Aruban food has been influenced by its history and by the diversity of cultures that inhabit the island. It has some very surprising elements. The Dutch left their mark by integrating into island cuisine traditional dishes from another former colony, Indonesia. The seasonings and mainstays of this Pacific country are very much in evidence at nearly all local restaurants and a part of most islanders’ everyday diet.If you have never had fish from this part of the world before, you will find it a revelation. The sweet, moist, clean taste of the local catch can convert the most ardent fish hater.
Basic dishes of the Indonesian kitchen are bami and nasi goreng, which traditionally consist of leftovers and whatever is handy. Meat, chicken, and vegetables are stir-fried and mixed with lo mein noodles (bami) or fried rice (nasi). Each chef has their own recipe.
Most Asian restaurants serve a bami or nasi special, which is a sampling of Indonesian dishes with a local touch. The rice or noodles are surrounded with small servings of sate (pork, chicken, or beef mini-kebabs) with pinda (peanut) sauce, coconut shrimp, chicken, fish, fried sweet banana, sometimes breaded, and other traditional items.
Another holdover of colonial days is a favorite snack, loempia, large egg rolls, second in popularity only to pastechi, a regional favorite. These tender, half-moon shaped, fried pastries are filled with perhaps cheese, or chop suey, curried chicken, fish, or beef. They are not empanadas, which are made with cornmeal, also a popular item. Pastechi is the Aruban way to start the day, usually paired with a malta, a strong root beer.
A very unique dish to the ABC islands is keshi yena, or “Full Cheese.” Traditionally, Edam cheese came in a large ball. It was eaten by cutting or scooping out the soft cheese and leaving the hardened rind, which was then filled with a stew of chicken, beef, or seafood. The halves were then wrapped together in foil to be baked in a slow oven. It was served whole and opened at the table by cracking it with a ritual hammer. Today, any restaurant claiming to serve local food will have this on the menu. The hours-long traditional method of preparation has been replaced by surrounding the basic stew with melted Gouda cheese, which is milder than Edam.
Aruban food could be described as peasant food, based on what could be found regionally and cheap. Stoba (stew) is a mainstay. It can be made of chicken (galena), meat (carne), goat (cabrito, tastes like lamb or perhaps a touch gamier), or konkomber, a sort of local squash. “Pigtail” is exactly what it indicates; nothing is wasted here!
Favorite side dishes include pampona (pumpkin), plantain (fried banana), or funchi (the local version of polenta, very firm cornmeal that can be sliced or cubed). It is often fried and served with melted cheese (you can feel your arteries hardening even as you eat it), which is a beloved treat. Another standby is pan bati, meaning beaten bread; it’s a cornmeal pancake that is nothing like a tortilla, sort of a firm breakfast pancake.
Aruban food really shines in the assortment of fresh Caribbean fish available on most menus and fundamental to the island diet. If you have never had fish from this part of the world before, you will find it a revelation. The sweet, moist, clean taste of the local catch can convert the most ardent fish hater.
Ciguatera, a nerve toxin that is a concern when dining on species high on the food chain, such as snapper or barracuda, is not an issue here. Fish from local waters are completely safe to consume.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Aruba.