Sunday, December 13, 2009

I love the bustling downtown of Willemstad, Curacao, with its pastel colored Dutch Colonial store fronts built in the late 1700s and whenever I visit the island, a haven for food lovers, I wander to the flotilla of boats moored along the quay of Santa Anna Bay. Having made their way from Venezuela early in the morning, the boats are laden with fruits, flowers, vegetables as well as a multitude of fish from the Caribbean waters. Here buyers hawk fresh conch, red snapper, Wahoo or shrimp to women carrying plastic bags making their selection for dinner that night. Mounds of coconuts, bitter oranges, rashes of sugarcane, soursop, guavas, callaloo and breadfruit are heaped in quickly assembled stalls for shoppers to smell and feel before making their purchase.

The Floating Markets of Curacao, a part of the island’s commercial life for several centuries, are an everyday occurrence, open from 6 a.m. to noon when the sailors return to their homeport.

The local cuisine of Curacao, which is part of the Netherlands Antilles, is called kuminda krioyo, Dutch for hearty fare, and while there is an emphasis on fresh fish as in most of the Caribbean, there are several local dishes that are unique and not usually found anywhere else. One is keshi yena, minced chicken mixed with olives, capers, pimentos and raisins and stuffed between layers of Gouda. The mixture is placed in warm water, like a flan, where the steam causes the flavors to meld. Other local dishes include (yuana stoba), stewed iguana (think chicken with lots and lots of tiny bones), conch, fried plantains and polenta.

And because the Dutch traded with the mid and far east, there are Indonesian influences here also. Most well known is the rijstaffel or rice table. An oblong metal container is placed upon a table; it’s inside containing lit candles that heat the surface. Various satays, kabobs and other meats are set on top of the metal and sauces and bowls of rice are served on the side. The dinners share a communal meal that is also accompanied with vegetables and fruits.

In Westpunt, a small village nestled atop volcanic rock pounded by the surf on the western end of Curacao, Jaanchi Christiaan runs the restaurant his father started in 1936. Here he serves what some say is the island specialty—iguana. One such dish is called kuminda krioyo or iguana stew. There’s also fried iguana (for both think chicken with too many bones). Other menu items may have more appeal to an American appetite such as the freshly caught fish, shrimp and conch, chicken and funchi (polenta). Of course there is the stewed goat.

Did we say menu? Forget it. Jaanchi is part showman, part chef.

“I am the menu,” he announces rattling off whatever he felt like cooking that day.

Open on two sides, the place is home to more than 100 “sugar thieves,” tiny yellow birds that roost inside feeding on bowls of sugar put out by Jaanchi.

“They won’t touch saccharin,” he says with a touch of pride.

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