Arubans love to share their culture with visitors. One of their favorite ways to do it is by showcasing their culinary traditions. A small, safe island, there’s no reason that visitors shouldn’t venture beyond the confines of the resorts to explore local restaurants and foods.
Authentic Aruban cuisine, much like the island’s official language Papiemento, is an amalgamation of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English and native Aruban.
One of the best places for visitors to rub shoulders with locals is at the Old Fisherman The-Old-Fisherman in downtown Oranjetsed, where the kitchen turns out a rotating menu of seafood served with Aruban flair. When I visited, the wahoo was an hour out of the sea and the waiter strongly recommended it with a sweet sauce beloved by locals.
The kerrie kerrie, mashed red snapper mixed with smashed potatoes, something akin to a fish cake, is a traditional Aruban dish. Few restaurants can compete with homemade kerrie kerrie. However, the night I dined at Old Fisherman, I was with a native Aruban, who ordered it and pronounced it as authentic as any on the island.
Mama’s Cooking is tucked within in a district largely populated by the descendants of West Africans who were brought to the island as slaves in the 1770s. In a colorful neighborhood with brightly painted houses and a relaxed spirit, this restaurant caters simultaneously to locals and visitors. In fact, the restaurant is so welcoming that the manager will send an employee to pick up visitors at their hotels free of charge.
Come for the fried chicken and the fried grouper, both of which are moist and flavorful and will transform the way you think about fried food. Mama’s Cooking is famous for its cheesecake. Thanks to the Dutch influence this is an island that takes its cheese—in all forms—seriously.
Simply Fish may be part of a resort (Marriott Stellaris Resort & Casino), but don’t let that prejudice you against it.
This restaurant, which exists only after the sun has gone down and the beach chairs have been cleared away, is the island’s top choice for fresh fish. It also happens to be impossibly romantic, situated directly on the sand at the ocean’s edge where tables are surrounded by swaying palm trees.
The kitchen treats rock lobster, scallops, and mahi mahi, freshly plucked from the sea, as reverently as it should — by getting out of the way. Taste the soul of the Caribbean by ordering a fresh fish dish paired with coconut rice, fried plantains and papaya.
Of course, it doesn’t get more local or authentic than street food. Aruba is full of entrepreneurs who have set up market stands or roadside carts, dishing out local specialties. For a truly authentic experience, line up with the locals (a crowded stand is a good stand) to try one of these Aruban staples:
Iguana stew: Iguanas run rampant on the island and Arubans make good use of them in this hearty favorite.
Stoba: This stew is fortified by either goat meat or freshly caught conch.
Funchi: Polenta-like ground cornmeal, this ubiquitous side dish is used for sopping up gravies and sauces.
Ayaka: A savory tamale stuffed with stewed beef, capers, green onions and chopped prunes that’s wrapped in banana leaves looks like a pint-sized present when tied with string, as it typically is. This labor-intensive dish is usually served on holidays.
Keshi yena: This is a perfect combination of Dutch and Caribbean cuisine. An entire two-pound round of red-skinned Edam cheese is stuffed with shredded chicken, green olives, capers and hot scotch bonnet peppers.
Pastechi: Aruba’s answer to the Big Mac. Deep fried dough is stuffed with meat, seafood or Dutch cheese and is properly eaten with your hands.
Cactus: Aruba is a desert island replete with cactus. Although many native Arubans shy away from eating the plant, younger foodies have embraced it. When cactus is fried it takes on a nice juiciness and when added to soups and stews it becomes akin to okra.
Yucca chips: Arubans like a bit of spice. Even basic yucca chips are usually uplifted with cayenne and chile powder.
An inveterate traveler, Andrea Poe writes frequently about travel for national and international publications, including Town & Country and The Washington Post. She’s currently the food and travel editor at The Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest and follow her travel notes as andpoe on Twitter.