Aruba…When you hear its name, you can’t help but envision white sand beaches, blue waters, sun, and a feeling of relaxation and happiness. Truly, it’s one of my favorite places in this entire world! I’ve been fortunate enough to have vacationed here twice so far and am looking forward to coming here again and again in the future. Not only is it truly “The Happy Island” if not the happiest island I’ve ever been to!
I love Aruba for so many reasons…the warm sunny beaches, the water that’s so clear and blue you’d swear that part of the sky just liquified itself here, and its food. Aruba has its fair share of tourist type fare, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find a few places that serve traditional Aruban fare that is both amazing and unique to the island. Now Alex and I, being of the nerdy touristy types, of course pored over our guide book from cover to cover (ok, maybe we didn’t, but when I say “we” it makes me feel less nerdy) and read up on a dish called keshi yena.
Aruba, being an island colony of the Netherlands, and being of mostly desert like terrain, has almost all of its food goods shipped in from overseas. Back in the old days, in order to make their food rations last longer, Dutch colonists would reuse the rinds of their cheeses, in this case namely good, amazing Dutch gouda, and stuff it with what they had on hand. What you get today is a dish that’s basically lightly encased in melted gouda cheese around a filling of shredded chicken or pork, mixed with raisins, veggies, nuts, and a little bit of heaven.
As soon as I read about this, I HAD to have it. Alex and I went to 2 separate restaurants in Aruba and did our keshi yena research. What we’ve found is that each place has its own rendition of keshi yena that was an illustration of each restaurant’s respective culinary style…the common themes between both iterations of the dish were the gouda cheese (yay!) and the tomato based sauce. What this meant to me was that each keshi yena has its own personality and that this is a dish that is very easily modified to best convey your own personality and culinary style!
Once we returned home, I set to work creating my own version of keshi yena which I share with you below. It does take a little bit of time getting together the ingredients and, while it may seem like a lot, trust me, it is soooo worth it. The smells that began emanating from our oven as it was cooking were absolutely divine and they did not disappoint on its promise of being an amazing dish!
2 medium onions, finely diced
1 bulb of garlic, peeled and minced fine
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 green bell pepper, finely diced
2 tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 dill pickles, minced
1/2 cup golden raisins
12 olives (I used black salty Kalamata Greek olives)
1 1/4 cup cashews, roughly chopped
2-3 cups of cooked chicken, shredded***
3/4lb Dutch Gouda, sliced
3/4 cup ketchup
3/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 tablespoon paprika powder
1 teaspoon chipotle powder, optional
Nonstick cooking spray
***Liz note: For this time around, I seasoned about 1.5lbs of chicken tenderloins with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and then baked it in the oven at 400 degrees for about 10-13 minutes until the juices ran clear. I’ve also made this dish with just plain boiled chicken with equally good results. I personally prefer the roasted/grilled method, but only if time permits.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare a 9×13 baking dish by spraying with nonstick cooking spray and then layer with 1/2 of the sliced gouda on the bottom.
In a large bowl or mixing cup, mix together ketchup, worcestershire sauce, thyme, curry, paprika, and chipotle, if using, until well combined. Set aside.
In a large pot, heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat till it shimmers. Add in onions and fry until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add in garlic and continue to fry for an additional minute. Add in both red and green bell peppers, tomatoes, pickles, olives, raisins, and cashews and mix well before adding in chicken. Stir in ketchup mixture to pot until well combined. By now, the kitchen will start to smell amazing!
Pour mixture into prepared baking pan lined with gouda. Smooth mixture and top with remaining gouda slices. Bake in oven for about 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and slightly golden at the edges.