Burt Wolf's Menu: North Side of Aruba - #116

The north coast of the island of Aruba... one of the world's great centers for watersports.  We'll visit a bar that's become a national monument...  discover trees that tell tourists how to find their hotels... find out how to keep food safe for a picnic.  We'll take a look at a plant that can help heal our skin and we'll cook along with some of the island's best chefs.  So join me on The North Side Of Aruba for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

The first people to settle down in Aruba were members of the Arowak tribes, who came over from the north coast of South America. It wasn't a very big trip, though. It's only about 15 miles from the shores of Venezuela to the shores of Aruba. As a matter of fact, a few years ago a couple of Arubans made the point by swimming up and back between the two countries. The Arowaks, however, came here about 5,000 years ago and they came because the fishing was good. It still is.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The Spanish stopped by in 1500, but they didn't see any gold so they just moved on. About 25 years later, however, they came back and turned Aruba into one giant ranch, raising cattle and horses. You know, when you're out there conquistadoring, there are two things you really love:  a good horse and a big steak. The Spanish maps at the time showed Aruba as if it had a road sign on it that said "ENTERING THE NEW WORLD. EAT HERE, BUY GAS."

Then in 1636 the Dutch popped in with just the right number of soldiers to convince the local population that it was time to go Dutch. And since then Aruba has been part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

To get a good look at what Aruba is like today I have asked Adri De Palm of the Aruba Tourist Commission to tour us around the island.

ADRI DePALM:  If you notice, we have a lot of cactus on the island.

BURT WOLF:   Yeah.

ADRI DePALM:  Beside of the cactus we have a lot of trees, and those trees you see here, those are the divi-divi trees.

BURT WOLF:   “Divi-divi trees.”

ADRI DePALM:  Yeah.  Besides being a tree, this is also a natural compass.  Why?  Because this natural compass always points to the west.  So it grows in the direction of the wind and it always points to the west.  That’s for the tourists to know, wherever they are on the island, they need a tree like this, it’s pointing to their hotels.

BURT WOLF:   That’s funny!

ADRI DePALM:  So they just follow this tree’s direction and they will be reaching their hotels.  It’s very funny but it’s true. ... Yes Burt, this is Natural Bridge.  As you can see, this is one of the most well-visited landmarks of the island.  Everybody, every tourist that really comes to Aruba comes to this site.  It’s carved by the sea and also by the rain, so it’s really carved from both sides. 

BURT WOLF:   Do you charge a toll to go over the Natural Bridge?

ADRI DePALM:  No, we don’t charge a toll here in Aruba.

BURT WOLF:   Very natural.  Actually, in North America it would be unnatural not to charge a toll.

ADRI DePALM:  They would love it, though.  (Laughter) ... So Burt, this is Casibari, yes.

BURT WOLF:   Uh-huh...

ADRI DePALM:  This area is a very, very nice area, it’s well-visited by the tourists.  Most of the tourists that come to Aruba come to this area.  And this, you can even have a taste of how the people live here in Aruba.  Every house is completely different from the other.

BURT WOLF:   The cactus is used to make a fence...

ADRI DePALM:  ...and the cactus was used.  We did it in many ways because we also use stone to make a fence besides that, but the cactus was more better because the goat wouldn’t really get into this.  So the stone fence, the goat can get on the stone and jump into the yard and eat all the plants you have inside. 

BURT WOLF:   The goats can’t jump over the cactus.


BURT WOLF:   Ahhh, good plan.

ADRI DePALM:  On the other side you have the mountain, over here you have the airport, the city, the harbor with the tourist ships, then you have the hotel area -- low-rise hotel area, high-rise hotel area. ... Burt, this is Baby Beach; this is one of the most famous beaches, especially on the eastern side of the island.  This is also like a landmark for many people; why?  Because here is where you can really get your kids into the water without no problem.  Okay?  So the water really reaches up to your tummy, your belly, and that’s the deepest you can get here.  That’s why we call it Baby Beach, and it’s very very safe for you to bring your kids over to this area. ... Okay Burt, here we are on the western part of the island.  Besides the high-rise hotel area we have here also the place where they do windsurfing.  Every year we have here the big competitions going on, which are “The High Wind Races of Aruba,” where people from all around the world come to do this sport here in Aruba.  And everything that you can imagine that you can do on the water, we do it here on this part of the island.

