I don’t know about you, but travel to new places makes me hungry. To me, the tastes, textures, and aromas of local food are all woven into the tapestry of a place. Without those unusual dishes that I can’t find on a menu at home, and familiar foods prepared in new, exotic ways, that tapestry loses its vibrance. I love fresh red snapper at home, for example, but how is it prepared on Curacao?
What, a first-time-on- Curacao foodie is sure to ask, is in that delicious-looking stew? How does cactus taste? What in the world is funchi? Iguana stew – really? The true foodie will forage in the street markets, order from the hand-lettered menus on snack trucks, seek out beachside fish shacks and barbeque huts, and slip outside the regular tourist areas to find locally owned restaurants. But most of all, what we really want to know is, what do the locals eat at home?
Here in the Dutch Carribean, the answers to the first four questions are, in order:
1. That stew, or stoba, is a hearty meal typically made with goat, fish, beef, or conch.
2.Cactus has a bland flavor. It tastes nice and crisp when fried; quite slippery in a soup.
3. Funchi is the primary side dish of Curacao. Stir-cooked ground corn, it is similar in taste to polenta.
4. Yes, iguana is very tasty, and not easy to prepare. Lots of teeny, tiny bones. It is usually reserved for special occasions
| This melt-in-the-mouth Caribbean style tamale is made by mixing tender boiled beef with olives, capers, and chopped prunes
To answer the final question, I recently did what any self-respecting lover of food would do if she had the chance: I invited myself to dinner at the home of two Netherlands Antilles locals. He is Curacaoan; she is from neighboring Aruba. It must be typical island fare, I explain, so I can brag to my foodie friends. No problem, they said, but only if they’re allowed to add a very special dish: ayaka. This melt-in-the-mouth Caribbean style tamale is made by mixing tender boiled beef with olives, capers, and chopped prunes. Each one is individually wrapped into a little gift package of banana or plantain leaves, and tied with string. Ayaka is usually reserved for important family celebrations and Christmas. If your host prepares ayaka for you, and it’s not a holiday, you are being honored, indeed.
Starting with appetizers, we’ll have spiced yucca chips, deep-fried and tossed with salt, cayenne, and chili powder. There will be a tray of webo yena (delived eggs) – a cocktail party must – and fresh shrimp, deep-fried and rolled in toasted coconut. We’ll have bolitas de jamon, hors d’oeuvre-size ham balls simmered in a sweet pineapple-apricot sauce.
My Curacaoan friend can’t wait to prepare his piska kora, a garlic and herb-infused red snapper dish. He’s also making a Dutch Caribbean favorite, keshi yena. This rich entrée is a whole two-pound round of edam cheese, stuffed with shredded chicken and savory things like capers, olives and – to wake up the taste buds – scotch bonnet peppers. My Aruban friend will spend the day making the ayaka.
Accompanying this feast there will be a somewhat fancy casserole of sweet yams, cooked with orange peel, brown sugar and butter, then doused in Bacardi rum and set aflame. And, of course, there will be funchi. This ubiquitous side can look like a fat pancake or a pretty little muffin-sized mound; it is perfect to soak up the pan juices and gravies of Curacao’s favorite dishes. Every traditional kitchen has a special three-pronged funchi-stirring spoon. My hostess still uses the one her grandfather craved for her grandmother half a century ago. In the old tradition, a man presented a palu di funchi to his bride-to-be to show his confidence in her homemaking skills. Her acceptance of it symbolized her commitment to fulfill these responsibilities.
“Today you can buy them in the market,” my friend laughs, “and the men I know are perfectly good funchi cooks themselves”. After all this, I can’t imagine having room for more, but my hosts say I’ll find some when they serve their favorite dessert, banana den forno. The fresh bananas will be boiled with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar, and then browned in the oven. They’ll be served hot, topped with ice cream. I found the room. It was all delicious. Eat your hearts out, fellow foodies!