Aruba: a tasting tour of the Caribbean island
Is food the secret of “the most happy island” in the Caribbean? Yes it is, because there is no local food at all.
The first thing you need to know is that there is no such thing as typical Aruban cuisine. Or, at least, that’s the first impression you get. We of the Old World tend to think of traditional cuisine as something that has been cooked by generations, at home and based on local ingredients. Then you arrive in this corner of the Caribbean and realize that any attempt to classify it is pointless and that the secret of the “one happy island”, as they like to call it here, consists in not having anything traditional at all, at least, in the way we know it.
When the conquistadores landed here, they dubbed Aruba the “Islas Inútiles” because it did not appear to have anything to offer in terms of natural resources: no gold or treasures, just a parched land that was impossible to farm. However, the fact that it was a desert in the ocean saved it from the development of plantations and slavery, while it did become a trading base, one that was first used by England and later by the Netherlands – to which it still belongs today.
Since its discovery in 1499, the native Arawak population has grown and interbred thanks to the arrival of Dutch expats and people from other islands and from Latin America. Today, many Americans come here to spend the winter seeking a bit of peace and relax. Of a total population of 100,000 inhabitants, 96 nationalities cohabit with their respective religions and a Babel of languages, making Aruba quintessentially multicultural. Consequently, there is no traditional cuisine but many different cuisines which coexist and mingle.
There is no point in searching for local products since these are few and far between: fish, prawns, goat meat. A few papaya and mango trees, tomatoes and greenhouse-grown mushrooms. The few things “made in Aruba” are hot papaya sauce, Balashi beer and Rum (distilled on the island using imported cane sugar). Everything else arrives by sea from the Netherlands, the United States and Columbia.
So, let's take a look to our selection of unmissable food stops in Aruba if you're a real foodie!
The Creole cuisine of this part of the Caribbean is full of surprises: the Dutch influence is still very evident, excessively so, and there are cheeses like Gouda everywhere. Despite the climate and the thousands of kilometers separating this island from Europe, their taste for sweet mustard, bitterballen, rookworst, frikadelle and other north European foods is amazing – they even drink fresh milk, which sounds somewhat out of place on the Equator. Butter is spread on the local bread, known as pan bati (a sort of maize flour pancake), the same flour being used to make arepas, empanadas and funchi (polenta), all of which are exclusively fried.
Everything gets fried, with no apparent dietary concern, spanking fresh fish, sweet potatoes, bananas and Johnny cakes (puffy flatbread). Instead, from French-inspired “international cuisine” they have adopted escargots in garlic butter, tournedos and lamb chops, served as generously portioned main course accompanied with boiled rice, green bananas and tropical fruit. Then you have fast foods and junk foods, those of the great American chains, and places such as Local Store that serves giant burgers and wraps, chicken wings and even pickles and chips (delicious).
The old Cunucu house
Once a local delicacy, it is now illegal to eat iguana so these large reptiles take their stance outside resorts scrounging for leftovers. Instead, goats still pasture on the island, these being the only animals able to graze on this barren land covered with cactus plants and thorny bushes. As I write, they are making us an excellent cabritostoba, a slowly cooked goat meat stew now only served in a few venues: one of these is the The Old Cunucu House, a family-run restaurant in an original 150 year-old building. Still surviving here are other recipes and products such as calco stoba, whose main ingredient is conch, a large rubbery shellfish cooked in a stew with a lot of butter sauce. These are filling dishes of generous home cooking, for eating accompanied by live music in a garden lit up as though it were Christmas all the year round.
Fish is always to be found on restaurant menus but it often arrives here frozen, before being overcooked and covered with impossibly lavish quantities of sauce. However, it may also be fished locally as the catch of the day: mahimahi, barracuda and prawns from the Caribbean which are immediately fried or, more rarely, grilled or served as fish balls (kerikeri) or crab balls. Having become something of a legend, the restaurant Zeerovers, literally meaning “the pirates” in Dutch, is where ingredients can be bought by the kilo before getting thrown into the deep fryer. The dining room is out of doors where small boats hand over their catch and the tables stand on a pier. The location is fabulous, the service is informal and the food you order is brought to the table in plastic basins. A foodies’ paradise at a price of about 30$ per person, much less than you would spend in a chic restaurant.
The Old Fisherman
The more touristy places are mainly to be found at Palm Beach, Eagle Beach and in the centre of Oranjestad. Practically all of them have the same menu, featuring the same dishes at the same prices. But a few interesting places do exist: The Old Fisherman in the centre of the capital still retains a bit of authenticity, so tourists and inhabitants dine side by side on the (usual) local specialities.
At The West Deck, close to the centre but blessed with a sea view, the atmosphere is pleasant, the portions are more than abundant and the quality higher than average. The cocktails follow the same philosophy and are served in huge pots. This is the ideal place for enjoying a totally relaxing lunch or a dinner with your feet in the sand, sitting under a large tree in the garden.
To meet the requests of tourists, there is an ever growing offering of vegan dishes in town and one of the most elaborate of these is to be found at the Hadicurari restaurant at Palm Beach which, alongside the usual copy and paste tourist menu, there is an extensive vegan selection. Vegan mozzarella Caprese, vegan fish tempura, vegan yam scallops and an astonishing “vegan catch of the day”. Surprisingly nice.
Aruba’s water has been produced by desalting sea water since 1932 and contains no added chlorine, so it tastes pleasant – and lends itself to brewing beer. Balashi is the local brand (you can also visit their brewery) and it is served everywhere but does not come cheap and the bottles contain no more than 200 cc, otherwise it would get warm immediately. Instead, it is not easy to find a nice cocktail: rum is the main ingredient and sweet flavours prevail. The best known cocktail on the island is called Aruba Ariba, a lethal mix of vodka, rum, various fruit juices, grenadine and Triple Sec. If you want to try the best bar, our recommendation is the capital’s brand new speakeasy The Apotheek, which opened in November.
MooMba Beach Bar
Instead, for an evening out, on Sundays everyone meets up at the MooMba Beach Bar, where DJ or live music is played every evening – this is a sports pub on the beach where you can lap up the fabulous Caribbean night-time atmosphere you expect to find on such a holiday.
For a full immersion in the island’s history, the right restaurant is the Papiamento. Elegantly housed inside an old Aruban dwelling dating back 150 years, where it is possible to dine in the courtyard with a view of the splendid swimming pool or in the elegant dining rooms of the house, still furnished as they were in the past. Here you go to eat their famous oyster soup or keshiyena (stuffed Gouda cheese, a Christmas recipe) or Eduardo’s seafood, a dish cooked inside a hand-made clay pot filled with seafood, herbs and vegetables from the garden. To avoid sauces and cream, order their spanking fresh fish thrown crude onto a hot stone to cook.
The international breakfast of a grand hotel will never be quite so lavish as the one they serve at the Shoco Snack kiosk. Empanadas and arepas of maize flour, breaded sausages, meat or fish croquettes and pastechi (crescent-shaped pastries made from wheat flour with various fillings) all inevitably fried, for ordering early in the morning with coffee and tropical fruit juice.
At the Huchada bakery there are also pound cakes, sandwiches, donuts, marzipan biscuits, cheesecakes and American lava cakes. At lunchtime, they serve soups with crisp baguettes and filling dishes. It is in places like this, situated inland and along the main road, that the locals go to eat every day, since they cost less than half what it costs on the coast and the quality of the food is often better. Of course you don’t eat on the beach with background music and everything is decidedly basic but it is fun, clean and good value. If you want to eat like a local, these are the places to look for.