On an 85-degree afternoon on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a casserole of savory minced meat covered in gooey, melted cheese might not be your idea of a weather-appropriate entrée. But keshi yena is more than just a hot meal. It’s a piece of the island’s history made edible.
A former Dutch colony, Curaçao was the nexus of the Caribbean slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slaves who weren’t auctioned off and sent to another country worked the island’s peanut and corn plantations in the dry, cactus-studded countryside. Their masters, following the traditions of their Dutch homeland, ate Gouda and Edam cheese from large, wax-covered wheels, gradually hollowing out the insides until all that remained was hardened scraps. The rinds were returned as waste to plantation workers’ kitchens, where cooks peeled off the wax, soaked the rinds in water, filled the remaining shells with similarly leftover bits of chicken or beef, then baked the dish. As time wore on, people started preparing keshi yena—which translates from the local Papiamento language to “stuffed cheese”—with such ingredients as olives, raisins, capers, local spices, and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers.
Given keshi yena’s origins as slave fare, no one can say exactly how old the dish is, except that it predates the 1863 emancipation of slaves. Over the years, the dish evolved, and island cooks “would stuff it with anything they could find,” says Tone Moller, co-owner of the Avila Hotel in the capital, Willemstad. The hotel has served keshi yena for more than 50 years. “If they caught fish, they used fish. If you had a goat, you used goat.”
Today, keshi yena represents the cross-cultural flavors that make the island distinct. “It’s such a hodge-podge of ingredients,” says Janera Soerel, a native of Curaçao who draws a parallel between the dish and the island’s unique melting pot of Jewish, Asian, Indian, Dutch, and African communities. “All these people have coexisted for centuries, and it all works in a way that’s beautiful and alive.”
From its humble beginnings, keshi yena has ascended to become a special-occasion dish, one served at restaurants and celebrations. Unless you are invited to a party, your best bet for eating it is in a restaurant. At the Avila Hotel, dine in the Belle Terrace restaurant (130 Penstraat, 599/9-461-4377). Executive chef John Pivar of Medi at the new Hyatt Regency Curaçao (Santa Barbara Plantation, 599/9-840-1234) developed his recipe, which begins with a traditional wheel of Gouda, using the input of local cooks. On the Willemstad waterfront, sample the dish in a colonial setting at Restaurant & Café Gouverneur de Rouville (De Rouvilleweg 9, 599/9-462-5999). A
1 pound fish (fresh tilapia or bass, or canned tuna), cooked ground beef, or stewed chicken**
1 fish stock cube (only if you start with fresh fish)
3 tbs butter
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1⁄2 bell pepper, chopped
1 whole garlic clove, peeled
1⁄2 chili pepper, chopped
1⁄4 tsp cumin powder (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp tomato paste
2 tsp piccalilli relish
10 green olives, pitted and chopped in half
1/3 cup raisins
3 cilantro sprigs, chopped
1 egg, beaten
1 Edam or Gouda cheese wheel, top cut off, hollowed out, wax removed and discarded
1. In a pot on the stovetop, heat six cups of water and the stock cube. When the water starts to boil, add the fish and let it cook for a few minutes.
2. Drain the water.
3. In a large frying pan, heat two tablespoons of butter and mix in the onion, tomato, bell pepper, garlic, and most of the chili pepper (reserve a few pieces). Let the mixture cook for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring regularly.
4. Add the cooked fish or meat, cumin, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, piccalilli, eight olives, raisins, and cilantro. Stir.
5. Remove the pan from the burner and allow the mixture to cool.
6. Add three-quarters of the egg to the mixture and stir.
7. Preheat the oven to 350oF.
8. Grease a baking dish with the remaining butter, and place the cheese wheel in the center. Scoop the mixture into the cavity. Cap it with the top of the wheel.
9. Brush the remaining beaten egg on top, and scatter the remaining chili peppers and olives on top of the wheel.
10. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes.
**If you’re using canned tuna, ground beef, or stewed chicken, begin the recipe at step 3.
Photos by Wyatt Gallery. This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.