During the 1800's landowners in Aruba were addressed by their first name preceded by the Dutch word "Shon" which means "master". The man who owned this area was named Nicolaas van der Biest, so he was called "Shon Nicolass" which soon became St. Nicolas. Which is why the town that now stands on this property is called St. Nicolas.

In 1924 The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey began the development of the Lago refinery in St. Nicolas. The actual oil came from Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Small tankers brought the crude oil to Lago where it was refined and then shipped out, primarily to the east coast of the United States. For 50 years the story of Aruba was also the story of Lago.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   As long as I'm next to a famous oil refinery, I thought I’d say a few words about cooking oils.  If all cooking oils have virtually the same amount of fat and the same number of calories, why should one be healthier for you than another? The answer is to be found in the element hydrogen.  All cooking oils also contain hydrogen, but the more hydrogen there is in an oil, the more it tends to cause your body to produce cholesterol.  And cholesterol can be dangerous for you.  The cooking oil with the most hydrogen is called saturated -- saturated with hydrogen is the point.  Next is monounsaturated.  That has less hydrogen.  The least hydrogen is found in polyunsaturated oils.  So if you’re worried about the cholesterol in your blood, reduce the amount of hydrogenated oil in your diet.

Just outside the front gates of the Lago oil refinery is a legendary watering hole.  It was founded in 1941 by a Dutch immigrant named Charles Brouns.  Being a straight-forward fellow and rather direct, he called the establishment Charlie's Bar.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Does get directly to the point, doesn't it?  No confusion. Not like trying to figure out what your doing in a place called Fridays when it’s only Monday.  When you're in here you are in a bar, and it's Charlie's. And because the unusual history associated with Charlie’s Bar, it’s become somewhat of a national monument.

During the World War II, the oil refinery in St. Nicolas supplied almost twenty percent of the fuel used by the Allied troops in Europe.  German subs would attack the area and at the end of each attack everyone would go to Charlie's to make sure that everyone else was still alive and to celebrate that point with a few drinks. Those meetings made Charlie a regular part of the support and morale-building efforts that were directed to Allied seamen, and his activities actually earned him a Knighthood which was awarded by the Royal House of Holland.  These days Charlie's Bar is operated by Charlie's son, Charlie Jr. The old man really had a way with names, but he also had an even more interesting approach to interior design. You have got to see this place to believe it.

CHARLIE BROUNS, JR:  The steel pan.  I got that from one of the local boys who worked for the refinery about seventeen or eighteen years ago...  The clown.  We bartenders are psychiatrists of the people.  My grandmother, she kind of found that out, and made that for me by hand.  It’s there for at least forty years, I wouldn’t really know...  My mother, the real Charlie.  Three Charlies involved in Charlie’s Bar -- Charlie Senior, Junior, and the third one somewhere in the States right now.  She kept us together, the three Charlies that made Charlie’s Bar become what it is today -- a tradition in Aruba and especially in this town of St. Nicolas.  My mother. ... The ship’s bell.  We have eighteen hanging around here in Charlie’s Bar.  Charlie’s Bar was formed by seamen, was founded by seamen and made famous by seamen.  And in Aruba the customer is not to hit the bell, because you just bought the bar a drink. 

CUSTOMER IN BACKGROUND:  Okay, you bought it!  (Laughter)

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   You know, if anybody from House&Garden sees you in here they might cancel your subscription. And Martha Stewart could easily come to your home and just take back all of her books. On the other hand, Charlie’s the kind of guy that might just take ‘em all on, and publish a fabulous full color picture book entitled "Decorating With 20,000 Things You Thought You Loved."

