Nyan Switi in Suriname

In the melting-pot of Paramaribo, you’ll find the flavours of the world. Jonathan Ali sampled almost all of them

Salad with smoked bang-bang and shrimp. Photograph by Jonathan AliStir-fried beef with vegetables and toasted coconut, on top of jasmine rice. Photograph by Jonathan Ali

I love bang-bang. No, not the song by Cher. Bang-bang (say “bong-bong”) is a type of fish, also known as grey snapper. At the Zus en Zo café in Paramaribo it comes smoked and served in a salad. Think smoked salmon, only better.

The capital of Suriname, Paramaribo is on the Suriname River, a few miles from where it embraces the Atlantic Ocean. Fish features prominently in the city’s cuisine. As befits Suriname’s chequered Dutch-colonial past, this cuisine also reflects an array of nationalities and ethnicities: the flavours of South Asia, West Africa, the Far East, the Levant, Western Europe and the Americas are all to be found here.

Paramaribo is, by Caribbean standards, a fairly large city, and in the week or so I spent there I didn’t come anywhere near to exhausting its dining options. And with those options running the gamut from plush restaurants to take-away establishments to street food, I was never in danger of busting my budget. Wherever you dine, however, don’t forget to utter the local exhortation to good eating, said in Sranami, Suriname’s creole language: Nyan switi!

On a (breakfast) roll

The people of Paramaribo breakfast lightly – a roll and coffee usually suffices. At Krioro, a popular breakfast spot in the city’s centre, the menu board lists an impressive array of ingredients with which to fill said roll.

Try the pom. A dish with its provenance in Suriname’s Jewish heritage, pom features sautéed chicken, citrus juice, and pomtajer, the root vegetable that gives the dish its name, all baked together with onions, tomatoes and other ingredients. Served in a freshly baked, flaky cassava-bread roll, it’s a great way to begin your day.

Cuisine creole

Paramaribo may be in South America, but it’s a Caribbean city, and apart from anything else that means creole food. You can get a variety of good creole dishes at a number of restaurants, and Amaranta is one of them. Lunch here begins with a wonderfully rich cassava soup, flavoured with smoked chicken and beef. Then it’s on to fried fish with pineapple, brown beans (again containing those tasty smoked meats) and white rice. And what’s a Caribbean meal without some fire on the side? Amaranta serves some of the tastiest pepper sauce I’ve ever had. A little goes a long way.

Curry flavour

Like Trinidad and Guyana, Suriname has a significant Indian population, the descendants of indentured labourers who worked the sugar estates when slavery ended. As in those countries, Indian food is popular here. In Paramaribo, the food at Roopram’s Roti Restaurant – its neon-red triple-R logo can’t be missed – is, for a fast-food chain, surprisingly good.

For a great vegetarian meal, however, the place to go is Moti Mahal, which despite its grand appellation (“palace of pearls” in Hindi) is a very simple establishment. The dishes are also simple, and excellent. A plate of curried potatoes with green beans, some pumpkin, aubergine, and your choice of rice or puri tastes divine. Add a bara – a savoury south Indian doughnut – and you’ve practically achieved nirvana.

Dumpling delight

There’s a slew of Chinese eating establishments in Paramaribo, from the “pork shops” serving barbecued pig parts to more conventional restaurants. Feeling for dumplings? Then it’s Dumpling No 1 you want, a restaurant that does exactly what it says on the tin. Sizeable dumplings, steamed or fried, and with a meat or vegetable filling, are the stars here, and the meat ones set you back only one Suriname dollar each.

Tempting though it is to fill up on the scrumptious dumplings, save room for one of the chef’s specials. The stir-fried noodles with pork and greens is a winner.

Turning Javanese

Javanese warungs – informal, family-owned restaurants – abound in Paramaribo. For an unforgettable Javanese dining experience, however, you must make the trek out to Blauwgrond, in the north of the city, for dinner. Here you will find a concentration of more imposing warungs from which to choose.

You could do worse than ask your taxi driver for a recommendation, which is what I did, ending up at the Mirosso Indish. I sat out in the open amidst vine-covered trellises, soft coloured lights and quietly bubbling fountains, as the Javanese waitress in her exquisite costume helped me make sense of the imposing menu.

First up was a fragrant shrimp soup, the jumbo-sized crustaceans spicy and succulent. Next, faced with a choice between various types of nasi goreng (fried rice) and bami goreng (fried noodles), I decided upon a mountainous platter of delicious bami goreng with a combination of chicken, shrimp, egg and vegetables. Finally, I managed to find room for a couple of beef satays, with peanut sauce and Indonesian ketchup as dipping options.

Thirst come, thirst served

It gets hot in Paramaribo. Luckily there’s a lot of fruit, from which fresh juices are made. The selection varies from place to place, and the choices include watermelon, soursop, passion fruit, mango, cherry, and pineapple.

Mushy schaafijs or snocones, made with freshly shaved ice and flavoured with lime and other syrups, can be had all over the city from mobile carts.

If you’re looking for something more interesting, have yourself an excellent Parbo pilsner beer or two. There’s a solid Dutch brewing tradition behind Parbo, which, whether you order a towering jugo or single-serve bottle, always comes with its own special glass.

Talking of the Dutch, their love of coffee extends to their former colony, and it’s not uncommon to see people in Paramaribo’s bars and restaurants enjoying foamy cappuccinos throughout the day and night.

Last supper

Dining out as a lone, first-time visitor to Paramaribo is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but dining with company is always preferable. During my week in the city I’d made a few friends, and on my last day was invited to someone’s house for a small dinner party.

We dined alfresco. The menu touched diverse points of the globe: there was creamy risotto, stir-fried greens, hummus, and – coming home to the Caribbean, and the cooking of the First Peoples – a massive barbecued fish. No, it wasn’t as good as the bang-bang at Zus en Zo. Yet amidst the gentle conversation and the laughter and the Parbo beer being sipped under the stars, it was perfect.