Curacao's original ethnic food is generally heavy and hearty. Main dishes such as fried fish, goat (kabritu), chicken or beef stewed with green papaya, local cucumbers and cabbage (stoba), are served with beans and rice, potatoes or funchi. Other typical local dishes slimy soups, which are made of okra (yambo) and cactus (kadushi).
Although the stews are really nice, it certainly takes adventurous tourists to have a taste of the soups.
Curacao's blend of more than 45 distinct nationalities had an incredible influence on the local culture and on the original ethnic food. In the world of food, ethnic cuisine traditions have blended with many different foreign traditions to create one-of-a-kind recipes.
The Chinese influence with nasi goreng (bean sprouts with chunks of meat and chicken), and Indonesian bami (long noodles with vegetables and meat) and sate (skewered meat with peanut sauce) is everywhere. Traditional Dutch recipes dating to the early colonial period such as keshi yena - a baked dish with plenty of Gouda cheese, meat ,and other fresh ingredients - are also popular.
Since Curacao is located less than 50 miles of the coast of Venezuela, this country also had a significant influence on the cuisine and customs of Curacao, with pastechis, empanadas and of course ayaka.
Locals take holidays such as Christmas seriously, with a big emphasis on family and dinner. A traditional Christmas dinner in Curacao includes large quantities of culinary delights such as Christmas ham, salted, dried salmon pickled in vinegar and onions, Christmas cake, Quesillo (flan), and Ponche Crema (locally made eggnog).
A Curacao Christmas dinner isn't complete though without an Ayaka, a savory meat tamale wrapped in plantain leaves.
Ayaka is a traditional dish for Christmas in many countries. In Venezuela it is called an Hallaca; in Puerto Rico it is known as pasteles, and in Trinidad and Tobago, Ayaka is known as pastelle. All recipes in each country are a little different. Probably Ayaka came to Curacao by Venezuelan immigrants, or the recipe was borrowed.
Curacao's traditional Ayaka is made by extending a plantain leaf, greasing it with a spoonful of cooking oil and spreading on it a round portion of corn dough, which is then sprinkled with various fillings. While no two families make Ayakas in quite the same way, the most common fillings include a mix of stewed meats, raisins and pitted green olives.
The filled dough is then skillfully wrapped and tied with string before its cooking in boiling water. Afterward, it is picked from the pail with a fork, unwrapped and served on its own plantain leaves with chicken salad, pan de jamón (ham filled bread) or plain bread.
After cooking, Ayakas can be frozen for several weeks with no change in flavor.
During Christmas time, Ayaka can be found in restaurants and markets across the island. If you're are not in Curacao during Christmas time, but still like to eat like a local during Christmas, you can, of course make your own Ayaka.
This is the recipe for about 25 Ayakas.
Filling - Make this a day in advance, as the flavors become more infused overnight.
2 limes, both halved
3 1/2 pounds chicken legs, thighs and breasts (hen is preferred/more traditional, but chicken works well too)
4-5 cups water (enough to cover chicken)
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
3 1/4 pounds pork shoulder, with some fat remaining
2 1/4 pounds lean ground beef
1/2 pound lard or vegetable shortening (can also substitute 1/2 cup vegetable oil, though it will lack the flavor from the lard)
3 cups white onion, diced (about 3 medium onions)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (3-4) leeks, white and pale green portion only, thinly sliced
6 green onions, white part only, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)
1 pound red bell peppers, roasted with skins and seeds removed (*see note below on method), diced
1⁄2 teaspoon fresh or canned habanero peppers, finely diced
4 sweet cherry peppers pickled in brine (Italian style, sold in jars), diced
2 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1⁄4 cup capers, finely diced
1⁄2 cup pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced
1⁄2 cup pickled antipasti-style pickled vegetables, such as carrots and cauliflower
(in a jar)
1⁄2 cup muscatel (Muscat) wine
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1⁄2 cup raisins
1 1/4 cups shredded papelon/piloncillo (sugar cane blocks or cones, available in Latin stores), grated. If you cannot find piloncillo, substitute 3⁄4 cup molasses (which has a stronger taste than sugar cane)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 teaspoons salt
5 pounds pre-cooked white corn meal: (3 packages of Harina Pan, or Masa Arepa flour made by Goya, both available in Latin markets)
2 cups chicken stock (reserved from the cooked chicken)
3 cups lard or Crisco solid vegetable shortening (do not use butter)
3 tablespoons annatto seeds (or achiote paste if annatto not available), carried in Latin markets
3 tablespoons salt
1⁄4 pound lard or solid shortening, cut in 1⁄2 inch pieces
1 pound shredded hen or chicken breast
1 pound red bell peppers, cut in strips, skin and seeds removed (see technique in filling ingredients listing)
2 medium white onions, sliced thin and cut into 1-1/2 inch-long rings
1⁄2 cup small capers
1 cup pitted green olives, sliced
1⁄2 cup raisins
1⁄2 cup blanched whole almonds
Wrapping - The plantain leaves used for wrapping should be cleaned the day of the Ayaka assembly so they do not dry out after rinsing.
