The huge wheels of Gouda on display in the Curacao airport were the first edible indication of the tiny Caribbean island's history as a Dutch colony. Though Curacao is now independent (as part the Netherlands Antilles, which includes St. Maarten, Bonaire, and Aruba), it is still part of the Dutch Kingdom and is a magnet for tourists from Holland.
Dutch vacationers, greatly outnumbering Americans, were everywhere on our visit over the winter holiday, as were their snacks -- small plates of sandwiches and fried foods served at the beach, bars, and cafes. During an afternoon exploring the brightly colored Dutch caribbean architecture of Punda (one of the two districts that make up the capital city of Willemstad), we had our first taste of the Dutch specialties.
We stopped at one of the outdoor cafes that line the harbor. As I scanned the menu, I noticed with curiosity, “bitterballen.” I wanted to try something new, so I asked the waitress what bitterballen was. After fumbling a bit for a translation, she explained that they were meatballs. Simple enough, we thought. But, what arrived were tiny balls, perfectly round, breaded and deep-fried, along with packets of mustard.
Breaded and deep-fried meatballs? With mustard?
I took one bite, and they were nothing like any meatballs I had ever tasted. The crisp fried outer layer betrayed a steaming, weirdly creamy center with strands of meat that barely resembled beef. The only thing I could compare the texture too was a tuna casserole. One bite was enough. Whether we had been treated to poor specimens of bitterballen or they are just an acquired taste, I can't say (here's a recipe).
Luckily, we were soon distracted from our bad bout with bitterballen by the waterside spectacle of seeing Willesmtad's Queen Emma Bridge (below) open for a passing ship. Held up by pontoons, the bridge swings opens like a gate, pivoting on one end while a driver steers the other motorized end to allow boats to pass. Everyone got up from their tables to watch the show, and, for us, the timing couldn't have been better. By the time the bridge had passed, the taste of the bitterballen was just a faint memory, washed down with a swig of beer (Dutch Amstel, of course).