Perfect for a Winter Day: Bahamian Conch Chowder

Though I was born (and spent much of my childhood) in the Bahamas, Tom always jokes that he’s more Bahamian than me. And in some ways, it’s true. I’m not that keen on fish, a Bahamian staple. Too many bones, too much trouble. And though hot peppers are ubiquitous in Bahamian cuisine, I prefer milder flavours. Tom, on the other hand, could live on fish. Snapper, muttonfish, jacks, grunts, grouper, mahi mahi — he loves them all. And hot peppers? Let’s just say he’s not one to shy away.  bahamas, abaco, green turtle cay, conch, chowder

On a trip to Green Turtle Cay a few years back, Tom decided to make conch chowder, which he did without a recipe (or even Google.) The result was really good, and surprisingly authentic.

Though I’ve mastered Bahamian dishes such as stewed conch, fire engine, and banana pudding, I’d never tried making conch chowder. But I refused to be outdone, especially by a Canuck.

Over the next few months, I sought out and tried a number of different chowder recipes. Ultimately, I combined elements from several different recipes, and did a little improvisation of my own.

According to Tom, my conch chowder is delicious. Not quite as good as his, he’s quick to add. But close.

Unfortunately, since Tom didn’t write down his recipe, I can’t share it so you can make an objective comparison. But here’s mine, in case you’d like to give it a try.

Don’t stress too much about exact quantities or cooking times. Many Bahamian cooks work by feel rather than by recipe and as a result, most native dishes are quite forgiving.

Amanda’s Conch Chowder

6 conchs, cleaned and cut into small (roughly 1/2″) cubes*
10 cups water
butter or margarine
4 slices turkey bacon, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small green pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced or thinly sliced
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
14-oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
8-oz can tomato sauce
2 bay leaves
Hot sauce or cayenne pepper (optional)

Place conch, water and 1 tbsp butter in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for an hour or so, until conch is tender. (Warning: conch boils over very easily. The butter is supposed to prevent over-boiling, but trust me — watch the pot.) Drain conch, reserving the liquid, and set aside.

In the same pot, heat a tablespoon or so of butter or margarine or canola oil. Saute turkey bacon for a couple of minutes, then add onions, garlic, green pepper, celery, carrots, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon basil and a little salt and pepper. Cook until bacon begins to get crisp and vegetables soften.

Add tomato paste and saute for a minute or two. Add the water in which the conch was cooked, undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, potato, bay leaves, another teaspoon or so of thyme and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 20-30 minutes or until potato is cooked.

Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. If chowder is too thick, add a little warm water or tomato sauce. If it’s too thin, mash some of the potatoes and vegetables against the side of the pot with a fork, then stir them in. And if, like Tom, you prefer more spice, add a little Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper.

Serve with Bahamian Johnny Cake (there’s a great Whole Wheat Johnny Cake recipe in Healthier Bahamian Cuisine) or crusty bread. Serves 4-6.

* If you can’t find conch, I’m told clams make a good substitute. No need to pre-cook, just add them during the last few minutes of cooking. In place of the conch water, use the clam liquid plus enough water to equal 6 cups or so.

bahamas, conch, chowder

My Conch Chowder

3 thoughts on “Perfect for a Winter Day: Bahamian Conch Chowder

  1. Amanda –

    Because the only conch I can get here is Seattle is a frozen product from Thailand, Vietnam or Japan that tends to have the consistency, taste and appeal of a rubber cement ball, I substitute clams. I use 2-3 lbs. of fresh steamed (just until the shells open) manilas or little necks that I dice coarsely once steamed and de-shelled. When pressed for time, or unwilling to pay the going price for fresh clams, I use four to six 6.5 oz. cans of diced clams, depending on how big a pot of chowder I am making. I use the liquid from steaming the fresh clams or the strained liquid from the canned clams, adding enough water to get 6-8 cups total, again depending on the size of the batch I’m making. I like a thinner soup so instead of your tomato sauce I use about 1/2 of a big can of tomato juice.

    I’m in Tom’s camp when it comes to spice so I toss in two or three 5.5 oz. cans of either Spicy V-8 (my preference) or Snappy Tom juice. Mr.. & Mrs. T’s Bloody Mary mix also works in a pinch. I add about 1 tsp., maybe a bit more, of Frank’s Hot Sauce, which I prefer to Tabasco, and a scant 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper. I don’t do the bacon or carrot and am “light” with the potato, using 1 diced Idaho baker (probably about 12 oz.). It’s all a matter of personal preference. It really does work almost as well with clams although it is clam chowder, not conch chowder. In the tradition of making do with what is available and adapting recipes to personal taste, I call it Bahamian Spicy Style Manhattan Clam Chowder. A mix of cultures, traditions and recipes! 🙂

    Hope this helps those without access to conch have some sense of how to substitute clams.

  2. Greetings, We always look forward to the food in the Bahamas before our yearly sail, but are tired of it by the time we leave. I will say food options in many (but not all) islands has improved over the years. One food we never tire of is fried plantain. I’ve tried to cook it here, but mine doesn’t have that nice sweet glaze. any ideas? Janet and Ed on Sable.

    • Hi, Janet and Ed. Thanks for getting in touch. I agree completely — I look forward to Bahamian food, but it gets pretty repetitive, especially if you’re there for any length of time. Thankfully, as you point out, the dining options on many of the cays do seem to be expanding. On GTC, for example, we’ve got Laures Kitchen, which serves authentic Asian dishes. Yum! 🙂

      Ah, plantain. I’ve had a similar experience. What I’ve learned in recent years is that you have to let the plantain ripen until it’s BLACK. Until you think it’s so disgustingly over ripe that it should be tossed in the compost bin. In fact, the most delicious plantains I’ve ever cooked are the ones where they were so ripe, I thought they were beyond hope, but I figured I’d cook them anyway just in case.

      Recently, though, several local GTC ladies (and even one local restaurant owner) shared with me that they use frozen packaged plantain. Obviously, it’s more convenient, and they tell me it’s much more consistently sweet. So, you may want to check the frozen foods sections of your local grocery stores.

      Hope that helps! Keep me posted.

      Amanda

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