January 26, 2013
Bahamian cuisine is really a melting pot of cuisines from a number of countries -- honestly, there isn't one dish that you can point to and say that's Bahamian. But if you really think about it, the conch salad may just be that national dish that we would like to say is all ours. It's a dish that most Bahamians love, and everyone has their favorite conch salad maker that they visit religiously. And it's a dish that as simple as "pie" to make and entails simple ingredients -- conch, tomatoes, onions, bell pepper, cucumber, celery and lime/orange -- with people adding in and taking out ingredients according to their likes and dislikes.
In recent times though the basic conch salad has seen an evolution as conch makers gave in to their creativity. Don't be surprised to see your favorite conch salad vendor mixing up a batch with fruit like pineapple, mango and apple thrown in. Or even boiling the conch skin (with seasonings of their choice), a portion of the conch that was usually discarded, and making what is known as a boiled skin salad -- which is simply a regular conch salad made with the boiled skin which they say is more tender and less chewy.
One such vendor giving in to his creative side and doling out more than just a standard conch salad is Stephen 'Popeye' Dean, 35, who recently opened Popeye's Conch Stall at Thompson Boulevard and Moss Street at The Reef.
According to Dean, conch salad makers are being challenged to be more creative with making conch salad, all because of a curveball that was thrown by a conch salad maker out of Grand Bahama. He said it was a Grand Bahamian conch salad maker that initially put apples into his conch salad first. Consequently he said it was a Grand Bahamian vendor that also started the trend of adding the juice from an orange to the salad as well. As there were times when sour oranges were difficult to find, so to temper the sharpness of the limes that had to be used, the juice from an orange was added. Before that trend, it was pure lime or sour orange juice.
"People were like 'oh I like this [apple in the conch salad]' and we went with it and it just took off," he said.
It was from that initial foray that conch salad makers started adding mangos, with pineapple being the most recent addition. Dean said he is in the process of contemplating adding strawberries.
The conch salad vendor of 19 years said the secret to adding fruit to conch salad is to use fresh fruit that is not too ripe. If it's too ripe, he said the salad will in turn be too sweet, and that is not the flavor profile that is being sought. With the addition of the fruit he said, the conch salad flavor should still come through with just a hint of sweetness.
As what is known as the conch salad begins to take on even more flavor profiles, Dean said the one thing he doesn't want to see happen is for the conch salad to lose its flavor as people start to go overboard. He said he recently heard of someone putting plantain into a conch salad.
"I don't think we should take the conch salad too much further because it will make it too costly most importantly -- the more fruits added in, the more the salad will go up. Then there's the fact that if you put too much fruit in it, it won't add up to the right taste. You want the basic taste of the conch salad, but to give people that extra taste of something that will make them go hmmm," said Dean.
Dean offers seven salad offerings at his stall -- regular conch salad, tropical conch salad, scorch conch salad, whelk and conch salad, boiled skin salad, herb salad and lobster salad.
And he said making conch salad is definitely an art form he would like to see people do correctly -- and includes knowing how to select the correct limes and oranges. If the citrus is starting to turn, he said the salad definitely would not taste right. And he said the citrus should be cut and squeezed a certain way as well, so as to not allow any bitterness to seep into the salad.
Who knows where conch salad will be taken next, but for right now, Dean said requests for tropical conch salads are keeping pace with his sales for the regular salad.
And if you're not a fan of conch salad with all the herbs, Dean said you can get a tropical scorched conch in which the only vegetable added is the onion and the fruit with the conch.
Dean got his start at the stall of the late Leroy 'B Man' Sands at the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay, when there only three stalls on the now bustling thoroughfare.
The then 16-year-old said he learned how to make the conch salad from the ground up. Before he was even given permission to hold a knife, he said he was only allowed to lift the conch shell. He then advanced to cracking the conch out of the shell, which he said he had to sit and watch to learn how to do properly before he was tasked with skinning the conch, all of which he had to be before he was given a knife to make his first conch salad.
Popeye's Conch Stall is located at Thompson Boulevard and Moss Street at The Reef. Dean's operating hours are 12 noon to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
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