10 pounds fresh plantain leaves (available in Latin and Asian food markets)
NOTE: The leaves are also sold in frozen packages; to thaw, soak packages in warm water until leaves are soft, about 30-45 minutes. Do not microwave.
To clean the leaves, place them in the sink and cover them with water. Then, taking one leaf at a time, unfold them very carefully on a tabletop, to avoid tearing the leaf. Clean each leaf on both sides with a damp cloth; set leaves aside for the Ayaka assembly.
Each Ayaka uses 3 leaves. Cut 25-30 pieces of each size (see below) and set them aside in three different piles. The first leaf is the base leaf, upon which the dough is placed. The second leaf is called the ‘shirt’ or ‘camisa,’ used to keep water from leaking inside to the filling while the Ayaka is cooking. The third one is called the ‘belt’ or ‘faja,’ a slim piece that holds the ends of the camisa together.
The base leaf should be about 11 x 15 inches Shirt/Camisa should be 8 x 10 inches Belt/Faja should be 4 x 6 inches.
The plantain leaf has a hard vein down its center, with smaller veins stemming from it across the length of the leaf. When cleaning and working on the leaf, place the shiny side of the leaf up and move in the direction of the vein, not across the grain, so as not to break the surface of the leaf. If the base leaf breaks or tears, do not use it. Try to make belts out of that torn leaf, or toss it. Torn leaves will not maintain the watertight seal and water will seep into the filling.
Cut one piece of cooking twine per Ayaka. The length should be about one yard, or roughly the length from your left shoulder to the end of your right hand.
Filling Clean the chicken with lime, then rinse it well with water. Place the chicken pieces into a pot with water; bring it to a boil over high heat, then lower the temperature and let it simmer on a stovetop for approximately 30 minutes, until chicken is tender but not falling off the bone. Transfer the chicken to a plate, and set it aside. Pull the meat off the bones; cut the meat into 1/8-inch-wide strips, about 1 1/2 inches long, or shred it with your hands. Reserve 1 pound for garnishes; the rest will go in the stew.
Clean the pork shoulder with lime, then rinse it well with water and cut it into fine dices. Put it in a large stock pot, heat some oil over high heat; add the diced pork and ground beef and cook it, stirring frequently, until the meats are browned; then transfer it to a plate.
Reduce the heat under the pot and add lard or vegetable oil and leeks, green onions, onions and garlic. Add 1cup of chicken stock and cook it, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until vegetables are soft but not browned. Add red bell peppers, habanero peppers, sweet cherry peppers and cook it until the vegetables are soft.
Add tomatoes and cook it 15 minutes at low heat. Add the capers, olives, papelon (or molasses), paprika, raisins, Muscat wine, Worcestershire sauce, salt and black pepper. Add 2 cups of chicken stock. Return the pork and ground beef to the pot. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in chicken strips and cook for 1 hour at low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let rest, covered until completely cooled. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Place 2 cups of lard in a pan with the annatto seeds over medium heat. Bring it to a boil, then remove the pan from the heat; be sure not to burn the seeds (dough will turn brown, not orange if seeds are burned. Remove the seeds by straining the mixture through a sieve. Set the lard aside. Put corn flour in a large mixing bowl and add salt; then slowly add 1 cup of uncolored lard and start mixing to get a dough. Add the additional 1-1/2 cups of colored lard and continue to mix.
Add the chicken stock to the mixture, and mix it well until you reach a firm but soft consistency; knead the mixture. The dough should be a dark orange color, smooth with no lumps. Make balls of about 3 inches in diameter, set those aside and cover them with a humid cloth. Set the remaining 1⁄2 cup of colored lard aside, to be used to grease the plantain leaves during assembly of the Ayakas.
Note: when forming the dough into a ball, your hands should appear shiny from the lard – that indicates the lard has been adequately mixed and absorbed for the correct consistency. If they are not, add more lard to the dough mixture until your hands take on a lightly oily sheen.
Assembly - Prepare the plantain leaves as described in the ingredients list, above.
Lightly grease the center of the base-sized plantain leaf square with the 1/2 cup reserved lard with annatto. Take a ball of the orange dough and place in the center of the base leaf. Flatten the dough into a circle about 6 inches in diameter in the center of the leaf. Use your fingers, a cutting board or a plate back to extend the dough; try to get it quite thin, about 1/8 inch thick.
Place 3 tablespoons of meat filling in the center of the flattened dough circle. Add 2-3 pieces of each of the garnish elements: lard/pork fat, red bell pepper strips, onion rings, capers, green olives, raisins, almonds and 1 piece of chicken.
Fold over the plantain leaf and dough circle, like a calzone or empanada, so the filling is covered. Fold the leaf against the grain to prevent the leaf from cracking or splitting (and the Ayaka from leaking). Fold the opposite side over, so the filling is completely encased. Then bring the ends of the leaf up over the filling on the seam side. Lap the two ends over each other to completely secure the filling; press seams closed gently, again to not to tear the plantain leaf.
Place the Ayaka diagonally at one edge of the second square of plantain leaf, the camisa; fold the camisa over the Ayaka on the diagonal grain, and fold the edges over the sides. Use the belt or faja of plantain leaf to hold the two pieces down, by wrapping the Ayaka around 2-3 times with the belt. Tie the entire Ayaka like a postal package with twine to keep the folded leaves secured during the cooking process.
Ayakas must be cooked after they are made, preferably steamed. Place the assembled Ayakas upright in a large steaming pot. If you do not have a pot deep enough for steaming, the Ayakas can be boiled in a large pot with enough water to cover them. Cover and steam the Ayakas for 1 hour, keeping the water at a slow boil and replenishing as it cooks away. Let the Ayakas cool down and then refrigerate them.
Ayakas need to settle for at least one day after the steaming/cooking process so that the flavors of all the spices and ingredients are absorbed and the dough settles. Prior to serving, carefully place the Ayakas inside a pot of boiling water and cook them for 35-45 minutes. This is a heating process; the Ayakas have already been cooked.
Put the Ayakas in a strainer to drain out all the water. Then cut the twine, remove the faja and the camisa leaves. Then place the Ayaka on a dinner dish. Cut the sides of the plantain leaf, up to the edge of the plate. Carefully open the leaf and fold the sides back to present the Ayaka on the plantain leaf; serve at once.
Reheating and Storage
Because they are heavily spiced and the filling stewed over a long period of time, Ayakas can be stored up to one month in the refrigerator after the first cooking process. They should always be reheated in boiling water for 35-45 minutes; do not reheat them in a microwave.
Merry Christmas, or as they say in Curacao "Bon Pasku"!
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Photo 2 by Ana Isabel Delgado Domínguez (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/anubis-/2154992576)
Photo 3 by Franka Philip (see: https://www.flickr.com/photos/14235673@N00/6890822957)
Photo 5 by Ana Isabel Delgado Domínguez (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/anubis-/4216808055)
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