The beautiful island of Curaçao is located just 60 miles from the coast of Venezuela. The island reflects not only its Dutch heritage but also the mix of nationalities that have come to form a vibrant fabric of cultural influences. Thanks to Curaçao’s deep-water harbor and strategic location, trade has flourished on the island for centuries, bringing with it foreign settlers attracted to the island’s climate and economy.
A strong Dominican presence along with Haitian, Indonesian, and some 45 other nationalities have created a delicious palette for diners. From tropical treats to spice-infused stews, meats, and creative beverages, the culinary offerings on Curaçao offer an intriguing mix for foodie travelers.
What’s most interesting is that Curaçao is an arid, desert island. Happily, the cactus, which appears all over the island, finds its way into traditional dishes at roadside stands, resort restaurants, and standalone eateries. Most of the fruits that appear on the menus, however, come from neighboring countries.
It had been several decades since I had visited Curaçao and I was delighted to accept an invitation to explore. Here are my favorites for having a dushi (sweet) dining experience on the island.
You wouldn’t think to put smoothies on a “best of” list, but in Curaçao, smoothies are a way of life, or, actually a way of dining. There are many stands scattered by the island’s beautiful beaches, incorporating a variety of fresh fruit into their signature beverages. Exotics like soursop, guava, mango, and tamarind are used to create refreshing icy drinks that are a welcome treat during a heat-drenched Curaçao afternoon.
At beautiful Grote Knip Beach, the Curaçao Playa Knip Smoothies stand has a menu with 22 choices. If you’re planning a day at the beach here – and you should – you can try a few of these as they provide hydration as well as refreshment. My favorite was the unusual soursop-guava combination. Curaçao resident and diving expert Hetty van den Ouweelen told me to try the mango-strawberry as well. I tried both and they were delicious.
Pro Tip: The lines are long, but it’s worth the wait. Each drink is handmade with love and attention.
Bitterballen is the Dutch version of meatballs and are made with veal or beef ragout and coated with coarse bread crumbs. You can find them as a quick snack or appetizer on restaurant menus and even on sunset Champagne cruises. Unlike their Italian cousin, they are distinguished by their spice profile (allspice, cinnamon, star anise) and lightly fried or toasted crust.
Pro Tip: For the most delightful way to enjoy these tidbits, book a cruise from Blue Bay Beach. You’ll also get another surprising island favorite: chicken nuggets plus chunks of Dutch Gouda cheese. There’s a love for finger food in Curaçao.
3. Iguana Soup (Yuana Stoba)
No, I’m not kidding. The rich broth of this island favorite has chunks of iguana in it. Also, yes, iguanas taste like chicken. If you’re a bit more discerning, perhaps they taste more like rabbit or frog. You can try this for lunch at the Old Market (Plasa Bieu) in Willemstad where you select from a menu of local favorites and sit at communal picnic tables in a hanger-like food hall space.
Pro Tip: Take care when eating this because iguana can be quite bony.
4. Cactus Soup (Kadushi)
You might be sensing a theme here. Soups and stews are very popular and are served at virtually every island restaurant. The traditional recipe for kadushi includes cured goat meat, pigtail, beef, and cactus combined with mussels, shrimp, and squid. While it’s called cactus soup, it’s much more than that.
Starting with a fish stock base, the soup is spiced up with super-hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, garlic, and black pepper. There’s a layer of invisible vegetables as well, diced and simmered to a rich consistency with leeks, spring onions, okra, celery, and white onions. Chef de Partie Senfred Alejandro Martina from Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort told me that this generation-spanning recipe takes the best of the island’s rich cultural mélange and ups the ante with the desert cactus found in Curaçao. Don’t be shocked when you try it. It’s green with a slimy texture, but it’s truly delicious.
Pro Tip: If you can gain entry into a kitchen, it’s fascinating to watch a chef remove the spines and skin and then slice the cactus to draw out the meat inside. For greater efficiency, many chefs opt for cactus powder instead.
5. Beef Stew (Karni Stoba)
Beef stews are cooked to a rich finish over several hours. Ubiquitous on most local restaurant menus, this Curaçao original appears in different versions at restaurants like Yvonne’s and Amor y Sabor – Eva in the Old Market. Common to all, the traditional recipe has a rich blend of spices, vegetables, and beef. White onions, celery, leeks, carrots, potatoes, and green peas mixed with garlic, paprika, curry powder, Ketjap Manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce), ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and tomato paste enrich the beef stock base. Finish the stew with your choice of beef, boiled separately for days until it softens, to soak up the savory broth.
