The Basics of Aruban Cuisine
Aruba’s culinary offerings present a history lesson, highlighting the cultural influences of Holland, South America, and the rest of the Caribbean. Many of the following foods and drinks are enjoyed on special occasions, while others are imbibed much more frequently. Island guests are encouraged to partake in these typical Aruban treats for a genuine local experience.
Coecoei & Ponche Crema Liquors
According to an ancient Venezuelan Indian recipe, Playa Liquor & Bottling Company combines the sap of agave leaves, rum, and cane sugar to produce a dark-red liquor called coecoei, used to spike a variety of tropical cocktails, most notably the Aruba Ariba. The Aruba Ariba is the island’s famous tropical cocktail invented at the Aruba Caribbean Hotel’s Bali Bar in the early 1960s.
Aruba also produces its own signature version of ponche crema by combining egg yolks, cream, rum, and a variety of spices. This rich and smooth eggnog-like beverage is especially popular during the Christmas holiday.
“Balashi Cocktail” is the name affectionately given by locals to their delicious drinking water. One sip will verify the worldwide acclaim the beverage has earned for its quality and taste. Its name refers to Aruba’s Balashi region, where a state-of-the-art desalination plant desalts, purifies, and filters Caribbean seawater. The superior result flows directly from the tap and is also bottled by the Tropical Bottling Company as “AWA.”
Several types of cake are especially popular on the island, many of them served on special occasions such as birthdays, national holidays, religious holidays, and other celebrations. The most traditional cakes include bread pudding (pan di bolo), cashew cake (bolo di cashupete), chocolate torte (bolo di chateau), eggnog cake (bolo ponche di crema), prune cake (tert di pruim), and black cake (bolo preto). Traditionally given to guests at Aruban weddings, bolo preto is made with a signature mixture of prunes, currants, raisins, dates, and figs, steeped for a minimum of six weeks in a strong potion of cognac, port wine, and cherry cordial.
The ubiquity of coconut palms on Aruba provides locals and island guests the opportunity to enjoy fresh coconut water, one of Mother Nature’s most delicious and healthy beverages. Streetside vendors cut the tops off young coconuts right in front of their customers to ensure freshness, handing over the beverage to be sipped directly from the shell with a straw. Parties sometimes feature fresh coconut water, with the famous Coconut Charlie cracking coconuts at hotel parties for 40 years.
Arubans satisfy their persistent sweet tooth with a variety of homemade confections, collectively known as cos dushi. Cocada, a fudge-like candy made with sugar and coconut, is a popular treat alongside two other candies, tentalaria and panseicu, both made with sugar and nuts. Two favorite cookies are the koeki lerchi, a very simple sugar cookie baked to a crunch, and the mancaron, a coconut-infused cookie with a cake-like texture. Other sweet delights include quesillo, Aruba’s own take on caramel flan, and tamarind balls, which are small globes of tamarind pulp rolled in granulated sugar for that perfect balance of sweet and sour. All of these treats are ubiquitously found on the Island—at supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, and even hardware stores.
Fish creole, locally known as pisca hasa crioyo, is a traditional Aruban dish still prepared in many a home and restaurant on the Island. The dish is deliciously simple: pan-fried slices of fresh fish fillet served in a basic gravy of onion, tomato, bell pepper, and garlic. The only thing that could make the meal more perfect is a side plate of pan bati or funchi.
Funchi—Aruba’s own version of polenta—is a thick, cornmeal porridge traditionally served as an accompaniment to rich stews and fish platters. Funchi porridge can also be cooled, cut into flat slices, and fried to a light golden brown as a crispy variation.
Like funchi, pan bati serves as the perfect accompaniment to stews, soups, and fish dishes. Made from cornflour and cooked in a casuela—a traditional clay baking dish originally from Spain—pan bati lies somewhere between a flatbread and a pancake. Compared to an American pancake, it is denser and less sweet.
An assortment of all-natural, made-in-Aruba hot sauces can be found in just about every restaurant and home, plus several grocery stores, on the Island. These hot sauces, known as pica among the locals, pack an intense punch, for they feature the exceptionally hot Madame Jeanette pepper, a variety of chili closely related to the habanero and Scotch-bonnet varieties. The Madame Jeanette’s fire is slightly tempered by green papaya in a particularly unique version of Aruban pica called pica di papaya.
Drier types of firm, white-flesh fish, such as barracuda or shark, are ideally suited for making one of Aruba’s popular seafood dishes, keri-keri. A fish fillet is boiled in salted water, removed and shredded, and then sauteed in butter with tomato, onion, celery, bell pepper, fresh basil, black pepper, and annato spice to create a tasty, satisfying meal.
Aruban families and friends gather together during the Christmas season to make ayacas, a traditional holiday treat adopted from South America. Although no two families use the exact same recipe, ayacas are generally made by smearing plantain or banana leaves with a cornmeal dough; adding a mixture of chicken, pork, ham bits, and spices, plus a potpourri of prunes, raisins, olives, pickles, cashews, piccalilli, and pearl onions; and folding the assemblages into neat little packets to be boiled for an hour.
This Aruban dish, which translates to “stuffed cheese,” is traditionally made by filling the left-over rind of an Edam or Gouda cheese wheel with spiced meat, onion, tomato, green pepper, olives, capers, raisins, and piccalilli; covering the wheel with its original cap; and then baking the stuffed wheel in the oven until hot and bubbly. Some cooks choose to conveniently line a casserole dish with slices of cheese instead of using the scooped cheese shell.
This irresistible half-moon pastry is the national snack of Aruba. The classic pastechi is made by stuffing a pocket of slightly sweet dough with cheese and then deep-frying it to tender perfection. Other savory fillings include ham, beef, chicken, and fish. Pastechis are sold islandwide at grocery stores, convenience stores, and snack bars.
Several soups are especially popular with the locals. Sopi yambo is Antillean gumbo made with pureed okra for a thick, smooth consistency. Sopi mondongo is a traditional combination of tripe, spices, a medley of vegetables, and West Indian pumpkin, or calabas. Sopi oester is the local oyster soup, with each restaurant and household claiming rights to the best recipe on the Island. Sopi cabrito is a bouillon-based soup made with goat meat, garlic, tomato, celery, bell pepper, and vermicelli.
Despite the warm weather, stews are popular on Aruba. The classic Aruban recipes for beef stew (carni stoba) and goat stew (cabrito stoba) each feature meat, potato, onion, garlic, and chili pepper in a tomato-based gravy. Conch stew (calco stoba) is made from the meat of conch shellfish, onion, bell pepper, and a white-wine vinegar stock. Two popular side dishes, funchi and pan bati, are usually served with these stews for a well-rounded meal.