When people talk about the Caribbean islands, Curaçao does not usually pop up right away. Many people have never even heard of Curaçao, except in reference to that blue liqueur used to make Blue Hawaiis. Thirty-seven miles long and less than seven miles wide, Curaçao sits quietly in the Caribbean, calm and serene below the hurricane belt. Its biggest global role is in the oil industry, refining oil from South America for the Royal Dutch/Shell Company. They also export that eponymous liqueur (which, incidentally, comes in other colors besides blue) and Amstel beer. Claimed by the Netherlands in the 1600s, the most defining period for this tiny country was the 17th and 18th centuries. It was during this time that Curaçao was a major slave trading port, which changed the island permanently where customs, language, and food are concerned.
Thirty-five miles north of Venezuela, this desert island is one of the most welcoming to tourists. Overlooked by most Americans in favor of other Caribbean locales, such as Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Curaçao boasts a quiet splendor and a more refined way of life. Being a member of the Netherlands Antilles’ ABC islands (the others being Aruba and Bonaire), about 40 percent of their tourists are European, especially Dutch. Consequently, the atmosphere is Old World. This is perpetuated by the Colonial Dutch décor, which infuses the entire island. Just look around at the pastel-colored plantation homes and the tiled roofs of the public buildings as you walk along the cobblestone streets and you will feel as if you have stepped back in time—and across the Atlantic to Holland!
You may have noticed that I called this a desert island, as opposed to tropical. You will not see many palm trees (those that exist were most likely planted), but you’ll see plenty of cacti, aloe, and divi divi trees. The people—warm, friendly and polite—are a conglomeration of influences. The majority of them speak four languages—Dutch (the official language), Spanish, English, and Papiamentu. Papiamentu itself is a unique blend of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and African languages.
Aside from architecture and language, Curaçao has culinary wisdom to impart. Although much of the food on Curaçao is imported—the arid landscape is not conducive to growing much produce—the cuisine is considered some of the best in the Caribbean. Heavily influenced by Africans and Dutch, Curaçaoan food has been enhanced by the Jewish population there as well. Having been expelled from Portugal, Jews settled on Curaçao and have been major participants in the cultural and business growth of the country, and their culinary practices blended in with those of the island. As a result, Curaçaoan cuisine has its own style and nuances.
What can probably be dubbed the signature dish of Curaçao is keshi yená, or “stuffed cheese.” This dish is traditionally made with chicken, vegetables, seasonings, and raisins, which are stuffed into a scooped-out Edam or Gouda cheese shell. The “top” of the cheese is replaced and the whole is baked for at least an hour. In Colonial times, the Dutch masters would eat the cheese and “generously” donate the shell to their workers. Having to make due with what they had, the poor people of the island came up with this specialty. It is not only visually striking but unusually savory and redolent of Dutch influence. It is a “homey” dish that not many restaurants offer; however, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a few places that do serve it. Gouverneur de Rouville serves a slightly “fancied-up” version, made with prunes and peppers and baked in individual casserole dishes. It is filling, sweetly aromatic, and oozing with a thick cheese top.
Two very popular dishes on Curaçao—and throughout the Antilles—are funchi and tutu. Both based on cornmeal, they are commonly served as side dishes or appetizers. Taken directly from African cuisine, these two dishes are still cooked in the traditional manner. Funchi is similar to polenta, in that cornmeal is poured and stirred into boiling water seasoned with butter and salt. Traditionally, it’s stirred with a spoon-like utensil called a mealie or funchi stick. It’s most often left mushy and served in a mound, although sometimes it is allowed to stiffen and then shaped into dumplings, much like hushpuppies in the United States. Some fancy eateries will shape the funchi into ramekins or other molds. Tutu is like funchi, but with the addition of mashed black-eyed peas, and is mixed with a lélé. Bitterbal is another popular Dutch-inspired dish. Sausage meat is formed into balls, coated in bread crumbs and fried, and is eaten for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Bitterbal and other Dutch specialties can be had at the conveniently located Iguana Café, which sits alongside St. Anna Bay.
A truly globetrotting treat that can be found in the Antilles is the rijstafel. Literally translated, this “rice table” is a buffet table set up with numerous dishes—anywhere from 10 to 25! The accompaniment to these dishes is, of course, rice. This epicurean extravaganza was introduced by the Dutch, who in turn, picked it up from Indonesia, where they also ruled. Condiments are laid out on your table and you can season the food to your liking.
If you’re the adventurous type, you might try something that is considered healthy fare on the island: Sopi di yuana, or iguana stew. It is believed that iguana stew will make sick people well and young men strong. Iguanas may look like prehistoric creatures, but word on the street is that they taste like chicken! I’ll spare you the iguana stew recipe but if you want to give keshi yená a try, they make individual crocks of it at Gouverneur de Rouville on the Otrobanda Waterfront in Willemstad.
Gouverneur de Rouville
Gouverneur de Rouvilleweg 9-f, Willemstad
Tel: +(5999) 462-5999
Handelskade 13, Punda, Willemstad
Tel: +(5999) 465-1056
Photos: © Roberta Roberti
© Roberta Roberti
Originally published on Epicurean.com. Updated and revised 2012.