You may be taking a vacation to Aruba for sun-kissed skin, postcard-worthy beaches, and Kylie Jenner-inspired Instagram pictures under palm trees (go on with your #microinfluencer bad self), but I can guarantee you’ll be leaving the Caribbean’s One Happy Island with a newfound respect and appreciation for its local cuisine.
In December, the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino graciously hosted me for a much-needed respite from cold and dreary New York. Aside from inarguably being one of the best hotels on the island, boasting oceanfront balconies in every room, a luxe spa, two pools, and Aruba’s largest casino, the Marriott is also home to some of the most diverse dining options for its hungry and thirsty guests. In fact, the resort showcases nearly everything on this diverse list of five must-try island dishes that you’ll undoubtedly inhale in embarrassing amounts (unlike Kylie Jenner, I’m sure). Check out my favorite finds below!
Keshi Yena with Pan Bati
If you can pry yourself off the lounge chair, a trip to nearby Goshen Farm is so much more than a temporary escape from the routine of resort life. It’s a lesson in sustainability, Aruban agriculture, and history, punctuated with unobstructed views of the tiny island’s sprawling desert. (Yes, sand is not only found on the beach. This tropical locale boasts plains of it with cacti galore!)
The highlight of your visit will be a sunset cooking lesson featuring one of Aruba’s most beloved dishes: keshi yena with pan bati. The traditional dish has multiple variations, but is essentially chicken thighs or ground beef (or vegetable—we enjoyed eggplant, too) surrounded by lots and lots of cheese to form a stuffed ball. Dutch-derived “keshi yena” roughly translates to “stuffed cheese,” so you can imagine just how much this bad boy is piled high with the melted good stuff. (You’re welcome, keto queens.) This island delicacy is also served with a side of pan bati, a pillowy cornmeal and flour-based bread, made on the stove with a touch of sweetness—the perfect addition to soak up any saucey main course during your stay. Don’t leave without petting a goat and sipping a Goshen smoothie, which spotlights the farm’s most prized crop: a tiny, spiked cucumber that pairs well with, frankly, just about anything.
Pro Tip: For those with bread on the brain, you’ll want to also sample Aruba’s authentic Dutch pancakes at Linda’s. Crepe-like and offered in both sweet and savory varieties, this breakfast staple is the perfect start to a long day of boating, four-wheeling, or doing absolutely nothing.
If you’re a fan of empanadas, look no further than these fried dough bundles filled with everything from meat and cheese to fruit and salted fish. There are also more creative interpretations with breakfast staples like ham and eggs, though you’d be remiss not to dip any variety in a traditional Aruban papaya hot sauce. The tabletop condiment, found literally everywhere, deceptively packs more heat than sweet, but I’m not complaining.
Pro Tip: If you want a taste of one of Executive Sous Chef Ever de Peña’s world-famous pastechi from your own dining table, here is the recipe:
- 4 cups flour
- 4 tbsp soft butter
- 4 tbsp vegetable shortening
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 medium egg
- 1 1/4 cups cold water
- Young Gouda cheese for filling
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Add flour, butter, vegetable shortening, sugar, salt, egg and 1 cup of cold water to a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Knead the dough until it’s totally smooth and not sticky (mixed for about 10-15 minutes). Let the dough rest for about 30 minutes.
- Make 3 oz. balls out of the dough. Roll the balls to create a flat, thin circle.
- Flatten each circle with shredded Gouda cheese (about 1.5 oz. of cheese for each pastechi).
- Fry the pastechis in hot vegetable oil (350-375 degrees Fahrenheit) until is golden brown. Enjoy while they’re hot.
- The filling can vary. Experiment with ingredients like chicken, beef, ham, and vegetarian.
It should come as no surprise that when traveling in the Caribbean, it only makes sense to load up on the ocean’s most bountiful offerings: fish and shellfish. Grouper, red snapper, and mahi-mahi are the locale’s most popular fish types, cooked and presented in any way you can imagine (grilled, ceviche, roasted, etc.). Perhaps the most popular and authentic preparations are in the form of a soup, stew (keri keri), or chowder, and Marriott’s beachside restaurant Atardi beautifully highlights these proteins in nearly every format, accented with local produce, of course. Be sure to also indulge in prawns, another common ingredient, found most frequently tossed in salads or fried with various dips.
Pro Tip: You can see some of these fish yourself during a snorkeling tour booked through sailing services like Red Sail Sports. The catamaran also offers unlimited alcoholic beverages and a full lunch buffet, guaranteed to either quell or worsen your seasickness.
Plantains are a staple on menus across the island, as they grow abundantly in Aruba’s warm and humid climate. But they take many forms: in funchi (a dish with polenta, fried plantains, and cheese), desserts like bola di banana (plantain pudding), or most commonly, by itself: fried and served as a decadently sweet and starchy side. Luckily for Aruba, monkeys aren’t indigenous to the homeland; there are plantains aplenty, which makes them an easy-to-incorporate starch on most plates.
Pro Tip: Looking for a more unique dinner setting? How about dining in an actual bed where you can take off your shoes and stretch your legs? Vacation reaches peak mode with a trip to the restaurant, Screaming Eagle, offering modern twists to the aforementioned dishes and a dessert menu that is worth the quick snooze…err..dining experience alone. (Get the chocolate lava cake. It is absurd in the best way possible.)
Inspired Adult Beverages
You’ll obviously need a beverage or seven to wash down all the food you’ll consume. Aside from locally brewed beer from Fireson or Balashi, the Marriott is home to one of the island’s most famous drinks: a hibiscus margarita. Equal parts sweet, sour, salty, and, well, sexual (it’s super pretty, OK!), this floral libation is all too easy to knock back before, during, and after dinner. Heck, I’d even order one for breakfast.
Pro Tip: The best drink I tried was the Minty Paradise, a frozen blend of gin, fresh raspberry puree, and island-grown mint. Enjoyed best beachside, obviously.
Header image courtesy of Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino.