The name Curaçao evokes the color blue. Blue sea water lapping at white sand beaches, blue skies above multicolored Dutch-Caribbean architecture, but most of all, the iconic bottle of Blue Curaçao, an essential component of any bartender’s collection.
Blue Curaçao does indeed hail from the island of Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles, a series of islands located just north of Venezuela. It’s made from Laraha oranges, a derivative of Spanish colonizer-introduced Valencia oranges that turned small and bitter in the Caribbean sun. A distillery continues to churn out the blue liqueur to this day. Many duplicates of Blue Curaçao exist, since the name could not be trademarked, but the original comes in a distinctive round, rough bottle.
Despite the ubiquity of Blue Curaçao, other cuisine coming from this country remains remarkably more under the radar. It could be that defining Curaçao’s cuisine isn’t easy – just take a look at the cultural influences mentioned in the previous paragraph: Dutch, Venezuelan, Spanish, Caribbean. This list doesn’t even include the native Arawak people, West African, Sephardic Jewish, and other cultures that have made their mark on this unique island.
In fact, 54 different national cultures are officially represented among the island’s 150,000 residents. The local creole (which is a term for a language developed from a mix of other languages) is called Papamiento, and is derived predominantly from Dutch and Portuguese. Like the language and people, Curaçao’s cuisine is diverse, vibrant, and always a reflection of the unique place it comes from.
Wherever a culinary exploration of Curaçao takes you on the island, there is always a rich story behind the meal. The influence of colonizing cultures is found in ingredients and dishes, as well as in how those oppressed by colonizers adapted to spartan resources when it came to food. Ask locals about food, and they will also deliver advice on how to cook, which tools to use, and the best ingredients, making food as much a part of Papamiento as any of the other languages it’s drawn from.
A trip to the capital city of Willemstad reveals food options as varied as the colors of the colonial architecture. For breakfast on Otrabanda, near the famous Queen Emma Bridge (also called the Old Swinging Lady), locals often pick up a batido from Ander’s Shakes. This is a fruit shake that is substantial enough to be a full meal, and offers a way to experience South American flavors. It’s often paired with a spicy falafel-like snack called kala, which is made from mashed black eyed peas blended with saltwater and habanero, then fried in hot oil like a donut.
Crossing the bridge takes you into Punda, where the fruit and vegetable market can be found. It used to be a floating market before Venezuela ceased shipping goods to the country. Now locally-grown produce is for sale on land, alongside sweets made and sold by local women. These “sugar breads” include ground coconut, cashews, peanuts, condensed milk, and more – it’s hard to go wrong with any of the options. A freshly opened coconut is the best way to beat the heat.
But the island’s cuisine is not limited to street food. Restaurants, food tours, and culinary experiences abound in Curaçao. Dishes with African and Caribbean roots can be found at the Zus Di Plaza, which serves okra and goat soups, among other traditional dishes. At night, the place in Willemstad to check out is the Bario Urban Street Food Park, which has great food and great vibes. Make sure to eat something with lionfish in it; this invasive species is quickly becoming traditional cuisine in an attempt to cull it from the Caribbean.
Another way to get in touch with the diversity of Curaçao’s cuisine is to experience a meal with Vittle Art. Owner and executive chef Kris Kierindongo emphasizes indigenous ingredients in his cooking to showcase the power of simplicity, and to demonstrate the identity of the island through gastronomy. A Vittle Art experience is more than just enjoying a meal from an expert; it’s a transfer of knowledge and the creation of community through cooking and food.
Curaçao’s cuisine may have a global level of influence and input, but that’s part of what makes it so distinct. Suffice to say, there is a lot more to it than blue alcohol.