Monday, October 29, 2007

Indonesian food and other delicacies I miss

Today I met my friend Aimee for lunch. It was her treat and she picked the restaurant: Indonesian food!!! For both of us, it was a no-brainer.... it's one of our island's favorites. As the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean, Indonesia was once part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. While England was in India, France in Vietnam...Holland was in the thousand islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. The country's cuisine is an important part of Holland's culinary history......and of Curaçao's too! If you have never tried it, make an effort; you'll be hooked

Anyway, we savored delicious dishes, familiar tastes and got absolutely in the right mood for reminiscing. She is returning to the island, albeit part-time, and I so envy her. Once again, she'll be able to sample all that the island has to offer, and food will be amongst the nicest.

When we moved to the island, one of our favorite things was discovering the variety of food you are offered. Every immigrant group brought its traditions and....its food. The Spanish, the first to arrive, stayed for 135 years. They left goats and oranges. The former ares still a delicacy prepare in so many ways: from stews, to barbecues. The latter is used to make the famous Curaçao liquor. Oh yes, this is where that great drink comes from! The original an authentic Curaçao liquor, in any shade or flavor, is made on the island with a small bitter orange. Believe it or not, this is a variation of the sweet Valencia orange brought by the Spaniards, but turned bitter by the dry climate.. how about that? On the island we use it for many things, like topping for vanilla ice cream, in drinks and desserts.

Someone had brought corn, maybe the pre-Colombian inhabitants, and funchi was born. What is that you're asking.... it's a dish similar to polenta and made of cornmeal. It can be served as soft mush or cut in pieces and fried. It makes the most wonderful side dish for fish, goat or beef stew, any dish you serve or alone. It is addictive! I have learned to eat it with anything and still make it at home.

The Dutch brought cheese and it didn't take long for whoever was there to make keshi yena (literally stuffed cheese). It has to be the greatest way to stuff an Edam cheese. Seriously!! They also brought bitterballen... croquettes to all of you, but so much better! Speculaas, a thin and crisp spiced cookie pressed with tableau images of old-time Holland, delicious with your tea or coffee or with your curaçao-liquor covered ice cream! I already mentioned Indonesian food, but I have to point out pinda saus (peanut sauce). Not the watery kind in Thai cuisine, but thick and rich and so smooth. In your French fries is heaven!

Chinese immigrants made their contribution, but this is a whole new kind: with a hint of Indian and Indonesian food. Fantastic! and could it get better? Of course! Latin immigrants from South America brought cheese fritters: tequeños and arepas, both a most in any island celebration. And what about ayacas? A dish of cornmeal, beef or chicken and other goodies wrapped in banana leaves. Superb!

If you have a sweet tooth, you have come to the right place. Again every nationality is represented, every dessert known to man can be found on the island. Anything with chocolate being the favorite, of course! At any given celebration, there is at least one table of desserts. I have never seen such selection; I don't eat sweets but have been so tempted throughout the years. You are not allowed to leave without tasting a bit of something or of everything.

Now you would ask, who makes all those desserts?.... your friends, of course! They know the dessert table is the most important in the celebration and they want to make you look good..... well there is also another reason. Recipes are not shared! they will make the dishes for you, but recipes are family secrets. Someone missed an opportunity. The secret service could have learned a thing or two from these ladies.

Of course, all this is more than culinary commentary. This is the area in which the island is truly blind to race, religion and nationality. Food is the mortar that holds us together. So in any street you can find a place to sample a taste of the local cuisine. I discovered to my delight that it is safe to eat almost anywhere, and everyone does! There are great restaurants offering anything from fast food to gourmet cuisine from every country. Everywhere you go and whoever you visit will offer you food!!! You can't ignore that, trust me. On our island paradise, food brings us together!!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Is Curaçao getting dangerous?

Since I did say this was not going to be about whining, or complaining about my new home.... I have to talk about everything about my old one: good and bad. This weekend I had a long phone chat with my good friend Kathy, still living in Curaçao. After our usual ramblings about what have we been up to... we came to the part where I asked how are things back on the island. This usually it still safe? are there any new threats to personal security? Well, there are the usual: robberies, break-ins, people don't just go walking alone, or go out at night alone. There are the sprinkle of murders and rapes, drug busts and fatal car accidents. None of this is peculiar to this island.... look around where you live....

