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Pride of the Caribbean – a gourmet guide to Curaçao - Caribbean

Where to stay

Boutique Hotel ‘t Klooster A former monastery with bags of charm, from its yellow exterior down to the antique tiled floors. The 24 guest rooms are arranged around a leafy courtyard with lounging spots aplenty and a bijou plunge pool. Don’t miss the atmospheric cocktail bar housed in a converted chapel. Doubles from £114. Abraham de Veerstraat 12, Willemstad, 00 599 9 698 2650,

Landhuis Jan Thiel In this historic rural hideaway – a plantation, once upon a time – the beautifully renovated buildings marry original wooden beams and shutters with bold splashes of colour. Choose from five rooms, a suite or self-contained cottage, or book out the whole estate for up to 20 people. Watch flamingos wading through the neighbouring salt flats while tucking into a picnic prepared by owner Loeki. Doubles from £119. Kaya Tibourin, Jan Thiel, 00 599 9 513 5903,

LionsDive Beach Resort Curaçao If it’s a beach retreat you’re after, LionsDive comes up trumps – not only for its idyllic stretch of white sand and pampering spa treatments, but also its sustainability credentials, including supporting a local nature conservation programme. Doubles from £187. Bapor Kibrá, Willemstad, 000 599 9 434 8888,

Sandals Royal Curaçao Newly opened on the island, Sandals’ trademark romantic offering is a safe bet for couples looking for their Caribbean dream. A two-level infinity pool and eight restaurants come as standard – or push the boat out with an ocean-view private pool and personal butler service. Seven nights, all inclusive, from £2,180pp. Porta Blancu, Willemstad, 08000 223030,

Scuba Lodge This candy-coloured clutch of buildings is a rare breed in Curaçao – both beachfront and urban. You can have breakfast with your toes in the sand at breezy eatery De Heeren @Sea before tootling into the Unesco heritage centre of Willemstad. Scuba lessons and a dive gear shop are on-site too. Doubles from £129. Pietermaai 104, Willemstad, 00 599 9 465 2575,

Travel Information

A Dutch Caribbean Island, Curaçao is located in the south of the Caribbean Sea and makes the ‘C’ of the ABC Island cluster. Time is four hours behind GMT and currency is the Netherlands Antillean Guilder. Flight time from the UK is around 12 hours, including a stopover.

KLM offers flights from London Heathrow and London City to Curaçao International Airport via Amsterdam Schiphol.
Avianca flies from Heathrow to Curaçao with a stopover in Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport.

Curaçao Tourist Board is your official guide to the island, full of inspiration and information to help you plan your trip.

Where to eat

Prices are per person for a three-course meal, excluding drinks, unless otherwise stated

Hofi Cas Cora International dishes are given a Curaçao-specific spin using what’s grown on site at this regenerative farm meets café, marketplace, sometime yoga studio and brunch spot – try The Eatery’s sorrel sangria or buckwheat pancakes with seasonal jam and coconut. Mains from £15. Landhuis Cas Cora, Reigerweg z/n, 00 599 9 520 0321,

Landhuis Brakkeput Mei Mei With live music and fairy lights in the trees, this atmospheric hilltop plantation house has a raved-about salad bar to accompany grilled meat or seafood mains. From £33. Kaminda Brodernan di Brakepoti z/n, Willemstad, 00 599 9 767 1500,

Mosa/Caña Downtown’s buzziest evening spot offers Latino-Caribbean flavours, craft cocktails and sharing plates, and its ceviches and tacos (try the confit duck filling) come with a line-up of fermented hot sauces. From £38. 41 Penstraat, Willemstad, 00 599 9 691 5429,

Number Ten The chilled-out patio of this restored mansion within the grounds of Landhuis Bloemhof serves an inspired breakfast menu, showstopper sponge cakes and homemade iced teas. Breakfast from £15. Santa Rosaweg 10, 00 599 9 522 8069,

Serka Tanchi Interiors with memory-steeped antiques, well-thumbed books and a squashy sofa make for a relaxed and warm spirit, reflected in a multicultural menu of comfort food. Lunch platters from £13. Rooi Catootjeweg 10, Willemstad, 00 599 9 695 7428,

Tabooshh! Catch sunset at this picturesque harbourfront joint and sample family recipes including keshi yena plus good veggie dishes such as aubergine curry and roasted garlic bruschetta. From £33. Caracasbaaiweg 405-1, Willemstad, 00 599 9 747 5555,

Toko Williwood On Curaçao’s laid-back west side you can try new spins on local goat as pizza topping or in a burger with sweet potato fries. Keep an eye out for the flamingos that sometimes gather in the salt lagoon opposite. Burger and sides from £15. Weg Naar Willibrordus 3, Williwood Toko, Sint Willibrordus, 0 599 9 864 8340,

Vittle Art Dine under the stars, listening to tales of foraging and family as self-taught cook Kris Kierindongo delivers one-off evenings that leave guests not only belly-full of homegrown goodness but with a deeper understanding of indigenous produce and culture. Private dinner (sharing table menu) from £83 including drinks. Seru Fortuna 471F, Willemstad, 00 599 9 515 4511,

Zus di Plaza One of several rustic, open kitchens lining Willemstad’s covered Plasa Bieu – grab a spot on the long picnic tables and tuck into a lunch of steaming karni stobá or giambo. Mains from £8. De Ruyterkade, Willemstad, 00 599 9 461 1515

Food Glossary

Arepa di pampuna
Making the most of the season’s pumpkins, these sweet, dense pancakes are a beloved breakfast dish for Curaçaoans
Fruit smoothies blended with condensed milk and sugar – keep it local with flavours like mango, tamarind or soursop
Salted herring – in old-school island eateries it’s usually accompanied by tutu (see below)
The local spin on polenta, fried in chunky sticks and served up as a side dish
This green soup is a real opinion-divider – for some, it’s a nourishing, nostalgic favourite, while others can’t abide its uniquely slimy texture. The main ingredient is okra, simmered with fish or crab, salted meat and herbs
Cactus soup – the candle cactus that grows across the island is the star ingredient in this nutritious bowl
Karni stobá
A hearty beef stew. Chunks of meat are marinated, seared and then simmered slowly with peppers, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, stock and cumin, with papaya sometimes added for a touch of sweetness. Stewed goat, known as kabritu stobá, is another local favourite
Keshi yena
This storied recipe – created by slaves in the Dutch Caribbean – involves a hollowed-out wheel of cheese, baked with a mixture of spiced meat and a selection of vegetables inside
Pan será
Traditional bread, formed into flat, round buns with a glossy golden crust on top
This popular morning snack is made with crescents of flaky pastry stuffed with any number of savoury fillings (meat, cheese and cod are popular choices) – picture something somewhere between a Cornish pasty and an empanada
A classic side dish made with black-eyed peas and corn meal, mashed with a touch of nutmeg, butter and coconut milk and often formed into a log shape before serving

Food and Travel Review

Filleting lionfish is not for the faint-hearted. With 5in barbs running down their orange-striped backs, nature warns loud and clear: keep away. But professional lionfish hunter Lisette Keus, fresh from spearing half a dozen of the scaly specimens on a scuba dive earlier this morning, is unperturbed. She deftly removes the poisonous spikes (as toxic as cobra venom, apparently) with scissors, while explaining how the invasive species’ negative impact on marine life on the coral reefs surrounding Curaçao. Here in the Caribbean, where lionfish have no natural predators, numbers have surged. ‘Eating them seemed like a pretty good solution,’ she shrugs. ‘Given all the problems with overfishing, lionfish might just be the only seafood you can eat with a clear conscience.’

She’s addressing a small group in the sunlit kitchen of chef Helmi Smeulders, who joined forces with Lisette to launch lionfish cookery classes. Beneath that scary exterior, the firm, white flesh is delicious and versatile – whether finely sliced and marinated in lime juice, passion fruit and tequila for a zingy ceviche, or minced, spiced and stuffed inside dumplings for Caribbean-style dim sum. Even those treacherous barbs, de-venomised by heating in the oven, reappear as skewers for tempura lionfish bites. Lisette’s dangly earrings are, on closer inspection, crafted from delicate fans of dried-out lionfish tail.

In Curaçao, which together with Bonaire and Aruba, forms the ABC islands of the Lesser Antilles, lionfish is still a novel sight on fish stalls and restaurant menus. But the ethos behind it – a waste-not-want-not resourcefulness and creativity – is deeply ingrained in national identity. The reasons for this may not be immediately obvious to vacationers relaxing on the paradisiacal, sandy coves that thread along the eastern coast like a necklace of emerald and gold. Somehow, mercifully, this place has mostly avoided the high-rise, big-name resorts crowded along many other Caribbean shorelines. As for the sea, it’s the same bright, clear hue as blue Curaçao, the liqueur distilled from a type of bitter orange called laraha, which might just be the island’s most famous export.

