Along with Aruba, Bonaire, and a few other tropical spots, Curaçao is part of the Dutch Caribbean, a collection of islands formerly part of the Netherlands. Dutch culture and cuisine is still prevalent on Curaçao, visible in its architecture like the pastel-colored buildings lining the waterfront in Willemstad, its gin and tonic culture (the juniper-based spirit is, after all, a derivative of the Dutch spirit genever), its iconic namesake blue liqueur, and dishes like bitterballen (deep-fried meatballs dipped in mustard) and stroopwafels (a sweet treat made by slathering a thin layer of caramel between two thin sweet wafer cookies).
But keshi yená is the island’s signature dish, a mash-up of cultures that’s also a historical remnant and reminder of Curaçao’s slave-trading past.
What Is Keshi Yená?
Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, round wheels of cheese like Dutch Edam or Gouda were shipped to the island for the wealthy landowners to serve at parties and dinners. “The Dutch ‘masters’ only used and bothered with the soft inside of the cheese and scooped that part out for their consumption, [while] the hard outside rind was put aside and returned to the kitchen to be thrown away,” explains Hensley Birginia, junior sous chef at Avila Beach Hotel in Willemstad. “The slaves kept the hollowed-out cheese shell and filled it with table scraps from the luxurious dinner their landlords hosted”—generally chicken, meat, olives, vegetables, and raisins.
The name of the dish translates to “stuffed cheese” from the native Papiamento, a Portuguese-based Creole language spoken on the island and all over the Dutch Caribbean. Most chefs today have abandoned the practice of preparing keshi yená in nearly-empty cheese rinds, instead opting to use the milky-soft inside part of the cheese which is richer and more flavorful, and baking the dish in an empty can of sausages, wrapping the cheese and meat in plantain leaves or using ramekins. “Smaller versions of keshi yená are also presented nowadays as an appetizer or as a small roll in the hollow of a spoon as an hors d’oeuvres at celebrations or parties,” Virginia adds. It’s also a great way to use up leftovers or scraps in your fridge.
Birginia says there are other versions of keshi yená, including one that substitutes minced meat, mahi-mahi, or grouper for the chicken as well as a vegetarian option with cauliflower or broccoli florets, green beans, spinach, squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, or black beans. For the latter iteration, be sure to cut the veggies in small pieces and simmer for a shorter amount of time so they don’t get too soft.
At Avila, keshi yená has been on the menu since the resort opened its Belle Terrace restaurant in the 1950s (now called Restaurant Le Pen). It’s been the property’s most famous dish for decades—and now you can make it at home.
Keshi Yená Recipe
Recipe courtesy of Hensley Birginia, Junior Sous Chef, Avila Beach Hotel, Willemstad, Curaçao
- ½ pound boneless chicken breasts
- ½ pound boneless chicken thighs
- Juice of 2 limes
- Salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and dried minced onion, to taste
- 5 tablespoons butter, divided, plus butter to grease ramekins
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 peppercorns
- 2 medium-sized onions, peeled, diced and divided
- 1 celery stalk, with leaves, chopped
- 1 bay leaf, bruised
- 2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 green pepper, seeded and sliced
- 1 tablespoon parsley, minced
- 3 drops of Tabasco sauce (optional)
- 1 tablespoon ketchup
- ¼ cup pimento olives, sliced
- ½ tablespoon capers
- ¼ tablespoon piccalilli (can substitute chow chow or pickle relish)
- 8 slices gouda or edam cheese
- Rice, fried plantains and/or steamed veggies, to serve alongside
- Rub the chicken breast and thighs with the lime juice, season with salt, pepper, poultry and minced onion, cover and marinate in the refrigerator for several hours.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan on medium-high heat, add the chicken breasts and saute until browned.
- Add the chicken to a stock pot along with 1 quart of water, 1 teaspoon of salt, 6 peppercorns, 1 sliced onion, the celery stalk and leaves and the bay leaf. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until chicken is tender. Strain out and discard the vegetables, reserve the broth, debone and shred chicken and set aside.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan on medium to medium-high heat, add the tomatoes, 1 onion, green pepper, parsley, several drops of Tabasco sauce and salt and pepper, to taste, and saute until softened. Add ketchup, olive, capers, piccalilli or relish and the shredded chicken and simmer until tomatoes are reduced, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
- Generously butter 4 soup cups or ramekins with butter and cover the sides and bottom with sliced cheese. Fill with the chicken and vegetable mixture and top with a slice of cheese.
- Add the soup cups to the bottom of a large stockpot and add enough water to come three-quarters of the way up the side of the soup cups to create a bain-marie. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and let steam for 15 minutes. Alternatively, heat in a preheated 400 degree oven for 15 minutes or until hot, making sure the soup cups are ovenproof.
- Let cool for several minutes, then invert the keshi yená onto 4 plates. Serve them with your choice of rice, fried plantains and steamed veggies.
Images courtesy of Avila Beach Resort