Most of the islands of the Caribbean have a similar geological history. They got started as volcanoes. Many also shared a similar history of habitation by tribes of Arowaks and Caribes. And they all passed centuries as European colonies.  As a result you will often see a dish with local adaptations island by island. An example is a recipe that is basically a hashed fish fillet. It’s often called Keri-Keri, and here's how its prepared by Chef Scott Scheuerman at the Costa Linda Beach Resort.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: Okay, we're using shark here.  This is the ideal fish because of its, because of its fine grain texture - any white fish will be fine.

He starts by taking skinless, boneless fish fillets that have been baked and breaking them up into small bits.  Then a little oil goes into a frying pan followed by some chopped onion, green pepper, hot chili pepper, celery, and tomato.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When you look at the recipes of Aruba, you notice that many of them contain hot chili or hot pepper.  The reason for that is a hot chili or hot pepper will bring moisture to the outside surface of your skin.  As that moisture evaporates, you cool down.  So it heats up your inside but cools off your outside.  Kind of a natural air-conditioner.

That cooks together for two minutes at which point in goes the fish, plus some capers, paprika and ketchup. That's the Keri-Keri.  That holds for a moment while Scott takes a few lettuce leaves and wilts them over the range heat.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: Just for a few seconds.  What that's gonna do is wilt the lettuce so that when we roll it up later on it's not going to break on us.

The wilted lettuce leaves go onto a work surface. A quarter cup of Keri-Keri goes on an the leaf gets rolled up.  Some Creole tomato sauce goes onto a serving plate. The rolled fish on top and finally a little more of the sauce.

During the middle of the 1800's the farmers of Aruba began to produce aloe plants on a commercial scale. Aloe, also known as Aloe Vera, was brought to the Caribbean by traders from the Mediterranean. By the early years of this century, Aruba was a major producer of aloe and famous for supplying the best quality in the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The interesting thing about the aloe plant is its ability to help protect our skin. The juice from an aloe plant will help heal a cut or a scrape, but it has an amazing ability to help heal a burn.  During the 1950's scientists discovered that it not only helps with regular burns, but with radiation burns. And there was a rumor that the US federal government was stockpiling aloe plants as part of its national nuclear defense program. Cosmetic companies use aloe in suntan lotions, facial cremes, hand cremes and shampoos.  And Egyptologists believe that Cleopatra used aloe in all of her facial cosmetics.  I’m going to have to check with Elizabeth Taylor and see if that’s really true.

I always try to keep an aloe plant in my kitchen.  If I get a burn I submerge the burned area in cold water to take the heat away, and then I cut off a little bit of one of the plant's leaves and rub some of that sap on the burn.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Aloe has always had a healing and soothing effect, and in many books it’s actually referred to as "The First Aid Plant," and for many years Aruba was referred to as "The Aloe Island".

The 17th century was the golden age of Dutch history. The great houses that line the canals of Amsterdam. The furniture inside those magnificent buildings. The works of art that were commissioned by the people who lived in those buildings, works painted by artists like Rembrandt and Frans Hals. These are things that were funded to a great extent by the enormous wealth that was produced for the businessmen of Holland as a result of that country’s trade with Indonesia.  A trade which introduced Indonesian cooking to Holland and to its other colonies, including Aruba.  Today, Scott carries on that tradition with a recipe for Indonesian Rice.  A little corn oil gets heated in a wok. A little sesame oil is added for flavor.  Sesame oil has a great flavor but a low burning point so the actual cooking should be done with another type of oil like corn or peanut.  Then in goes a half cup each of chopped onion, carrot, celery, cabbage, and scallions. All those vegetables are stir-fried for a few moments.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: We're using a small, stove-top wok here.  You could use any kind of a broad skillet, but you need to have enough surface area that we can convey all the heat.

Next we add a cup each of chopped chicken, roast pork loin, and ham. Another few moments of stir-frying.  We add a tablespoon each of curry powder, chili paste, and soy sauce.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN: This is an Indonesian-type soy sauce which is a little heavier, a little sweeter, a little bit maltier than most of the Chinese soy sauces. 

BURT WOLF:  It really has the flavor of Chinese soy sauce with a little bit of hoisin mixed in.

SCOTT SCHEURMAN:  Exactly, it's got a sweetness to it, as well as a heavier body.

