Seeking Out Traditional Aruban Food
Seeking Out Traditional Aruban Food
At tropical resorts, especially in colder seasons, the temptation is to stay put, grab a beach chair and chill, moving as little as possible and, usually, eating at one of the restaurants on the property.
For those of us who live to eat, however, we like to split our dining time between on-site restaurants and local places off-property. Whether inside or outside the resort, our goal is the same: to sample, and learn about, as much local food as possible.
On a recent trip to Aruba, we stayed at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort, where we made the acquaintance of Chef Matt Boland. Boland was kind enough to introduce us to some delicious local foods – some from his kitchens, others from the local area – that many visitors to Aruba may never have a chance to try.
According to Boland, what makes Aruban food so special is “the unique combination of cultures and ingredients from the Netherlands, Indonesia, Africa, Colombia, Peru, Haitian West Indies, Venezuelan…we chefs take all that and go wild with it!”
Johnny cakes (Saco Felipe, St Maarten Straat, San Nicolas, Aruba). Saco Felipe is a small food stand, usually with a line of locals in front. It doesn’t open until 6:15 pm. The food is mostly fried: ribs, chicken, potatoes and Johnny cakes. These fried biscuits were initially dubbed “Journey cakes” because you could put them in your pocket and take them with you. Johnny cakes are unpretentious and satisfying; I would take them – along with fries and Saco Felipe’s supremely delicious chicken – over a fancy sit-down restaurant meal any time of day…or night. What’s the secret? According to Boland, “the meat is rubbed and marinated with Ketjap Bentang Manis, sweet Indonesian soya.” This condiment was brought to Aruba by the Dutch, who also colonized Indonesia.
Ayaca (Gilligan’s Seafood Shack, J.E. Irausquin 81). Some of the best tamales we’d ever had are ayaca, a tamale variation that originated in Venezuela. Aruba is just a few miles north of Venezuela, so the foods of both countries share a common heritage. The ayaca at Gilligan’s Beach Bar & Grill, explains Boland, “use yellow corn meal with chicken broth for the base. Then we add creole chicken, ham, pickled onion, prune, green olive and capers,” a salty-sweet-savory mix with a lot of dimension and lush flavors. Ayaca are steamed and then served in a banana leaf; in the southern Caribbean, the leaf is sometimes held over a smoldering fire, which in turn imparts a deep, smoky flavor to the corn meal. Ayaca is big during Christmas in Aruba, which is quite appropriate, Boland explains, because “it’s wrapped up like a Christmas present!”
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Dragon fruit (Boca Dushi Snacks, Cayo Ernesto Petronia). You’ve probably seen Dragon fruit in U.S. grocery stores: about the size of a Nerf football, the thick, red/white/green dragon fruit skin has pointy little green fins sticking out all over. Inside, dragon fruit is usually white flesh flecked with tiny black seeds. Aruba’s Boca Dushi Snacks makes many of Aruba’s favorite fried foods (Johnny cakes stuffed with cheese, pork belly, empanadas and sausage), but what blew our minds was the variety of dragon fruits they laid out for us. There are discernable taste and textural differences between the ones with pure white inner fruit, which we sometimes see in domestic markets, and the ones with darker, more purple flesh. The more purplish ones seem sweeter and lusher, complementing Johnny cakes and other fried items on the menu.
Pannekoeken, pan bati, and bacalao (Laguna Restaurant, J.E. Irausquin 81). Pannekoeken is a Dutch pancake (you probably guessed that, right?), and Boland prepared it for breakfast with strips of bacon embedded in the dough; it’s frequently drizzled with Dutch syrup. Pan bati is a well-recognized Aruban specialty, and the name translates to “smashed bread.” Pan bati can be eaten as a main course or as a side dish; we enjoyed it alongside Johnny cakes and bacalao, a cod preparation with a long history in Caribbean cuisines. Cod was once immensely abundant in the Atlantic and elsewhere, and explorers from the Old World carried it with them wherever they went. The fish was salted to preserve it on long voyages and then, before cooking, re-hydrated and seasoned.
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Grouper (everywhere in Aruba). It may surprise you to find grouper on the list of Aruban foods, but we should specify we’re talking here about REAL grouper. You can get what’s called grouper in the United States, but here’s the thing, according to the University of Florida: “because of its…popularity among consumers, and limited supply, grouper has been the target of species substitution and mislabeling by some wholesalers, restaurants, and retailers.” Some of this fake grouper may even be tasty, but when we had grouper in Aruba, where people who live by the sea know what it’s supposed to taste like and will accept no substitute, we were knocked out by its delicacy and depth of flavor.
Keshi Yena (Laguna Restaurant, J.E. Irausquin 81). Keshi yena means “filled cheese” in Papiamento, the Aruban indigenous language. Keshi yena is made with a somewhat hard half-hemisphere of a round Edam, with most of the cheese removed; the remaining cavity is filled with a stew of meat and vegetables. The heritage of the Aruban dish is clear: the island was “settled” by explorers from Holland, and Dutch traditional foods are still quite common. Sometimes the Dutch food in Aruba is served pretty much as it would be served in Europe; other times, the Dutch food merges with indigenous Aruban foods. If you don’t have a half Edam handy, you can prepare keshi yena by putting a stew of meat and vegetables in a ramekin, laying slices of Edam cheese over the top and baking it all, which is the way Boland prepared it for us. It’s not always on the regular menu, but if you ask nicely, and in advance, Boland might be able to prepare it for you. Tell him you heard about it on this site.