Head into the interior, however, and the landscape harshens. Sun-baked salt pans are punctuated with volcanic outcrops where only wind-sculpted watapana trees and cacti – in all shapes and sizes, from towering columns of datu to spiky pom-poms called milon di seru – seem to thrive. Reaching Boka Grandi, a look-out point on the island’s north-westerly tip, the coral-stone terrain is almost lunar. Waves hammer at cliff shelves and billow into sea caves. Venezuela is a mere 40 miles away, yet there’s an ends-of-the-earth feel and it becomes easier to grasp why the first European explorers to sail to these shores, the Spanish, dismissed the ABC group as Islas Inútiles. The useless islands.

It was the Dutch West India Company who first spotted potential in Curaçao’s wide, natural harbour, salt reserves and strategic location as a trading post. From the 1650s through to 1863, slaves were shipped here from across the Atlantic. ‘Our people had to be so ingenious to survive, and I think that’s the basis of our culture,’ reflects Damaris Sambo, an Island Ambassador for Curaçao Tourist Board. ‘We call it wes’i lomba, which translates as “backbone”, and to me it’s one of the most beautiful words ever.’

You can’t tell the story of Curaçaoan cuisine without opening this difficult chapter of the island’s past. Take keshi yena, which originated from ingredients typically salvaged from slave owners’ kitchens: tough off-cuts of goat or chicken, rinds of Gouda or Edam. By stewing the meat with raisins, peppers and capers, and baking inside the discarded cheese wheels, the unofficial national dish was born. A family’s meagre weekly grain allowance resulted in recipes for sorghum wheat pancakes and funchi, a polenta-like cornmeal mash – both are popular staples to this day.

A short drive inland from Boka Grandi stands a whitewashed cottage turned national museum. This time-capsule kunuku house, as traditional dwellings are called, illustrates how newly freed slaves lived in the late 19th century. ‘It was all about learning from nature and with nature,’ explains tour guide Rieldo Fos, stepping past the fence of datu cacti (‘good for keeping the goats out’) to shelter from a blazing sun beneath the building’s cornstalk-thatched roof. ‘Guess what this was used for?’ he quizzes, waving a piece of dried-out fan coral – it turns out to be a sieve. Dried-out shells of calabash fruit were made into bowls, tree branches whittled into cooking utensils, and cactus cotton stuffed into a goat’s horn to be lit as a torch.

Today, some 80 per cent of Curacao’s population is of African descent, while the country remains part of the Netherlands. Its multiculturalism is writ large in capital Willemstad. A row of tall, gabled, Unesco-listed buildings along the harbour might have been lifted from an Amsterdam canal-side, save for their rainbow colours and the stalls outside selling tropical fruit and kokadas (cookies made from grated coconut and condensed milk).

From Brión Square, Clarita Hagenaar sets out on a culinary walking tour. First up, a paper bag of black-eyed pea fritters known as kala, ‘a snack that stems from our African heritage, where they’re called akara’, she says. Then it’s boiled, salted peanuts from the vendor locals call ‘the Pinder Man’, washed down with fresh fruit shakes called batidos, blended with milk and sugar. Passing murals of hummingbirds and iguanas, Clarita points out the houses of Jewish merchants fleeing the Inquisition. Besides Dutch and African heritage, settlers from Portugal, France, Britain, Spain and South America have all left their mark.

In Plasa Bieu, the Old Market, simmering vats of goat stew and okra soup again nod to West African roots. Listening to hungry office workers placing their orders – ‘Bon bini! Sopi di piska, por fabor’; ‘Karni stobá, danki’ – it’s clear the medley of influences plays out not only on the plate, but in the language. ‘Papiamentu is our soul,’ celebrated Curaçaoan author Frank Martinus Arion wrote about the island’s creole, which bears traces of Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish.

A knowledge of plants’ healing properties was once key to survival too, herbalist Dinah Veeris explains over hibiscus iced tea in her botanical garden in the quiet Willemstad suburb of Seru Grandi.

‘I remember my mother grinding herbs when we had a fever – white basil with coconut oil to rub into the skin and take away the heat,’ she recalls. ‘Banana di ref (sea purslane) for eczema. Lemongrass for coughs and colds. Our elders knew all these things.’

