One of the most interesting dishes at the market, and on the island, is giambo (ghee-YOM-bo), reminiscent in some ways of our famous Louisiana gumbo. Both the Curaçao and Louisiana dishes contain okra, obviously derived in both cases from the Bantu name for okra (ki ngombo) in West Africa, okra’s home. But it seems to me that the two “gumbos” evolved separately. The Curaçaoan one, giambo, has no roux, no tomato, no filé, no long cooking; many of the gumbo styles in Louisiana, of course, have one or more of these elements. No, in Curaçao, giambo is really about one thing: okra!
There’s a ton of it in the soup, it doesn’t cook too long (15 minutes or so), and the soup’s subtle flavor is all about pure, untrammeled okra…along with some weird meat cuts and seafood, of course, not to mention a dollop of polenta for garnish. Of course, this soup is not for every non-Curaçaoan…because the sheer volume of okra leads to a sheer volume of goopiness! Truly, what I ate in Willemstad was the most mucillaginous dish I have every tasted, with huge gloopy white strings rising from the bowl along with my spoon. I loved it!
If you don’t like this texture…stay away. But if you’d like to have an easy-to-make, ultra-authentic ethnic experience in your kitchen—funky cuts of meat add to the joy, if that’s your kind of joy—I know you’ll be happy with this recipe.
Curaçaoan Gumbo with Okra, Salted Meats, Shrimp, Octopus and Oysters
makes four hearty servings of soup
1/3 lb. salted beef (see NOTE)
1/2 lb. salted pig tail (see NOTE)
1 lb. fresh okra, cut into 1/3″ rounds
2 packed tablespoons of fresh basil chiffonade
1/2 lb. medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
1/2 lb. fresh white fish filet, like tilapia, cut into 1/2″ square pieces
1/4 lb. cooked octopus, cut in 1/4″ rounds (see NOTE)
1 dried red chile
crumbled 12 raw oysters in shell for garnish
1 cup cooked polenta, warm
1. Twenty-four hours before cooking, place the salted beef and salted pig tail in a large bowl. Cover meats with cold water and hold in the refrigerator overnight.
2. When ready to cook, remove meats from soaking water and discard water. Place the meats in a large pot, cover with 5 cups fresh water, bring to boil, then simmer, covered, until meats are tender, about 1 hour.
3. Spill contents of pot through a colander, reserving both meat and broth.
4. To cook the okra, you will need 5 cups of liquid. Because the reserved meat stock is salty, you need to cut it with some water…but the amount depends on the saltiness of your dried meats. The formula I use is 3 cups reserved broth, 2 cups fresh water; test before you commit. Combine these 5 cups of liquid in the cooking pot over medium heat. Add the okra and the basil. Chop the reserved meats into small pieces and add them as well. Simmer, covered, until the okra is just tender, about 15 minutes.
5. Over medium heat, add the shrimp, the cut-up fish filets, the octopus, and the chile to taste. Simmer until shrimp are just cooked, about 4 minutes.
6. Shuck the oysters right over the pot, spilling all of the oyster juice into the pot. Collect the oysters as you go, then add them all together just before serving. Simmer for 30 seconds.
7. Give the soup one final check for seasoning and texture: if you find it a little too goopy, add back some of the reserved meat stock to thin it slightly.
8. Serve immediately, making sure each diner has three oysters in his or her bowl. Garnish each plate with a few big scoops of warm polenta, cooked until it’s fairly thick.
SALTED BEEF NOTE: I purchased mine at a supermarket in NYC’s hispanic East Harlem—a bony piece, white-ish like fresh meat, but pre-soaked in salt. You could substitute Brazilian carne seca, which is redder, or, in a pinch, good old American corned beef (whatever you use, make sure it gets tender in the initial cooking).
SALTED PIG TAIL NOTE: This too is a specialty market item; I like the way the bone remains when you cut it up, giving you a good funky suck-chew. But you could substitute any pork with fat and meat, including unsmoked bacon.
COOKED OCTOPUS NOTE: In Curaçao they may use octopus, but they’re even more likely to use conch—which ain’t so easy to find. But either, already cooked, cut in thin slices, will add an authentic and exotic note to the dish.
Photos by David Rosengarten