In go four cups of pre-cooked long grained rice.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Scott’s using long grain white rice that cooked in about 15 minutes and ended up giving us individual fluffy grains. You don’t want to wash long grain white rice before you use it, because it has usually been enriched enriched with thiamine, iron, and niacin.  And washing will only take off those nutrients.

At this point two eggs are mixed together with a few tablespoons of water and cooked in a large non-stick frying pan into a thin, flat omelet. The omelet is rolled up and sliced into strips.  A serving of the rice mixture goes onto a plate. Some of the omelet goes on one side, and some sliced iceberg lettuce on the other.

The Caribbean weather pattern that surrounds Aruba provides it with a climate that is warm and dry. The island is also brushed by constant trade winds. At a number of points on the island those winds come ashore across a stretch of sandy beach, and they come across with sufficient strength and regularity to produce sand dunes. A dune moves along rather slowly, usually covering no more than 30 yards in a year, but once they get going they are very difficult to stop. Dunes have buried individual homes, whole towns and giant forests, which can eventually be uncovered as the dune moves on. That's never happened here in Aruba, but the story of a dune is a rather fascinating bit of nature and the perfect spot to spend a day near the sea.

And if we are going to spend the day here we might as well take a look at some of the “dunes and don'ts” of food safety for picnics.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The general rules for food safety on a picnic are very simple. Keep hot foods hot. Keep cold foods cold. Keep raw foods away from cooked foods. Keep your hands and your utensils clean and don't drink any water that hasn't been properly processed. That's basically it, but here's some more detail on that information.

We live in a world filled with bacteria. Bacteria so small that it’s impossible to see with our naked eye. Some of the bacteria is good for us, and helps us get through life. Some of the bacteria is bad for us and can put an end to our life.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When it comes to food, the bacteria that produces yogurt or sauerkraut is on the "friendly list". Botulism and salmonella spores are definitely on the “unfriendly list,” and they can kill you.  But we’re also talking about numbers.  The more bacteria that is present, the more dangerous it is.  Bacteria has a favorite range for reproduction, between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, they really reproduce. So if you keep your food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you should be okay. And the only way to make sure is to have a tiny instant thermometer, put it into the food, check the temperature.  If you’re below 40 or above 140, you should be okay.

It's also very important to keep uncooked foods away from cooked foods or foods that are normally eaten raw. And keep any uncooked foods like hamburger meat or chicken carefully wrapped and away from everything else. When you do cook those hamburgers, chickens, fish or anything else, make sure that they are fully cooked.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Eating rare or raw meat, fish, or poultry is in my opinion like playing Russian Roulette. It's just a question of time before you get hit.

Your hands and your equipment also transfer bacteria from place to place. Wash your hands carefully before you start handling food. Wash your hands between the handling of raw food and uncooked food and wash all of the equipment before you use it.  And all the water you drink or use at the picnic should come from a safe tap or be properly processed water that you purchased in a sealed container

Here are a few additional tips that might make life on the beach better. If you're bringing hamburgers, make them thin and take them to the picnic in a frozen state.  A big supply of disposible wipes can be a great help in keeping you and everything else clean.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As a general rule, if the outside temperature of the day is 80 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, you can keep your food out for up to 2 hours; if the outside temperature of the day is 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, your food shouldn’t be out for more than an hour.

And finally, mayonnaise is not really the big problem many of us thought it was. Store-bought mayonnaise produced from a commercial formula usually has enough acid to keep it safe in the sun. It's the meat, fish, or eggs that we mix it with that give us the trouble.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the early 1800's most of South America was involved in a revolutionary movement designed to free it from the Spanish Crown. In Venezuela, the head of that revolutionary movement was a man named Francisco de Miranda. Whenever Miranda got in trouble in Venezuela he would pop over to Aruba. Aruba was only fifteen miles away, it was an island, it was Dutch, and it was safe.  While he was here, he promised to pay the local Commander for everything that he and his 300 revolutionary troops used, but when Miranda left, the only thing he left behind was a letter that said “Yes, I do owe you 528 pesos.”  That letter still exists and so does the debt. Miranda's behavior, however, was not unusual for revolutionaries of the time. They were always very short of money and when they had some, they wanted to use it to buy guns. You know all those inns on the east coast of the United States that have these signs that say "George Washington slept here, during the Revolution"? I'll bet you that George didn't pay either. Politicians and money...