Now in her 80s, Dinah studied herbal medicine in California before writing a book on her home country’s indigenous botanicals. ‘I knew if I didn’t bring this knowledge to the public, it would die out. At first, people said, “Why are you bothering with all this old stuff?” But it makes me happy to see how younger people are now changing their attitudes towards indigenous ways, planting their own gardens, making their own products.’

Younger Curaçaoans like Femi and Josh Peiliker, who have transformed an abandoned plantation house into a thriving, wind-powered organic farm, cluing up online on sustainable agriculture practices like permaculture, no-till soil and crop rotation. ‘We learned by trial and error,’ Femi admits. Five years on, the abundance of Hofi Cas Cora’s produce proves Curaçao is far from a ‘useless island’. Alongside Caribbean mainstays like papaya, breadfruit and plantain, there are neatly planted rows of cauliflower, kale and cavolo nero, while a peacock struts past paddocks housing various rescue animals. ‘The pigs are our food waste managers,’ Femi laughs, ‘while the donkeys help us maintain the wheat.’ The herd of goats belongs to another local farmer who’s making milk and cheese.

As for the ever-changing menu in their on-site café, housed in a former carriage house, ‘I’m always going to the chefs and saying, ‘I have this in season, what can we do with this?’ When our jackfruit tree ripened, each fruit weighed like 12kg, so it was jackfruit tacos all-round.’ In keeping with their zero-waste policy, cakes and burgers fold in the pulp of carrots and beets left over from juicing. ‘With the kale, if it’s not sold, we make pesto to sell in the farm shop. If the papaya’s overripe, we make jam,’ she says. ‘As an island, we’ve come to depend so much on imports in recent times; there came to be this idea that imported is better. But with everything that’s going on in the world now, hearing about all these supply chain issues, self-sufficiency is more relevant than ever.’

It’s an outlook she shares with chef Helmi, who hosts pop-up farm-to-table dinners at Hofi Cas Cora. ‘There are so many delicious ingredients growing here – not only on farms but in the wild. For example, we have over 10,000 mango trees – I’ll see them in people’s back yards, laden with ripe fruit.’ She’s even taken to driving around with a mango-picking contraption, vaguely resembling a lacrosse stick, as well as keeping her forager’s eyes peeled for lesser-known fruits such as quenepa (Spanish lime), which is akin to a lychee, and vitamin C-rich shimaruku cherries.

Another forager and farm-to-table proponent, Kris Kierindongo, shuns the title of ‘chef’ altogether – too formal, too constricting – preferring ‘culinary artist’. True enough, the private dinners he hosts at his plot of land in the hills of Seru Fortuna, a rural neighbourhood north of Willemstad, are category-defying: part history and ecology lesson, part hands-on cookery workshop. On a tour of his syntropic garden, he explains how this regenerative method of planting crops and trees is based on ‘cooperation not competition’, eventually creating a self-sustaining food miniature forest.

He preps a haul of veggies – his mother and auntie joining in as sous-chefs – mashing beets and sautéing the leaves with garlic. Barracuda is basted with calabash paste, charred on the barbecue and served on a banana leaf, scattered with bright pink edible flamboyan flowers. Coconut husks cast into the coals flavour the food and night air alike with a sweet-smoky aroma; the flesh has been fermented and blended with local honey into ice-cream for dessert.

Gesturing to the items around him, Kris reveals the real driving force behind these suppers: a desire to raise indigenous awareness. He points to the dining table legs made from a local hardwood, a woven panel that encloses one side of the dining area, which reconstructs the framework of kunuku houses. ‘I built all this to give local people a sense of how creative our ancestors were,’ he says. ‘We need to be prouder of this ingenuity, I think. From just cow manure and corn, they made a home for their families – how amazing is that? The same goes for the food.’

Beneath a starlit sky, the coconut ice-cream is served, drizzled with an apple caramel inspired by his grandmother’s bolo pretu – the rich, sticky date cake Curaçaoans bake at Christmas. Kris smiles, child-like, and licks the spoon: ‘Everything here is storytelling. And the story I want to tell? Almost everything you need is around you.’

Words by Estella Shardlow. Photography by Sarah Coghill. They travelled to Curaçao courtesy of Curaçao Tourist Board.

This feature was taken from the October 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.

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