Keshi yená, or ‘stuffed cheese’, is a fascinating metaphor for an island where everything is a mix of something: flavours, languages and colours.
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Keshi yená was is filled with a mixture of meat, vegetables, dried fruits and spices (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
Leftovers and cheese. It doesn’t sound like a very erudite gastronomical combination, but on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, it’s one of the most sought-after traditional dishes by tourists and culinary connoisseurs.
The dish is keshi yená, which in Papiamento, an official language of Curaçao (the other two are Dutch and English), means ‘stuffed cheese’. Originally, it was essentially a pot of baked Dutch cheese – such as Edam or Gouda – filled with a mixture of meat (often chicken), vegetables, dried fruits and spices, and is a fascinating metaphor for an island where everything is a mix of something: flavours, languages and colours in terms of people and architecture.
Locals consider this dish dushi, the Papiamento word meaning ‘tasty’, which is also a cultural benchmark used to describe everything on the island that is beautiful, delicious and has good vibes. But keshi yená has an unexpected complexity: its origins tell the tragic story of slavery in Curaçao.
Keshi yená means ‘stuffed cheese’ in Papiamento (Credit: Dexter Guljé)
A Caribbean fusion food
When a fork cuts into the thick, yellow cheese of the keshi yená, everything that spills out is sublime: chicken, capers, onions, raisins, peppers, garlic, curry, paprika and chilli, all marinated in more faraway flavours such as soy sauce, tomato paste or ketchup. Every bite offers both tastes brought over by long journeys to the Caribbean Sea – when ships travelled the world trading spices, seeds and other goods – and a certain sensation of homemade food.
For the most part, though, this dish represents a fusion of two very different worlds: the Netherlands and a multicultural, tropical territory. But keshi yená’s start was far more turbulent than you might expect. The big, round cheeses used as the base of the dish were brought to Curaçao by 17th-Century Dutch colonists and slave traders, and the ‘leftovers’ were added by the hungry slaves
Curaçao is part of an archipelago known as the ABC islands (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
Tropical and diverse
Located 60km north of the coast of Venezuela, the island of Curaçao is part of an archipelago known as the ABC islands, which includes its sister islands Aruba and Bonaire.
The islands have the privilege of being situated outside of the tropical hurricane belt and enjoy a dry, sunny and breezy climate almost year-round. They’re a paradise for windsurfers, scuba divers and sun-seekers; a commerce centre for Caribbean business people; and a refuge for Venezuelans fleeing from the country’s current crisis.
Curaçao, which can be traversed by car in less than 90 minutes, is known for the colourful facades of its Dutch-style architecture and its mosaic of humanity, with the island’s more than 160,000 inhabitants made up of more than 50 nationalities.
An estimated 40% of Curaçao’s population is descended from an immigration boom (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
The ‘useless island’
An estimated 40% of Curaçao’s population is descended from an immigration boom produced by the establishment of an oil refinery in 1915. Workers from places like Syria, India, China, Venezuela, Madeira, Eastern Europe and other Caribbean islands were among the thousands who arrived during the first half of the 20th Century.
Although the refinery was a prime economic driver of the island for many decades, the territory wasn’t always seen as ‘profitable’ to newcomers. When the Spanish arrived on the island in 1499, enslaving the Arawak indigenous peoples and occupying it for more than a century they called it ‘la isla inútil’, or ‘useless island’, expressing their frustration for the lack of precious metals.
But it was conquest by the Netherlands in the 17th Century that ultimately defined the fate of Curaçao. The Dutch created a huge international business endeavour from the island’s salt deposits, and founded Willemstad, a perfect trading harbour, as the territory’s iconic, pastel-hued capital in 1634.
Some of Curaçao’s plantations have been converted into museums and restaurants (Credit: Dexter Guljé)
A global slavery hub
In 1662, the Dutch West India Company made Curaçao its Caribbean hub for the Atlantic slave trade. Over two devastating centuries, hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved, put on overcrowded ships and brought to the island to be processed and redistributed in the Spanish colonies – including what are now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama – or to work on plantations in Curaçao and other Caribbean islands.
Today, some of Curaçao’s plantations have been converted into museums, resorts and restaurants. Standouts include the impressive Knip Plantation, a must-stop museum and the site where Curacao’s slave emancipation began, and Dokterstuin Plantation, a popular creole restaurant (pictured).
