Dona Elena in Curacao
Even though you find yourself in one country, you may find you’re eating food from other countries. As I spent some time in Curacao, I quickly came to realize that there is an impressive influence from Venezuela and Colombia that are a stones throw away from this tiny island. Spanish is one of four languages that is spoken by most Curaçaoans. I found through the week that there were dishes that were similar in taste and texture to foods that I was familiar with (for example: yellow cornmeal funchie patties that are similar to Colombian white cornmeal ‘arepas’). There are many culinary influences and I tasted some great Asian-Carib fusion food at Ginger, located in the historic Pietermaai District. You can also taste more local fair at Pop’s Place in Jan Thiel.
You have to be a local to find this restaurant but once you do, you will not regret making the effort to track it down. In a passing conversation, a friend mentioned that she comes to Dona Elena with her son for an authentic Colombian meal. Not one to pass up an opportunity to have a meal from my country of birth, I inquired as to how difficult it would be to find. I was visiting Curacao but I did have a rental car, I was willing to Google Map it and go!
Much to my surprise, and pleasure, she said: “I’d be happy to take you.” A few days later, I found myself at this wonderful, non-descript restaurant in a strip mall setting, that is so common in Curacao. The parking lot was full because there were plenty here to enjoy.
The menu was pretty impressive with fish, beef and chicken delicacies from different regions of Colombia. You can get an arepas, buñuelos (round deep fried cheese balls)and empanadas. There were so many delectable choices but I had thought I wanted one thing – a Bandeja Paisa – but something else caught my attention: a tamal. This is a combination of masa (a cornmeal paste) to which chicken, chickpeas or yellow peas and sometimes veggies are added. It is all mixed together and wrapped in a banana leaf to be steamed for a long time. Because tamales tend to be labour intensive, they may not always be on a Colombia menu (if you are not actually in Colombia).
Alas, to my disappointment they were sold out of the Tamales. So, I decided to go with the Bandeja Paisa which is as famous a dish in Colombia as poutine is in Quebec. It is a platter from the Antioquia region, which traditionally has beans, rice, avocado, fast fry steak or minced meat, a fried egg, sweet plantains and perhaps an arepa.
Dona Elena’s Bandeja Paisa comes with a traditional Curacao cornbread round (funchie) and a small steak. You can also have minced meat (akin to ground beef) as my friend ordered (see picture below).
We also ordered a side of chicharron (deep friend pork rinds) and chorizo – served with lime (this cuts some of the heaviness of the pork rind and spice of the chorizo). There are large and small portions – this is a large portion and was more than enough for the three of us.
I am fully aware that some of these dishes are an acquired taste but you would be hard-pressed to be invited to an asada (BBQ) without these dishes. A much loved treat in my house is an arepa. Although you can find Pan Areparina here in London, it just never seems to be the same as when others make it – and stuff it with cheese or chorizo or chicharron. Unfortunately, the stuffed cheese arepa masterpiece that was presented to me will remain a mystery to you because I did not take a picture of it. Lastly, if that was not enough, I decided to order a side of fried yucca. The extra side dishes would have been great with the Tamal that I order originally but with the huge Bandeja Paisa, it was a bit much. All I can say is the portions are generous and you can count on leftovers that you can take home!
If you know anything about Colombian food, you know it is loaded with carbs. This however does not deter me from digging in. As we watched the Colombia news station playing in the background we settled into some serious eating. My other friend decided on an Arroz con Pollo (Chicken with Rice) which is a version of Spanish paella without the seafood. It is long grain rice, chicken, green peas, carrots, tomatoes and onions. At Dona Elena they had a side of either sweet or savoury plantains. You may be familiar with a green plantain that is a staple in any Caribbean, Central or South American home. They are large bananas that cannot be eaten raw – like their smaller cousins – the yellow banana. A plantain can be cooked either as a savoury dish (twice friend plantains when they are green) or as a sweet dish (baked when they are ripe when the peel is yellowing or yellow with black spots). The more ripe the plantain, the sweeter they are. Two completely different tasting dishes from the same fruit.
It is my experience that in Colombia, you are more likely to be offered a fresh fruit juice than a pop or soda. For me, they have perfected juicing and it was nice to see that Dona Elena had fresh fruit juices available. We had the option of either a blackberry (mora) juice or passion fruit (maracuyá) natural juices. Don’t get me wrong, my all-time favourite pop is a Colombiana. It is a dark amber coloured pop that is similar in taste to a cream soda. Later on in the week I was able to track down a bottle of Colombiana, that I affectionately gifted my hostess for her young son. I wanted to thank her for our little culinary excursion to my childhood at this small, yet authentic, Colombian food restaurant in Curacao that I just had to share it with you.