Citizens! Few things spark greater pride within the swelling breast of the Hetman of History, the Viscount of Victuals – YOUR TFD! – than to share unusual and supremely delicious recipes from countries that rarely see culinary blogging love! Today, I invite you to join Me as we virtually visit the proud country of Curaçao and one of their signature dishes – a gouda cheese ‘shell’ stuffed with seasoned chicken breast meat, peppers, capers, raisins and a range of condiments and spices redolent of both the Caribbean and Dutch histories shared by this island nation! Curaçao is NOT just a tasty liqueur – the country it originates from is a fascinating melange of histories and cultures, as you will see below!
Curaçao (Papiamento: Kòrsou) is a Lesser Antilles island country in the southern Caribbean Sea and the Dutch Caribbean region, about 65 km (40 mi) north of the Venezuelan coast. It is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands – together with Aruba and Bonaire, it forms the so-called ‘ABC islands’. Collectively, Curaçao, Aruba and other Dutch islands in the Caribbean are often called the Dutch Caribbean.
The country was formerly part of the Curaçao and Dependencies colony from 1815 to 1954 and later the Netherlands Antilles from 1954 to 2010, as “Island Territory of Curaçao” (Dutch: Eilandgebied Curaçao, Papiamento: Teritorio Insular di Kòrsou) and is now formally called the Country of Curaçao (Dutch: Land Curaçao, Papiamento: Pais Kòrsou). It includes the main island of Curaçao and the much smaller, uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao (“Little Curaçao”). Curaçao has a population of 158,665 (January 2019 est.) and an area of 444 km2 (171 sq mi); its capital is Willemstad.
One explanation for the name of the country is that Curaçao was the name by which the indigenous peoples of the island identified themselves, their autonym. Early Spanish accounts support this theory, as they refer to the indigenous peoples as Indios Curaçaos. From 1525, the island was featured on Spanish maps as Curaçote, Curasaote, Curasaore and even Curacaute. By the 17th century, it appeared on most maps as Curaçao or Curazao – on a map created by Hieronymus Cock in 1562 in Antwerp, the island was called Qúracao.
A persistent but undocumented story says that in the 16th and 17th centuries—the early years of European exploration—sailors on long voyages often got scurvy from lack of vitamin C. According to some accounts, either Portuguese or Spanish sailors who were ill were left on the island now known as Curaçao. When their ship returned, some had recovered, likely cured from scurvy after eating fruit with vitamin C. From then on, supposedly, the Portuguese referred to this as Ilha da Curação (Island of Healing) or the Spanish as Isla de la Curación.
The original inhabitants of Curaçao were the Arawak and Caquetio Amerindians. Their ancestors had migrated to the island from the mainland of South America, likely hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. The first Europeans recorded as seeing the island were members of a Spanish expedition under the leadership of Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The Spaniards enslaved most of the Arawak for forced labour but paid little attention to the island itself.
Spanish rule lasted throughout the 16th century, during which time its original inhabitants were transferred to the colony on the island of Hispaniola. It served as a bridge for the Spanish exploration and conquest of territories in northern South America. The island was gradually abandoned as the colonization of the continent progressed. Spain colonized Curaçao since 1499 for a period of approximately one century as an insular part of the province of Venezuela.
Likewise, one of the oldest references to the name of the island is found in the archive of the Main Public Registry of the city of Caracas (Venezuela). A document dated December 9, 1595 specifies that Francisco Montesinos, priest and vicar of “the Yslas de Curasao, Aruba and Bonaire” conferred a power of attorney to Pedro Gutiérrez de Lugo, resident in Caracas, to collect from the Royal Treasury of Philip II the salary that corresponded to him for his office as priest and vicar of the islands.
At that time there were about 2,000 Caquetios living on the island. In 1515 almost all the Caquetios were transported to Hispaniola as slaves. The Spanish settled on the island in 1527. However, the island was governed from one of the Spanish-Venezuelan cities. The Spanish imported many exotic animals to Curaçao. Horses, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle were introduced to the island from Europe or one of the Spanish colonies. The Spanish also planted various exotic trees and plants.
