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How the Fried Fish Sandwich Became One of Bermuda's Most Important Cultural Staples

Sure, no one can agree who makes the best version of this sandwich, but that’s what gives this island’s culinary delight so much character.

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Sep 7 2018, 7:37pm

All photos courtesy the author

I discovered that fish pon buns were the perfect drunken indulgence as I neared the legal drinking age (18 years old) living on the island of Bermuda. In search of the ideal late-night fried food, my friends and I could often be found devouring the sandwiches in the wee hours of the morning, or alternatively, as hangover cures following a night of rum swizzles.

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The heap of fried fish between coleslaw, hot sauce, and a tartar-smeared bun provides the satiating flavor combos of hot and cold, spicy and sweet, textured and greasy. And with a lighter batter than you’d expect from a fish ‘n chip or fried chicken, it absorbs your drunken decisions without weighing you down.

It wasn’t until I had consumed far too many sandwiches as solely drunken grub, however, that I realized the fish pon bun isn’t the traditional, Bermuda fish sandwich, but rather an alternative to the behemoth version stacked on raisin toast that dominates the island.

Rosa's fish sandwich.

Fish pon bun is English beer battered fish on a bun; it’s not a Bermudian way,” says Lindsay Simmons of Rosa’s restaurant. The born-and-bred Bermudian would know. She is the creator behind the island’s ‘best fish sandwich,’ according to the island-wide competition that Bermuda Tourism Authority hosted in 2015 to settle the ongoing rivalry. Attracting more than 40 entries, the competition was stiff with local favorites like SeaSide Grill, Woody’s, and Mama Angie’s in the top ranks, however, it was Rosa’s—a Mexican restaurant—that took home the title.

While a traditional fish sandwich consists of seasoned fish on homemade raisin bread with coleslaw, tartar sauce and hot sauce, each vendor uses a variation of condiments, spices, and techniques to personalize their offering. Simmons describes the Rosa’s rendition with spicy battered snapper and layers of lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, homemade tartar sauce and coleslaw between locally-baked raisin bread. “I don’t even like raisin bread,” laughs Simmons, “but that’s a fish sandwich.”

As a 22-mile island with a $979.5 million import industry, a British overseas territory, but only 850 miles from North Carolina, and often mistaken for a Caribbean Island, Bermuda’s culinary identity isn’t particularly exceptional. All too often I bring friends down and their first question is, “what food do I need to try?” And while fish chowder and codfish cakes are popular, particularly around Easter, the fish sandwich is a year-round, all-hours of the day affair. In fact, I’d label it the local speciality.

“Fish sandwiches are so traditional in Bermuda because we’re surrounded by water,” says Grannie’s owner Debbie Bean. “A lot of us growing up used to go out our front doors and fish off the rocks, and local fish sandwiches, hence, became a very popular thing.”

Grannie's fish sandwich.

Grannie’s—a hole-in-the-wall, take-out kitchen along Bermuda’s North Shore—opened in 2005 with Bean adding her twist to the classic sandwich by using entirely local and homemade ingredients. “90 percent of what is here is made from scratch: all our baked goods, all the breads, all the tartar, the coleslaw,” says Bean as she kneads whole wheat dough and adds that Grannie’s fish comes from a local fisherman.

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For kitchens who rely on local catch, this is what they attribute to distinguishing their sandwich. “The saltwater is still in the fish in fresh product and it makes a big difference,” says Wesley Furbert, owner of Mama Angie’s, a St. George’s, or “east ender’s” favorite for 36 years.

On the island’s west end, Woody’s also relies on local fish, including wahoo, bonito and grouper, caught by owner Annaliese Tucker’s husband. The iconic hangout offers a full bar, patio and dock entrance for boaters to pull up and grab a bag of fish sandwiches to-go. “Party boats bring anywhere from 25-to-150 people at once,” says Woody’s employee, Dee Proctor.

Woody's fish sandwich.

“During peak times we sell at least six sandwiches a minute,” adds Proctor. “But before all the tourists, and before the sandwich became popular, it was just a family owned business,” she says, recalling the time she spent eating fish sandwiches here as a little girl, more than forty years ago, when Ms. Tucker’s grandmother ran shop.

Another familiar name is Art Mels: a back-of-town fish sandwich with 27 years of history. After moving from its first location in St. George’s, the reputation of Art Mels Spicy Dicy remained; owner Arthur ‘Mel’ Smith never changed his original recipe. His daughter, Samika Morrison, has since taken over operations of the take-out venue, telling me they serve up to 200 sandwiches a day. “It’s made with love,” says Morrison in reference to this daily count. “My dad always said it’s not just about making a fish sandwich, it’s about making people feel welcomed and loved.”

Naturally, while these unassuming kitchens made a name for the fish sandwich in Bermudian culture, restaurants began adding their version of a fish sandwich to their menu. From the iconic Swizzle Inn using white bread with beer battered haddock to Blackbeard’s Hideout grilling their fish with olive oil and Allspice, to the upscale Harry’s using homemade bread and sea asparagus tartar, the option to sit and enjoy a fish sandwich offers an alternative to the classic takeaway locale—where otherwise you may grab a ‘wich for lunch in the park or to bring back to the office.

Blackbeard's Hideout fish sandwich.

And of course, just as I discovered the fish pon bun late at night, there are offerings for the Bermudian staple up until 4am, at Jor-Jay’s food truck on Front Street or fast food eateries, like Ice Queen, where crowds gather for a brief afterparty of their own. If you choose the latter, it’s not uncommon to grab a sandwich for your cabbie, to thank him for making a pitstop on your way out of “town.”

It’s at this hour that you’ll discover the undeniable appeal of this uncomplicated bun of greasy goodness eliminates the complication of finding “the best.” Any of them could be the best damn thing you’ve ever tasted—and that’s what an encounter with the Bermudian fish sandwich is really about.

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