In the few years since I left, people seem to have discover Curaçao. Can't believe it took them so long. Unfortunately, this interest has come from all sorts of people. Not everyone that arrives is a desirable expat...isn't that something?... but expected. In the meantime, Holland has diminished the help it once gave Antilleans moving there...many have moved back and there are not enough jobs or services to keep up with this returning population. Curaçao is after all..... a third world country. Can't get used to the developing country bit.

There is a great program for retired people or pensionados that give them tax breaks and other incentives. This has attracted many Europeans and Americans looking for their spot in the sun. Property prices still seem great to them, so there is a construction boom. New hotels are popping up and that can only be good... if the developers keep them as hotels.... not all inclusive resorts. Or maybe that is only my wishful thinking. Individual hotels and secluded beaches are more my style.

Because the Antillean Guilder is attached to the dollar, your money can be safe there. Don't forget that the island is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, so indirectly you'll be in an EU country..... with a beach! Talking of which.. the weather is gorgeous, dry and breezy and outside the hurricane belt.. could it get better? Yes, the people are friendly and would go to lengths to be helpful. Finally, there are the year-round activities: Carnival, Queen's Birthday, Sinterklas (Dutch St. Nicholas), New Year's Eve island-wide in the Tropics is a party. At least part of the time.

If you are looking for a new home.... why not Curaçao? You'll be able to afford a better life, probably. All depends if you are willing to go native: learn the language...not Dutch but Papiamentu...the musical language of the island, mix with the locals and make friends, get to understand the culture, get involved. Unfortunately, not everyone does happens in any country with an expat community, but do I think Curaçao is more of a melting pot than other places.... or it was when I lived there. There is more acceptance too.

So, those looking for a spot in the sun, could do a lot worse than Curaç me! If you are one of those free spirits that can adjust and enjoy... this can be for you. Do your homework and you'll see. And is Curaçao getting dangerous? maybe, but isn't that called progress? It was last time I checked!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Back from the Rainforest

Literally! I don't remember so much rain in Panama, or is it that after those years in dry Curaçao my mind has erased that? Anything is possible, and we do put unpleasant things out of our minds all the time. In any case, let me tell you........ it rains in Panama!!!! And it rains everyday in October. It comes down in sheets and everything turns damp and mildew grows everywhere. If you do laundry, you better have a drier.... if not clothes and linens take days to dry, and they never feel quite dry...ugh!

Now, if the sun shines after the rain..... the humidity rises along with the temperature. It's suffocating! On overcast days, though, when it seems like rain...but it doesn't, the temperature drops and there is some relief from the humidity. Those are my favorite days. Didn't have that many this time around!!!

In all this, there are bugs! If I thought Curaçao had them.... I had forgotten about Panama! From mosquitoes to flies to flying ants to sandflies, every bug in the world has a specie in the country. I was not safe from any of them: new blood, I guess.

On the good side, everything is green and lush, so many shades of green you can't imagine. That's it. Panama is a rainforest, maybe not as big as the Amazon's, but a rainforest none the less. So many crops, the abundance that the soil produces is amazing. Every piece of land along the country roads and highways is cultivated: corn, rice, fruits of all sorts. We could argue that all this is due to globalization...... that this is has been good because certain fruits and vegetables are grown for export only, and the quality is phenomenal....or that it has been bad because not everything good produced in the countryside stays in Panama for local consumption. What to do?

Comparing Panama to Curaçao, with no sources of fresh water, the rivers are a wonderful sight in the dry season: clear and clean running. They surprised me this time of the year, they were swollen and muddy. This is, amazingly enough, the time to go to the beach! Because of the Humboldt Current coming up from the South Pole, the ocean is clear and calmed. The temperature of the water is cooler than in the dry season and more pleasant. So if it's not raining, it's beach weather! Strange....

I was expecting more flowering plants, but didn't see many. Maybe I was in the wrong part of the country. Close to Panama City, I vaguely remember these plants on the side of the road in what used to be the Canal Zone..... a lifetime away. There were ginger plants, birds of paradise, orchids, and hundreds of other plants that flower in that humid climate with names I never learned. Too late now? not if I have to keep traveling there several times a year! an idea for my next trip....