Anyway, over the years, Aruba became the place to seek refuge when things were not going well for you in Venezuela. In general these political refugees were rather wealthy and since they had no business to do in Aruba they literally became Aruba's earliest tourists. They often stayed for such long periods of time that many Venezuelan-Aruban families were formed and much of Aruban life took on a Spanish quality. Even today, Aruba is still the favorite get-away for the people of Venezuela, but only for vacations.

One of the most traditional desserts in any country with a Latin heritage is Flan.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Basically a custard of eggs, milk, and sugar, in the hands of a knowledgeable cook it can really become a work of art. I was sitting around, talking about flan with Eduardo Ellis. He owns Aruba's Papiamento Restaurant.   He said that the absolute best flan that he had ever tasted was made by a woman on the island named Nelida Tromp. So we called her up and said “Come on over to the restaurant and teach us how it’s made.”

Nelida starts by putting a cup of sugar and a cup of water into a three-quart heat-proof mold and heating the mixture until it caramelizes to a dark brown color. The mold is then tilted from side to side in order to give the inside a coating of the sugar syrup.  A total of eight eggs, sixteen ounces of sweetened condensed milk and sixteen ounces of water are mixed together in a blender and poured into the mold. Four tablespoons of vanilla extract are mixed in and the top goes on. The mold goes into a larger pan and water is poured into the larger pan until it goes halfway up the outside of the mold.  The baking takes place in a 350 degree oven for one hour. Then the mold comes out of the water bath to cool, and the flan is unmolded. Every drop of the sauce goes on and it's ready to serve.

Eduardo Ellis was born in Aruba. His wife Lenie was born in Holland. Together they run one of the best restaurants in the Caribbean. It’s called Papiamento. The Dutch have been in business on Aruba for over three hundred years so the relationship between Lenie and Eduardo has considerable historical precedent. And to keep that history running, they have brought their sons into the business. Edward was born in Aruba and represents his father's history.  Jaap was born in Holland and represents his mother's culture.  Antoine was born in... Milwaukee?  Ah, yes -- Antoine represents the fact that 70 percent of the tourists who come to Aruba come from the US. Today Antoine is preparing a dish called Chicken Picasso.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   I was told it was called Chicken Picasso because of all of the beautiful colors in the fruit. But I thought it was called Chicken Picasso because all the fruit was cut into little cubes and therefore representative of Picasso's cubist period.

The recipe starts with a little salt and pepper going onto a boneless, skinless chicken breast. A little Worcestershire Sauce goes on.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Here’s an interesting story about Worcestershire sauce.  It tells of two Englishmen who had been living and working in India, returned to England, and were unpacking the stuff from the trip.  They found a cask with a liquid in it.  They didn’t know what it was, and kind of put it in the cellar.  Couple of years later they stumbled upon that cask again, opened it up, tasted the liquid, loved the flavor, decided to call it Worcestershire Sauce, figured out the formula, and introduced it as a product in England.

Next some chopped garlic and oil go onto the chicken. At which point it gets a light coating of flour. A little butter is heated in a pan. The chicken goes in and cooks until done. A selection of fruits are cut into bite-sized pieces. Antoine is using papaya, mango, kiwi, pineapple and strawberry. The fruits go in and cook for two minutes. Then in goes a quarter cup of Grand Marnier brandy, which is cooked down over high heat.  If you don't want to use alcohol in the dish it will work just as well with some orange juice.  The chicken goes onto a pineapple boat.  The fruits and the sauce go onto the chicken and that's it.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That completes our tour of Northern Aruba, so I guess it’s time to move on to our next location.  But I must say, I’m not in any hurry to leave.  Though I guess if you’re ready, I’m ready.  I hope you’ll 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.