It was often a matter of trial and error. Not all the imported exotics were equally successful. In general, the cattle fared well; the Spaniards let them roam freely in the kunuku and savannas. Cattle were herded by Caquetio and Spaniards. Sheep, goats and cattle did relatively well.
According to historical sources, there were thousands of people on the island. Agriculture, on the other hand, fared significantly worse. Since Curaçao’s agricultural yields were disappointing, the salt mines did not yield much and precious metals were not to be found, the Spanish called the region the “useless island”.
Over time, the number of Spaniards living on Curaçao decreased. In contrast, the number of aboriginal inhabitants stabilized. Presumably, through natural growth, return and colonization, the population of the Caquetios increased. In the last decades of the Spanish occupation, Curaçao was used as a large cattle ranch. The Spaniards then lived around Santa Barbara, Santa Ana and in the villages in the western part of the island. As far as is known, the Caquetios lived scattered around the island.
In 1634, after the Netherlands achieved independence from Spain following the Eighty Years’ War, the Dutch West India Company under Admiral Johann van Walbeeck invaded the island and the Spaniards there surrendered in San Juan in August. The approximately 30 Spaniards and many of the indigenous were deported to Santa Ana de Coro in Venezuela. About 30 Taíno families were allowed to live on the island and Dutch colonists immediately started to occupy it.
The Dutch West India Company founded the capital of Willemstad on the banks of an inlet called the Schottegat; this natural harbor proved an ideal place for trade. Commerce and shipping—and piracy—became Curaçao’s most important economic activities. Later, salt mining became a major industry, the mineral being a lucrative export at the time. From 1662 the Dutch West India Company made Curaçao a centre for the Atlantic slave trade, often bringing slaves from West Africa there for sale elsewhere in the Caribbean and on Spanish Main.
Interestingly, Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal to Dutch Brazil and the Dutch Republic seeking a safe haven from persecution settled in Curaçao and have made a significant contribution to its civil society cultural development and economic prosperity even to this very day.
In the Franco-Dutch War of 1672–78, Count Jean II d’Estrées planned to attack Curaçao. His fleet—12 men of war, three fireships, two transports, a hospital ship, and 12 privateers—met with disaster, losing seven men-of-war and two other ships when they struck reefs off the Las Aves archipelago. They had made a serious navigational error, hitting the reefs on 11 May 1678, a week after setting sail from Saint Kitts. Curaçao marked the events by a day of thanksgiving, celebrated for decades into the 18th century, to commemorate the island’s escape.
Many Dutch colonists grew affluent from the slave trade, building impressive colonial buildings in the capital of Willemstad; the city is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Landhouses (former plantation estates) and West African style kas di pal’i maishi (former slave dwellings) are scattered all over the island.
Curaçao’s proximity to South America resulted in interaction with cultures of the coastal areas more than a century after independence of Netherlands from Spain. Architectural similarities can be seen between the 19th-century parts of Willemstad and the nearby Venezuelan city of Coro in Falcón State. The latter has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Netherlands established economic ties with the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included the present-day countries of Colombia and Venezuela. In the 19th century, Curaçaoans such as Manuel Piar and Luis Brión were prominently engaged in the wars of independence of Venezuela and Colombia. Political refugees from the mainland (such as Simon Bolivar) regrouped in Curaçao. Children from affluent Venezuelan families were educated there.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British attacked the island several times, most notably in 1800, 1804, and from 1807 to 1815. Stable Dutch rule returned in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic wars, when the island was incorporated into the colony of Curaçao and Dependencies. In the early 19th century, many Portuguese and Lebanese people migrated to Curaçao, attracted by the business opportunities.
The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, bringing a change in the economy with the shift to wage labour. Some inhabitants of Curaçao emigrated to other islands, such as Cuba, to work in sugarcane plantations. Other former slaves had nowhere to go and remained working for the plantation owner in the tenant farmer system. This was an instituted order in which a former slave leased land from his former master in exchange for promising to give up for rent most of his harvest. This system lasted until the beginning of the 20th century.
