, we did learn how to make our own coconut milk. Coconuts are everywhere on Corn Island and apparently every coconut palm belongs to someone. As a result you can’t just take any old one off the beach. We bought a more mature coconut from Dorsey (you want one with harder flesh) and with a little instruction from our host, set to. The whole process was surprisingly simple. First we grated the coconut flesh and let it soak for two hours in a mixture of the coconut water and fresh water. Then we just strained the whole mixture and squeezed out the remaining coconut milk with our hands. In just over 2.5 hours we had made coconut milk which then found it’s way into a delicious Beef Rendang.
Cooking the Corn Islands: other tasty treats
And so the Corn Island culinary adventures continued. The aforementioned King Crab got steamed and folded into a luxurious crab omelette for breakfast while a few kilo’s of fresh lobster went into a rich tomato and chili penne. We went to the next door restaurant for a bowl of the slightly stodgy local speciality Rondon (sometimes ‘run-down’ pronounced not as good as we hoped) and then there was the coconut bread…Fresh coconut bread made well is something like brioche. It’s soft, every so slightly sweet and goes amazingly well as french toast. We tried a few different french toast combos. Definitely the highlight was slabs of eggy coconut bread topped with fresh mango cheeks, tangy natural yoghurt and a drizzle of some wild Amazonian honey we had bought in the jungle a few hours outside of Manaus. So good!
The Corn Islands aren’t exactly the easiest places to get to and there are definitely places with more beautiful beaches. However, if you’re looking for an authentic Caribbean experience and are willing to dive into some of the local produce then you will be rewarded with an amazing time.
Cooking the Corn Islands: travel and feasting tips
- Cooking with banana leaves:
- First off, cooking with banana leaves isn’t as easy as expected as they’re quite fragile and often split when you’re wrapping them around what ever you’re trying to cook
- As a result have more banana leaves on hand than what you actually need to account for the ones you’re going to lose
- If using straight off the tree, try and get the big young leaves (versus older ones which have already split) and wash them well with the spine still in. Once washed, cut them into the size that you want and wrap them carefully around your fish.
- If at home buying them frozen from the super market should make it a little easier as it would appear that freezing them first makes them more pliable versus brittle
- There are two ways of getting to the Corn Islands, by boat or plane. We tried and both and while more costly we would definitely recommend spending the money and flying. Stay tuned for our blog Getting to the Corn Islands: to sail or not to sail for more information.
- Shuttle boats run between Big and Little Corn a few times a day, take 30mins each way and cost USD5/person. Try and choose a smooth day as they are only little boats.
- On Big Corn we stayed at Yellowtail House on Sally Peachie beach. The friendly local owner Dorsey has two simple but perfectly functional beach bungalows. At USD25/night they are a real bargain considering they have uninterrupted water views. Dorsey doesn’t have a website or email but can be reached by phone on +505 8909 8050.
- One minor problem with Big Corn is the lack of wifi. Seva’s restaurant next to Dorsey’s has patchy wifi (at best). Casa Canada on the south east side of the island probably had the best wifi we could find but even that wasn’t great.