Since 2010, Curaçao has been a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
A true melting pot
The slave trade ended in 1863, and since 2010, Curaçao has been a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Some nationals refer to the Netherlands as ‘our kingdom’ and identify strongly with the country, too. But if you ask to a local “Where are you from?”, you could be surprised by the long list of countries a single individual could say. Besides Curaçao and the Netherlands, you could hear Venezuela, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Colombia, and, of course, an African country, all in the same answer.
Like the island, keshi yená is a melting pot of cultures (as much as it’s a melting pot of cheese). Curry was brought to the Caribbean by Indian labourers; capers were originally from the Mediterranean; domesticated animals, including chickens, crossed the Atlantic in European ships; many fruits and vegetables were native to Curaçao; and, of course, the cheese hailed from the Netherlands. It was the plantation slaves who first brought these ingredients together, but keshi yená has evolved over time to accommodate new flavours and influences.
Hensley Birginia: “Keshi yená is a recipe of our ancestors" (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
Keshi yená is a recipe of our ancestors, let’s say from the time of slavery, where the ‘Shon’ [plantation owners] would have the cheese and would use the inside of it and leave the crust. The slaves would take the crust, make a dough and fill it up so they can eat a keshi yená. But it has changed now, we have transformed it, so it looks better and is more representable,” said Hensley Birginia, chef de partie at the Avila Beach Hotel.
Each version of the keshi yená is unique (Credit: Dexter Guljé)
Each version of the keshi yená is unique and often depends on whatever is left over. Some have meats marinated with soy sauce and spices, or bathed in tomato paste or ketchup for a sweeter result. Many include curry powder and capers, and a green plantain side dish that marks it as irrefutably Caribbean. And at restaurants, modern and more upscale editions might include things like a popular Curaçaoan corn polenta called fungi, a bright and refreshing purple cabbage salad on the side, and adornments of sauces and flowers.
“We add some plantain because there is a lot of fat in this cheese. We add some to cut the grease because you know, so much fat is not healthy,” explained Tania Ataoellah-Henriquez, who leads a social project called Casa Hilda where she teaches Curaçaoan cooking to a wide range of people from tourists to locals looking for job opportunities.
There are many different ways to make keshi yená (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
Different ways to prepare it
As much as the ingredients vary, there are also many different ways to make keshi yená. And the dish has evolved over time to use various baking moulds lined with cheese instead of the cheese wheels that slaves used centuries ago. While today’s restaurants often use modern-day ramekins to form the individual baked cheeses, it was not always the case for home cooks. Ataoellah-Henriquez sometimes recycles sausage tins to make individual portions of it. “People couldn’t afford to buy bowls so they used to buy cans of vegetables or sausages, and use them to bake,” she said. “We do our keshi yená in an empty can of sausages like they used to.”
Birginia sometimes uses plantain leaves to build a different, ‘old-style’ baking mould: “We boil the plantain leaf to make it more flexible and to kill the bacteria,” he said. “We cross the slices of cheese, then [add] the chicken, and then I find a way to fold it and close it, as a mould. That’s the way our ancestors used to cook. They ate the keshi yená directly from the leaf, using their hands.”
Curaçao is a paradise for windsurfers, scuba divers and sun-seekers (Credit: Natalia Guerrero)
A new party food?
Despite its strong historical and cultural roots, keshi yená’s popularity has faded over the years. Although it’s a dish that many islanders are familiar with and many tourists enjoy at restaurants – and can also be found in Aruba and Bonaire – it is not often cooked at home today. Most islanders prefer other kinds of meals, particularly broths and stews made from goat, fish, chicken or, in some cases, iguana. Cactus soup and conch stew are also traditional, and can be found in in the famous Marshe Bieu (Old Market) in Punda, the oldest neighbourhood in Williamstad.
And while you can find different kinds of cheese in island supermarkets, it’s not an essential ingredient in a Curaçaoan’s kitchen. It’s also not affordable for many, which could explain why locals mostly eat keshi yená for special occasions like wedding and anniversaries.
“The older generation would eat a lot of keshi yená, but now our culture has changed, and we don’t really care about it,” Birginia said. “It’s something more of the Caribbean – the tourists like to try the keshi yená and the elderly would appreciate it.”
Ataoellah-Henriquez has a different take and hints how the dish might have a new life, alluding to a revived interest from tourists and its appearance in posh hotels. “It used to be a sad story but today it means luxury, party, pleasure.”
Soul Foodis a BBC Travel series that connects you with cherished memories through comfort foods from around the world.