Historically, Dutch was not widely spoken on the island outside of colonial administration; its use increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students on Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire were taught predominantly in Spanish until the late 17th century, when the British took Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire. Teaching of Spanish was restored when Dutch rule resumed in 1815. Also, efforts were made to introduce bilingual popular education in Dutch and Papiamentu in the late 19th century.
Today, Curaçao is a very popular vacation destination and it’s cuisine is celebrated throughout the immediate region, but is very rarely known outside of the ABC islands and Venezuela. Local food is called Krioyo (pronounced the same as criollo, the Spanish word for “Creole”) and boasts a blend of flavors and techniques best compared to Caribbean cuisine and Latin American cuisine.
Dishes common in Curaçao are found in Aruba and Bonaire as well. Popular dishes include: stobá (a stew made with various ingredients such as papaya, beef or goat), Guiambo (soup made from okra and seafood), kadushi (cactus soup), sopi mondongo (intestine soup), funchi (cornmeal paste similar to fufu, ugali and polenta) and a lot of fish and other seafood.
The ubiquitous side dish is fried plantain. Local bread rolls are made according to a Portuguese recipe. All around the island, there are snèks which serve local dishes as well as alcoholic drinks in a manner akin to the English public house.
The ubiquitous breakfast dish is pastechi: fried pastry with fillings of cheese, tuna, ham, or ground meat. Around the holiday season special dishes are consumed, such as the hallaca and pekelé, made out of salt cod. At weddings and other special occasions a variety of kos dushi are served: kokada (coconut sweets), ko’i lechi (condensed milk and sugar sweet) and tentalaria (peanut sweets).
The justifiably famous Curaçao liqueur was developed here, when a local experimented with the rinds of the local citrus fruit known as laraha. Surinamese, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Dutch culinary influences also abound. The island also has a number of Chinese restaurants that serve mainly Indonesian dishes such as satay, nasi goreng and lumpia (which are all Indonesian names for the dishes). Dutch specialties such as croquettes and oliebollen are widely served in homes and restaurants.
Now – as to the keshi yena dish itself! 😀
Keshi yena is an Aruban and Curaçaoan main course dish, consisting of a large round ball of cheese stuffed with spiced meat (often chicken), served steamed or baked. The dish is believed to have originated from Dutch Empire slaves of the Dutch West Indies stuffing leftover rinds of Gouda or Edam cheeses with meat table scraps.
The name “keshi” is reported to be the Papiamento language rendering of kaas, “cheese” in Dutch. Modern keshi yena recipes typically include olives, raisins and chicken as ingredients in the stuffing. While some modern cooks prepare keshi yena in ramekins, others stick to the traditional method of baking the dish in an empty can of sausages, or by wrapping the cheese in plantain leaves.
Keshi yena shares an extremely close culinary DNA profile with the famed Yucatecan dish of queso relleno (both were the results of Dutch traders in the region trading Gouda cheese to the locals) but differs in spicing and a few of its ingredients and the Curaçao version is typically not sauced (unlike the dual sauces used in the Mexican dish).
As noted on visitaruba.com (Aruba shares this dish with Curaçao):
Frugality was the keynote of island living in earlier times, when provisions had to last from the visit of one sailing ship to the call of another. In this classic recipe the shell of a scooped Edam (the thin rind remaining after a family had consumed the four pounds of cheese) is filled with spiced meat, then baked in the oven or steamed in the top of a double boiler. For these methods of preparation the red wax must be removed from the empty shell after is has been soaked in hot water.
In a more dramatic version the filled Edam, with the red wax intact, is. tied in cheese cloth and suspended in boiling water for twenty minutes. The wax melts away in the hot water, leaving a delicate pink blush on the cheese.
The Curaçao version of this recipe uses an ingredient that is very notably absent from the Yucatecan variant – it uses a sweet, sour and mildly mustardy relish known as piccalilli – it is a familiar ingredient to cooks in the Southern part of the U.S. and in the UK and is usually very unfamiliar elsewhere. You can make your own or use a top-quality jarred version – I like this brand. As for the ketchup required by the recipe, I only endorse one brand and this is it.
Citizens – this is a rich and supremely delicious recipe from a region of world cuisine that is criminally under-represented: I hope you see fit to try this without delay as a card-carrying member of TFD Nation! 😀
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