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All countries have their holiday traditions. For most, food plays a big role in those traditions. Aruba is no different.
We love food all year round, but during the holiday season, it’s also about our love for the people around us. You can taste the love in every version of a roasted Christmas ham. All are similar but unique to each family. It reminds us of when we were kids, sitting at grandma’s house. For me, at least, Christmas food on Christmas Day is what made me feel both homesick and joyful at the same time when I was living abroad. Cooking the same recipes I grew up with, but now for my own family. That is what I want for you. To feel like you’re here in Aruba, wherever you are, this holiday season.
Below I collected some traditional Aruban holiday foods that you can add to your special occasions this year. Some are even my personal family recipes! Much like thanksgiving, our tables are filled with different yummy foods to fill our plates. Who knows? Maybe next year you’ll get to experience it all right here, on the One Happy Island. For now, you should try making at least one of these delicious recipes.
Let’s start with a simple one! It’s a crowd-pleaser, and kids will love this one. It’s a safe choice to have on the table for the picky eaters in your group of family and friends.
Season your whole chicken with Adobo (all seasoning), garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. What I like to do is mix some soy sauce with red wine in a separate bowl and brush it onto the chicken. Add some inside the chicken too! I do this all in an aluminum tray (for easy cleanup). Leave the chicken overnight in the fridge to allow the flavors to really get in there. When it’s time to roast, take the chicken out of the refrigerator for at least an hour before. Rub some unsalted butter over the entire chicken. Cover the tray with aluminum foil and bake for about 30 minutes at 350F. After that, remove the foil and let it continue cooking until golden brown. Turn it and allow the other side to get golden brown too. Do you see all the juices at the bottom of the tray? Well, let me give you a little tip. The pan bati you see below in the recipe list? You dip those in that sauce. You’re welcome.
In Aruba, we don’t do stuffing like in the U.S. We stuff our chicken with ground beef. Meat in meat. Sounds crazy, right? But it’s delicious! But this is not your everyday ground beef recipe. This one has an Aruban holiday twist.
With some butter, brown your ground beef with Adobo, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, a bit of soy sauce, and ketjap manis. When the meat is 3/4 cooked through, add some tomato paste and annatto with a little bit of water. When your stuffing is cooked through, lower the heat and add your olives, raisins, cashews, capers, prunes, and pearl onions. Congratulations, you have now made an Aruban-style stuffing. Now, most of us don’t actually stuff the chicken with it but serve it on the side. We call it stuffing for some reason… Well, we stuff our mouths and bellies with it, so I guess the name still holds.
Now, this is one of the favorites among many Arubans. Leftovers are eaten for breakfast with eggs or put in bread. It is a must-have on any Christmas plate. The Christmas ham, or as we call it, “ham di Pasco” is the ultimate holiday traditional food.
Boil the ham (skin removed) with cloves for about 1 hour. While the ham is cooking, we’re going to prepare the sauce. Add 4 cups of water to a pan and bring to a boil. Add 2 cups of brown sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add 1 tbsp of mustard, the crushed pineapples (with juices), cherries (with juices), and 1 tbsp of vinegar, and let simmer. After it has simmered for a little bit, add 1 tbsp of cornstarch. Don’t forget to mix your cornstarch first in a little bit of cold water to avoid clumps! Add the ham to an aluminum tray and pour some of the sauce over it. Bake the ham at 350F for about 30 minutes. Then turn it over, pour the remaining sauce, and roast it for another 30 minutes.
Popularly imported products from Holland, like Gouda cheese, have led to several local dishes, including Keshi Yena, which translates to “stuffed cheese.” Traditionally made by filling the left-over rind of an Edam or Gouda cheese wheel with spiced meat and other ingredients, covering the wheel with its original cap, and then baking the stuffed wheel in the oven until hot and bubbly, Keshi yena is now usually made in a casserole dish.
Butter a deep 10-12 inch glass baking pan and line the pan with 2/3 of the sliced Gouda. Melt 4 tbsp—butter in a skillet. Add onions and fry until golden brown. Add tomato, pickles, green pepper, capers, garlic, raisins, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and chopped cashew nuts. Spread the mixture on top of the sliced Gouda and cover with the remaining cheese slices. Place the pan into a larger baking pan, and fill the larger pan with water about halfway up the sides—Bake in preheated 350-degree F oven for 30 minutes.
Originally from Venezuela, the ayaca is now a holiday staple in Aruba. Most Arubans, however, stuff their freezers with a few to be eaten throughout December, while others eat ayacas even throughout the year. Ayacas are made with cornmeal dough and stuffed with different meats, the most popular being shredded chicken and a bunch of other delicious ingredients. This is then wrapped in plantain leaves and frozen until ready to be eaten. You can microwave an ayaca, but the best way to prepare it is to boil it for about 45 minutes. This keeps the moisture locked inside.
Ingredients: Banana Leaves
Boil the chicken with some bouillon until cooked through. Remove the chicken from the heat and shred. Put the shredded chicken with some of the remaining bouillon stock in a cooking pot and season it with oregano, cumin, pepper, and garlic powder. Add butter, garlic, chopped onions, green peppers, celery, sliced ham, some hot pepper to taste, and sugar. Put the pot on medium-high heat and cook the chicken; add a little vegetable oil if necessary; when all the ingredients are well mixed and cooked, add tomato paste, sugar, raisins, and some capers and let it cook a little bit more. You can add some water if needed. Add salt and pepper to taste. Please be careful when adding salt. The chicken may already be salty enough because of the bouillon and capers. When done, remove from heat and let the chicken cool down.
Wash the banana leaves thoroughly with water. Rub the leaves well with a wet towel and then dry them with a paper towel or dry towel. Sort the leaves into two types:
With a scissor, remove the hard center of the leaf and cut out the sizes of the leaves. In some areas, you can already buy the leaves ready to use. If you desire, boil the leaves for about 2 minutes to loosen them up if folding is difficult.
Put a pot on medium heat and add the butter and the annatto. Allow the butter to melt and the annatto to release its color in the butter. Remove from heat and let it cool down. In a large pot, add the corn meal and slowly add the chicken stock to it on medium-high heat. When the content starts to cook, slowly add the butter and the annatto from the other pot into the larger pot. Let the content cook for a bit, and keep adding chicken stock if the content becomes too solid. Stir the content with a wooden spoon. When the content is fully cooked and has the consistency of bread, please remove it from heat and let it cool down. Make even size balls with the dough and let it sit. The dough balls need to be big enough to form 8 to 10-inch circles that are 1/4 inch thick when you flatten them out.
Let’s put everything together, shall we?
Wrapping the ayaca
Pan bati is the perfect accompaniment to stews, soups, and fish dishes. But guess what? It’s also the perfect side for our holiday feast above. Made from cornmeal and flour, pan bati lies between a flatbread and a pancake. Compared to an American pancake, it is denser and less sweet. Perfect for dipping, scooping, and a better alternative to licking your plate at the dinner table.
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. The batter should be like a thick pancake batter (add a tablespoon of water if needed to achieve consistency). Arubans traditionally use a casuela, a clay baking dish, but a griddle lightly coated with cooking spray works just as well. Pour ¼ cup of batter for each pan bati, cooking on medium heat and flipping when it gets bubbly. Both sides should be a light golden brown. If you have leftovers, they are the perfect late-night snack with some melted cheese!
Which one of these are you going to make during the holiday season?