Delicious Living Blog

Aruba’s food scene is as diverse as its terrain

by Hannah Esper
Nov 14, 2017

A culinary tour reveals the cultural influences that pervade the island’s local cuisine.

Aruba is said to be an island of contradictions. It sits neatly askew from its Caribbean neighbors as part of the Leeward Antilles, just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, and strives to offer something remarkably different from the traditional Caribbean travel experience. Whether it accomplishes that or not is decided by those fortunate enough to visit the island paradise.

Of course, many go just for the pristine beaches. Among the palm trees and dense band of hotels, white sand lines the turquoise sea on the southern coast of the island, pleasing water adventurers and sunset admirers. But the sandy beaches eventually converge with rugged desert in the wild interior of Arikok National Park, which consumes 18 percent of the island and is best explored by all-terrain vehicles. Unlike the tourist-populated southern side, the island’s northern and eastern coasts have been left largely untouched by humans. The relentless trade winds from the north cause rough waves to crash upon the rocky shore. Cacti carpet the ground.

Dichotomy also exists in the island’s culinary culture. As part of a 3-day trip to the island, courtesy of the Aruba Tourism Board, I had the pleasure of exploring the island’s varied and sophisticated restaurant scene for Eat Local Restaurant Month. I ate my way around the island’s eclectic selection of locally caught seafood (wahoo and Mahi Mahi are popular catches here, which I enjoyed at local spots Pincho’s Bar & Grill (left), Papiamento and Passions on the Beach) as well as the impressive molecular gastronomy creations of Chef Urvin Croes of The Kitchen Table and White Modern Cuisine.

The island’s food scene reflects its cultural melting pot of the 90 different nationalities present. Dishes are dominated by fresh local seafood and accentuated by Caribbean, Italian, Mexican and Creole flavors. But what is most surprising, and delightful, is the Dutch influence on the island’s food culture. Once a Dutch colony, the island gained autonomy in 1986 but remains part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The island’s nationals are Dutch citizens. This history is evident in the Aruban cuisine, with local dishes presenting an interesting mix between Dutch and Caribbean-style food.

This influence appears in unsuspecting ways. While on the culinary tour, I sipped a local cocktail called Aruba Ariba, a fruity concoction featuring a local liquor called coecoei, which was accompanied by a plate of Gouda cheese and green olives. Next to the stand of local rum in the Aruba airport, I was amused to see a floor-to-ceiling refrigerated display of assorted Dutch cheeses, enticing me to take a piece of Aruba home with me. Oh—and croquettes were served in some fashion at almost every restaurant alongside the expected seafood appetizers.

One food that exemplifies the cultural dualism is the Keshi Yena, which literally translates to “stuffed cheese,” and is traditionally made by filling the leftover rind of a Gouda or Edam cheese wheel. Alternatively, it can be made by lining a casserole dish with slices of cheese.

If you can’t make it to Aruba this winter, bring Aruba into your home by cooking up this traditional dish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keshi Yena

For chicken mixture:                                                    

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups diced cooked chicken (dark meat)
  • 1 large tomato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 large red pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • ½ red onion, finely chopped
  • 8 large stuffed green olives, sliced
  • 1 12 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 14 cup raisins
  • 1 tablespoon mustard
  • 12 cup ketchup
  • 12 teaspoon ketjap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), or mix soy sauce with brown sugar or palm sugar
  • 1 cup chopped cashews
  • 1 teaspoon fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 teaspoon piccalilli relish (optional)

Directions:

  1. In a sauté pan over medium high, heat olive oil, red onion, green pepper, red pepper, garlic and cashews until onion is translucent.
  2. Add chicken, ketjap manis, tomatoes, piccalilli, capers, raisins and ketchup; cook for 7-10 minutes.
  3. Add salt and pepper to taste and top with cilantro.

For Gouda cheese sauce:

  • 2 cups Gouda cheese, shredded
  • ¾ cup vegetable stock
  • ¾ cup cream cheese
  • ½ cup boiled Idaho potato mash
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper

Directions:

  1. In a medium sauce pot, heat the vegetable stock and heavy cream until simmering.
  2. Add the Gouda cheese and stir with a wooden spoon.
  3. Add the potato mash and stir well.
  4. Add cream cheese and keep stirring until it becomes a smooth, creamy sauce.
  5. Finish with white pepper.

Once each component is complete, add chicken mixture on top of cheese sauce. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can make the garnish, Ciboyo Tempera (Aruban pickled onion). To make, mix all the following ingredients in a plastic container with cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

  • ½ large red onion, julienned 
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • ¾ cup water
  • 5 star anise pods
  • 8 cloves
  • 1 tablespoon Madame Janette (Aruban hot pepper) or substitute with any mild hot pepper
  • ¾ cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Photo credit: Licensed by the Aruba Tourism Authority, aruba.com

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