Pro Tip: It may seem counterintuitive to have a hot stew when the weather is hot, but you should try it. Spices promote sweating which helps to cool you down.
Combining the tradition of Dutch rijsttafel, a buffet of many dishes with a passion for outdoor grilling, a Curaçao barbeque is an over-the-top, gargantuan feast for carnivores. BBQ ribs, pork chops, beef tenderloin, chicken thighs, chorizo, and beef brisket are featured. However, non-meat eaters can choose from grilled fish and seasoned veggies as well. Served at restaurants like Cor & Don’s BBQ Restaurant and the popular late-night BBQ Express Caracasbaai food truck in Willemstad, the barbeque feast is meant for sharing among a large group. Add sangria or a Dutch Heineken and you have the makings of an instant Netherlands-inflected party.
Pro Tip: Open late, BBQ Express Caracasbaai gives you a full range of Curaçao treats from BBQ to sopi karna (beef stew) and karni sa (salty beef stew). Hungry Americans can opt for a Philly cheesesteak as well.
7. Patat Oorlog
Just reading about this may elevate your cholesterol level. The Dutch favorite patat oorlog is adored in Curaçao. Think french fries turned on their heads, or, rather, smothered to the top. Unlike Belgian frites or traditional American fries served with a dollop of ketchup or mayonnaise, the Dutch version takes both sauces and multiplies the number of toppings. Adding raw chopped onions, peanut sauce, and sometimes curry to the mayo-ketchup mix, the patas themselves are barely visible. It sounds like a weird combination, but it makes culinary sense. Just make sure you have piles of napkins with you. You can find pata oorlog at truk’i pan food trucks on the island and even at the airport.
For a sweet finish to any meal or a lovely snack to enjoy with an espresso or tea, a must-try is Dutch stroopwafels, a sandwich of two waffle cookies filled with a thin layer of caramel syrup. You can buy these in the supermarkets, at Dushi Wafels in Zeelandia, or as a wonderful take-home gift at the Curaçao airport. To get the full experience, take one of the cookies and place it on top of your coffee or tea mug. Let it sit for a few moments to soften the waffle and melt the caramel. Dushi!
9. Curaçao Liqueur
Everyone recognizes the blue liqueur known as Blue Curaçao, but do you know that this local beverage comes in five different colors (clear, blue, green, red, and orange) and a variety of flavors that go well beyond the sweet blue version? Discovered unintentionally by Spaniards who brought over Valencia oranges that turned bitter due to the island’s arid climate, Curaçao liqueur is made from the peels of the resulting smaller Lahara oranges. While the liqueur itself is sweet no matter the color or flavor (try the coffee, chocolate, peach schnapps, and rum raisin versions for a change), you can cut down on its sometimes cloying taste by combining it with tart pineapple juice, soda water, and other mixtures.
Pro Tip: Every bar on the island has its own specialty Curaçao cocktail. Some to consider are the pretty Mangrove Sunrise or vodka-based Blue Lagoon at the Coco Pool Bar or any by the cocktail masters at Landhuis Chobolobo where Curaçao is produced. Just be careful – even though they seem sweet and innocuous, they pack a punch.
10. Local Brews
With a highly developed beer culture, Curaçao offers more than just Heineken, its Dutch standard. At Mundo Bizarro in the trendy and colorful Pietermaai District in Willemstad, the beer list is extensive. Try local faves like Brasa, Polar, Klein, or Brion, which is brewed exclusively for Curaçao. Be sure to stick around for the live salsa music and dancing as well. At the open-air Café Copacabana bar downtown, you’ll find other interesting selections like Montana Red, Montana White, Punda, and Otrobanda. When the weather is hot, as it is in Curaçao every day, there’s nothing better than an icy beer to reset your inner temperature.
Pro Tip: Combine your brew with a snack of bitterballen or chicken nuggets for an afternoon refresher or evening pre-game. You could also drink it as a chaser to a smoothie – Café Copacabana gives you that daring option.
11. Red Snapper
You’d be missing something important in Curaçao if you didn’t try what Curaçao considers to be a national dish. Straight from local waters, red snapper is traditionally prepared pan-fried (piská kòrá) with a side of french fries, rice, plantains, and funchi ( a rich polenta-like dish made from white or yellow corn meal). Add a squeeze of lime to bring out the flavor when dining at the Old Market at wonderful Zus di Plaza, or a side of “secret” red Creole sauce at casual, outdoor Seaside Terrace where red snapper reigns supreme.
Pro Tip: If you’re feeling adventurous, try the lionfish served at Seaside Terrace. It’s tasty, and you’ll be saving the reef as lionfish are an invasive species.
To learn more about traveling to Curaçao, click here: