Burt Wolf's Menu: Aruba - #119

Aruba... the most southerly island in the Caribbean chain. Magnificent beaches... interesting history... wonderful culture.  Good food that blends together the island's Dutch and Spanish cultures... and a population that is friendly, warm, and helpful.  The best description of Aruba is its national slogan... "One Happy Island."  So join me in Aruba for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

The islands of the Caribbean form a chain that runs from the tip of Florida to the coast of Venezuela. The larger islands in the north, like Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico are known as the Greater Antilles. The smaller islands, stretching for over 1,000 miles from the U.S. Virgin Islands down to Aruba, are known as the Lesser Antilles.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The idea of calling the islands “lesser” and “greater” is based purely on size. There are lots of things about the Lesser Antilles that are greater than the Greater Antilles. But size does have its impact. Starting with Columbus in 1492, the Spanish conquistadors bounced around the Caribbean yelling "finders keepers" on top of every piece of land that they could get two feet onto. And on the larger pieces of land they also got on some giant military fortresses in order to stress the "keepers" aspect of their claim.

About twenty minutes after the word got back to Europe about the New World, Spain's great rivals, the English, French, Danish and Dutch attacked the Spanish claims and they concentrated most of their attacks on the smaller, less fortified islands. And they carried on this military madness for almost three hundred years.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   As a result, the Lesser Antilles saw more action than the Greater Antilles which was great for the Greater Antilles and less great for the Lesser Antilles. But while the European nations were busy raising Cain around here, they also raised sugar. Almost all of the Caribbean islands ended up with a plantation economy, raising sugar to supply Europe's enormous sweet tooth.  And they supplied it at enormous profits.

But there were a number of Caribbean islands that managed to escape this scenario and one of them was Aruba.

Aruba is a small island just off the coast of Venezuela. The Arowaks of South America were the first people to inhabit Aruba, and they appear to have come over about 5,000 years ago. They were followed by the Spanish in 1500, and in the next century by the Dutch. Those three groups are the major ethnic influences on Aruba and they have produced a society of truly friendly and charming people. A perfect example of what I mean is a gentleman named Adri De Palm, who has been guiding friends around his island for a number of years.

ADRI DePALM:  This is the lighthouse of Aruba.  We are now at the western point of the island.  This area is also well-visited by the tourists that get to the island.  Why?  Because every side of this lighthouse you have a different aspect of the whole area.  The first one, one side you have the cacti... the other side you have the rocks... and the other side you have dunes... and the other side it looks like a desert area.  So you really, you have four aspects in one place on the island.  ... Yes, Burt, as you know, we also have scuba in Aruba.  As you can see right behind me here, this is Sea Scuba.  These people take people out every day on scuba dives and also snorkelling trips.  Besides that, we have very, very nice coral.  And scuba is very, very nice in Aruba also. ... Right now we are here in Oranjestad; this is the largest city in Aruba.  What it really means, “Orange Town” in Dutch.  Here’s where every people come to Aruba to do their shopping and go to special restaurants, and where they also buy their very expensive goods.  We have jewelry, crystals, from everything that you can imagine.  You get it right here in this city. 

BURT WOLF:   And at a good price.

ADRI DePALM:  And at a very, very nice price. ... Aruba is a very, very nice island for the cruise ships, for the cruise ship industry.  Last year we had over two hundred ships to the island, which really brings a lot of people to us.  Most of those people also come to this area, which is Oranjestad, because it’s a very, very close range, so it’s really a five-minute walking distance.  So they can walk from the ship to the city, and from the city back to the boat without no problem. 

BURT WOLF:   Great!

ADRI DePALM:  At night it’s also blooming here in this area.  So everybody that really comes to Aruba will have a night in Oranjestad. 

While I was researching the history of Aruba, I stayed at a place called the Costa Linda Beach Resort.  As I expected, it had a great strip of Aruban beach. And because the beaches of this island are so wide, even when every guest from the resort's 155 suites were on the beach, all at the same time, you were still literally off in your own space.  I also like the fact that all of the rooms face the beach.  That’s important.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   There have been times in my "life on the road" where I have stayed at places that were advertised as "beachfront facilities," and though that was true for the building, it wasn’t true for the my room. Fortunately, that can’t happen here. Every room faces the beach.

And every room is actually a 2 or 3 bedroom suite with a living room and a full kitchen. I like that feature a lot. It gives me some control over my non-professional eating.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For me to get one recipe that’s worth filming, I have to taste about 15 different dishes, which adds up to an enormous number of calories. So to have a nice little kitchen in my room where I can prepare a few “off the record” meals is really nice.  It takes me twenty-three days to research, write and film a script.  And if I have to work three weeks in a row without a day off, to work in a place like this makes a big difference.

And it also helps when the resort has a talented executive chef like Scott Scheurman. Scott's first recipe is for a pan-fried fillet of Snapper. It's served on a bed of vegetables that combine the classic flavors of the Caribbean kitchen.  Scott starts his recipe with four fillets of red snapper with the skin on one side. A little salt and pepper goes on. A little lime juice.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN:  O.K. we take the scales off of this, but we leave the skin on - that helps hold the fish together and it also makes for an attractive, attractive fish because it's a nice red color here.

Three strips of bacon go into a sauté pan.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: The bacon will provide us with a little bit of fat for the cooking and plenty of flavor as well.  Very important flavor.

When most of the fat has dripped out of the bacon the bacon is moved to the side of the pan or taken out. The snapper is given a light coating of corn meal and goes into the pan to cook for three minutes.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN:  This is not meant so much as a breading, as just a coating to protect the fish while it cooks.

Then the fish is flipped over and cooks for three minutes more.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: Now when we turn it over, when the skin hits the hot surface, the skin is gonna start to contract a little bit, so it's going to curl the fish slightly - that's normal.  If the bacon starts to get too crisp on you, you just take it out of the pan right here.  We'll add it back in later on.

As soon as the fish is fully cooked it comes out, and in goes some chopped onion, green pepper, red pepper, scallion, and garlic.  If you live in a part of the world were your market carries green tomatoes then chop one up and add it in. If you can't find green tomatoes just skip it and keep on cooking.  All that simmers together for five minutes. At that point a half cup of chopped stuffed olives are added, plus some capers and some cilantro.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: Olives and capers are two very popular ingredients in Caribbean cooking probably dating back to the shipping days when -- before refrigeration.

The bacon goes back in, followed by a half cup of white wine.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: The white wine will help bring all the flavors together and bring all of the flavor up from the pan.

Then the fish goes back in. A top goes on and all the ingredients simmer for two minutes more. Then the sauce goes onto the serving plate, the fish on top and there's a garnish of lime and cilantro.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN:  Very classic creole flavors in this.

Many food historians believe that it was on the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean that the word barbecue first came into use. It describes a technique of grilling foods on green sticks set over a fire in hole dug into the sand. Today it describes the style of a recipe being used by Scott to prepare a Caribbean style barbecued chicken.  Scott starts by making a hot relish. A clove of minced garlic goes into a bowl, followed by a half cup of chopped scallion, and a chopped hot pepper.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: This can be any variety of hot pepper; it could be a jalapeno pepper, it could be an oriental-style or tabasco pepper.  We're using the Caribbean variety here which is a kind of a cherry pepper - very hot, so be careful with it.

Next in goes a quarter cup of toasted sesame seeds, and two tablespoons of sesame oil. That's blended into a paste, and stuffed between the skin and the meat of four boneless chicken breasts.  A zucchini is cut into quarter-inch slices, lengthwise. The chicken is rolled up and goes on top of a slice of the zucchini.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: What the zucchini is going to do primarily is to protect the meat surface of the chicken from overcooking and drying out.  The skin will protect the other side, of course.

Scott slips a knife under the zucchini to make everything easier to move onto a plate.  A barbecue sauce made from ketchup and dry mustard is painted on and the chicken goes into a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or onto a grill until it’s fully cooked.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Now Americans love ketchup and sometimes we get picked on for that.  But a couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with the grandson of Escoffier - one of the greatest chefs who ever lived, and he told me that when Escoffier retired from the cooking at the Ritz Hotel in Paris he opened up a little company to make sauces.  And one of the sauces that he made, quite successfully, was ketchup.  So there.

While the chicken is cooking, a papaya relish is made by mixing together some cubed papaya, minced red onion, cilantro, white vinegar and olive oil.  The last element is the making of a pancake by mixing together a pancake batter with some pureed corn, and a minced red pepper.  The pancake goes onto the plate, then the chicken and finally the papaya relish.

If you’ve come to Aruba as a tourist to relax on the shores, sail on the sea, or dive below, the fact that it hardly ever rains in Aruba is source of great comfort and joy. On the other hand, if you are an Aruban running through hundreds of gallons of fresh water everyday, that lack of rain can be a real pain in the spigot.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   To solve the problem, Aruba constructed an amazing facility that produces water and electricity at the same time.

The process starts by drawing in clear clean seawater from the surrounding ocean. That water is brought to a boil in what is basically a giant tea kettle.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   At this point the steam is floating at the top of the kettle, losing its heat and turning back to water. But it does this in stages. The purest steam turns back to the purest water at the top. The most impure steam with most of the salts turns back to impure water at the bottom. So if you build a kettle with a system for catching the pure water at the top and draining it off, you're in great shape.  The process is really very simple and it’s called distillation. If you do it with water you get distilled water. If you do it with a mash of corn or barley you get whiskey. If you do it with molasses you get rum.  Here in Aruba they only do it with water. But the water that comes from the plant is so pure that even though it's perfect for your car battery, it doesn’t taste the way we like our water to taste.

They actually need to add back some mineral elements to give it the flavor that we associate with good water. So they let the distilled water, which is still quite hot, drip down through some local coral stones from the nearby reef. and now it’s ready for drinking.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   It’s one of the purest waters in the world and it tastes great. Because the plant is located in a part of Aruba known as Balashi, the people of Aruba refer to a glass of water as a Balashi cocktail. Cheers.

The primary food gathering activity of the original Arubian natives was fishing.  They also did a little farming. Corn, manoc root, potatoes and sweet potatoes were the most common field crops and their favorite seasonings were hot chilies.  When the Spanish came in they brought along sheep, goats, cows and pigs.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When the Dutch arrived in the  1600's they brought with them their beer, cheeses, east Indian spices and their general love of good eating. I think  in the end the single most significant gastronomic influence that the Dutch will leave behind in Aruba is their love of quality. There are over a hundred excellent restaurants on this island, all interested in delivering good food. And because the island is small and the competition so great, they’re interested in delivering good food at good prices. Let me take you on a little tour of the places I’ve been eating in.

Brisas del Mar has one of the most beautiful locations of any restaurant I've seen.  It sits right out on the ocean, and they haven't bothered to put in any windows because the island's weather is so dependable.  The owner, Lucia Rasmijn, tells you how to find the place.

LUCIA RASMIJN:  You’re passing the airport, coming straight up.  You get a sign on the highway, you turn to your right, and a couple minutes you will be on Brisas side.  The food is very nice.  If you like fish, you can have fish Aruban style.  We fry two pieces of fish, with a sauce of tomato, green pepper and onion and we boil it for a couple of minutes.  Then with fried bananas... Aruban corn meal pancake --oh, that’s nice!  It’s a piece of a little bit of corn meal, flour, sugar, milk and baking powder.  Oh, it’s delicious.

Chez Mathilde is Aruba's Paris amongst the palms... an excellent French restaurant. The indoor dining room is filled with so much light and greenery that it feels like an outdoor garden.  Mi Cushina is the place for the real Aruban food. It's as authentic as the meal you would get in someone's home.  Le Petit Cafe is right in downtown Oranjestad. It has a rather unusual kitchen... the only thing that's on the stove are large rocks. When they're very hot the food gets put on, and the cooking actually finishes off at your table. Could this be the real hard rock cafe?  And there are spots that will feed you after the regular restaurants close.

BURT WOLF:   How you doin’?  I’d like a satay sandwich, aaaand an orange juice.

They’re kitchens, set up in trucks... with their own special menu and location. Each night as the sun goes down and the tide goes out, the vans drive around and the people start to shout... Hey Hey Uncle Buck... It's a treat to eat some meat from an all-night sandwich truck.

What's going on here? ... Aruban cannoli?  No... Aruban donuts? ... Aruban Bagels???

ALAN LAVINE:  About four years ago we hit on the idea that maybe a bagel store would be a good idea.  There are lots of tourists coming here, bagels are very healthy.  It’s very different to come four thousand miles approximately from the United States and see a bagel shop that you might see on the corner of your street, you know.  So they’re very happy with it and very excited, and the local people are getting more and more involved in the bagels as well.

Aruba has an amazing ability to absorb food styles from all over the world.

One of the earliest migrations of people to the Caribbean were folks who came here from India. Some came to work as laborers in agriculture and construction.  Others came to open up their own businesses.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   All of them came along with their traditional approach to cooking, especially when it came to seasonings.

Here at the Papiamento Restaurant in Aruba, Chef Edward Ellis shows that Indian influence with his recipe for Curried Shrimp.  A little olive oil goes into a pan followed by a half cup each of chopped onion... red pepper... and green pepper. That cooks together for a few minutes.

BURT WOLF:   One of my early surprises when I was learning about food was to discover that a red pepper is just a green pepper that’s been on the vine longer.

Then a little fresh ginger goes in.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When you’re using fresh ginger, it’s important to remember to slice it or mince it, but not to grate it.  If you grate it, you lose a lot of the juices, and that’s where a lot of the flavor is.  It’s “de-grating” for the ginger.

Then six jumbo shrimp are added.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Edward’s using jumbo shrimp, and we figure three of them is enough for each person.  As a general rule in terms of weight, four to six ounces of shrimp per person should do it.

Next Edward adds some chopped celery leaves...a tablespoon of curry... salt.. fresh pepper... and a quarter cup of cream. The cream cooks down for a few minutes and the dish is ready to serve.

The island of Aruba has a unique weather pattern. Being the most southerly of the islands that make up the Caribbean chain, it is well out of the way of the hurricane belt. It is consistently warm, sunny, breezy and dry. It’s perfect for strolling beaches, but bad for storing bread. The result is a nationally-beloved pudding based on stale bread and called Pan Bollo.  Eduardo Ellis, the owner and executive chef of Aruba's Papiamento Restaurant, demonstrates a classic example.

Stale bread is broken up into small pieces until you have about four cups’ worth. Two cups of milk are poured over the bread, and the bread is mashed into the milk and set to soak for an hour. Then in goes a half-cup of sugar, a half cup of honey, six eggs, two tablespoons of baking powder, two tablespoons of vanilla, a cup of raisins that have been soaked in water, or juice, or rum. And finally a cup of dried fruits.  A loaf pan gets a light coating of oil. Then in goes the bread mixture. Bang the pan on a flat surface to get out any air bubbles and set it into a 350 degree oven for one and a half hours. When it's fully cooked, it has a rather dark brown top. The finished bread pudding is flipped over onto a serving plate and sliced.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In 1824, a 12-year-old boy by the name of Wilhelm Rasmijn came out of his house after a heavy rainstorm and started herding his father's sheep across the north shore of Aruba. As he came up over a hill, he noticed a sparkling rock. He brought it home to his father. His father found it quite fascinating, and brought it into town to show it to a merchant.

The merchant realized it was gold and bought it from the sheep-herder for $17. The merchant then resold it for seventy.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   There are some very important lessons to be learned from this story. First of all, always teach your children to bring home all the shiny rocks that they find. Second, sheep-herding does have its exciting moments. And finally, always get a second opinion on the value of anything before you sell it.

This is what remains of the Bushiribana smelting works that were built by the Aruba Island Gold Mining Company during the 1870's. Since that day when the young sheepherder discovered the first nugget, over 3000 pounds of gold have been exported.  And there is still gold in "them there hills". It's not easy to find, but almost every Aruban that I met during my visit had some tiny bit of gold that they found during a childhood search.  Even today, you can spot the real Arubans after a rain.  They are all walking along looking down at the ground. Though in all fairness, I should point out that it almost never rains in Aruba, so you'd better have an alternate source of income.

The oldest building on Aruba is Fort Zoutman. It was built in 1796 to protect the new capital city of Oranjested, a name which derives from the House of Orange, which was the ruling family of Holland at the time.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When the fort was originally built, it was actually on the edge of the water, and armed with four cannons. Shortly after it came into service a British warship named the Surprise tried to surprise the fort, but the fort surprised the Surprise by attacking it first. And the old fort is still capable of a couple of surprises.

First of all, it is presently the home of the Aruba Museum which has a small but interesting collection of local artifacts, including some cooking equipment left by the native tribes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It’s interesting to see how much of our modern cooking equipment takes its design from ancient forms in nature.  The museum has a collection of blending or whisking sticks.  Obviously they’re twigs, where the intersecting branches come out at just the right angle and just the right thickness.  They’re held like this and spun around, and they have an amazing effect.  They’re just like a blender or a whisk.  There are four different forms here, and each of them has a slightly different effect on the food.  I guess the real question now is, were they offered as a set of four, and did you get a gift with purchase? This was a masher; it was used with root vegetables like the potato, which happens to be indigenous to South America, which is just fifteen miles off the coast of Aruba.  They would take the potato, heat it in some way, either in water or directly in a fire until it was soft, and then mash it up.  Wonder if it was dishwasher-safe. ... Obviously the top of the line in nested mixing bowls in the pre-stainless steel days.  You have the large, the medium and the small.  All made from natural gourd.  Comes along with our Easy-Grip Spatula, and our serving spoon with its abrasive cleanser back.  Pretty good.  $29.95, whaddya think?

Fort Zoutman is also the location of the Bonbini Festival that takes place every Tuesday evening from 6 pm to about 8:30.  The walls of the fort are lined with booths that sell local foods and local crafts.  The old parade ground is used to present an evening of traditional Aruban music and dance.  And if you don't know the traditional Aruban dances, they'll teach them to you.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Great weather, nice people, good food.  That’s what I found touring the southern half of Aruba.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.

[end of closing credits]  BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s all folks!