Colombia is very high on my (extensive) list of places that I would love to visit. Even when watching a show like “Narcos”, about Pablo Escobar and the violent drug wars of the 70s and 80s, my attention was drawn to the beautiful shots of Medellín, with its colourful tropical atmosphere vividly capturing my imagination. Note: the country is purportedly much safer these days, and welcomes tourism! Another important player in my romanticism of Colombia is renowned author Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez hugely popularised the genre of magical realism, a concept where small coincidences and curiosities of the world are highlighted in ways that could be interpreted as magical, but are not explicitly fantastic, and the stories otherwise revolve around realistic events. This genre was like a breath of fresh air to me, as I had always held a soft spot for the hardcore fantasy genre, stereotypically set specifically in a European-like medieval wooded area. To suddenly have the much subtler and more human stories of magical realism playing out in tropical jungles and rolling beaches, the sounds of jungle birds and monkeys threaded throughout the plot, was so new and exciting – I was instantly hooked. This “late” discovery of magical realism, in my early 20s, mirrored a similar discovery of South American cuisine, which I tried at a similar time and had never before realised could contain some of the same properties I adore from Asian food (fresh, tangy and savoury flavours contrasted with sweet tropical fruits, fried starches and fluffy rice), but with a completely new and exhilarating flavour profile. Colombian cuisine is in part a product of the diverse geographies within the country, with parts bordering both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean Sea, as well as containing sections of the Amazon rainforest, the huge Andes mountain range and expansive flat grassy plains. On top of this incredible biodiversity of ingredients, there are influences from the indigenous peoples, as well as Spanish, African and Arabic cuisines. Colombian food is one of my best bets for the next big culinary trend – so there’s no harm in starting to cook from this cuisine before the hipsters discover it!
Bandeja paisa will always hold a special place in my heart, as it marked one of my first forays into the splendour of South American platters containing lots of little tastes of a huge variety of wonderful things. This concept is my favourite of all culinary options, perhaps representing sheer gluttony at wanting to eat everything on the menu and resenting the awful situation of only being able to choose one item to try. Bandeja paisa literally means platter of a person from the Paisa region, which lies in northwest Colombia. The exact preparation and contents of a bandeja paisa has a little flexibility, but traditionally contains cooked beans (kidney or pinto), carne molida (spiced ground beef), chorizo and/or morcilla (blood sausage), chicharrón (fried pork belly), fried plantain banana, hogao (spiced tomato and spring onion sauce), white rice, avocado, arepa (fried cornmeal flat bread), all topped off with a fried egg. It’s one of my greatest fears to be labelled a mean cook, so of course I included all of the above in my bandeja paisa. However, other varieties exist all over the country, such as the “extended” version, which adds steak, pork and liver, or another version that makes substitutions with salad and chicken breast for the health conscious consumer. The dish has taken on such national significance in Colombia perhaps because of its representation of the cultural milieux, including influences from indigenous, Spanish and African culinary practices and ingredients. Some regard bandeja paisa as the national dish of Colombia, and indeed there was a push about a decade ago by the Colombian government to rename it bandeja montañera (mountain tray) to make it less region-specific and solidify its uniting status. However, there was a pushback by the populace who still felt that, despite the proposed name change, bandeja paisa is too much of a regional dish to fairly represent the entirety of Colombia. Regardless, many tout it as the national dish, and indeed it’s the first meal that always springs to my mind when thinking of Colombian food. What then, are the other contenders for national dish I hear you ask? More on that to come!
Empanadas originated from Galicia in Spain as a large pie with chicken, onion and capsicum, possibly with inspiration from Persian flavours and Arabian samosas many centuries before the Christian era. The conquistadores then helped to bring the concept of empanadas to The Americas, and following the Spanish colonisation of almost the whole of the southern continent, the variety and interpretation of empanadas exploded and they morphed into the single-serve items best known today. I already made a type of empanadas way back in Chile week, called “empanadas de horno”, literally “empanadas of the oven”. These huge flaky golden beauties are undoubtedly my favourite empanadas, however, there is another variety that come a very close second: empanadas fritas, literally “fried empanadas”. The name “empanada” simply means “enbreaded”, describing any filling stuffed inside a wrapper of dough. While the large baked Chilean empanadas de horno call for wheat flour to maintain a tight seal on the juicy fillings, the smaller empanadas fritas more popular in northern parts of South America commonly have a more delicate (often yellow) cornmeal dough (resulting from a fusion with native ingredients) that quickly and uniformly seals upon immersion in the hot oil. The filling of your empanada could feasibly be anything under the sun, but popular varieties include beef and potato, as well as mixed vegetable, often flavoured generously with onion, garlic and cumin. In Colombia, these small pastries are a popular street food all over the place, but particularly common outside churches, perhaps in a nation-wide conspiracy to associate church with pleasurable experiences in the minds of the populace? I served my empanadas fritas with aji, a condiment made with lots of finely chopped spices jalapeños, coriander, vinegar, lemon juice, spring onion, cumin, and a little tomato.
Wherever there’s coastline in Colombia, there’s seafood, and one of the most famous meals encompassing this resource is pescado frito, literally meaning fried fish. The process of making the dish is very simple, as the freshness of the fish matters more than any seasoning. Nevertheless, the raw fish is first seasoned with salt, pepper and lime juice, and dredged in plain flour. It’s then fried, immersed (or near-immersed) in hot oil, until the outside is crunchy and golden, while the inside is moist and tender. Colombian poet María Mercedes Carranza referred to this dish in one of her poems, setting the scene of the banal daily life of a relationship, as contrasted with the usual passionate descriptions of love by poets: “con el cepillo de dientes por la mañana/ el pescado frito en la cocina” (with a toothbrush in the morning/fried fish in the kitchen). I know she was trying to convey a dull and monotonous image of romantic life, but honestly, it sounds beyond exciting to me! Importantly, as for many dishes of South America, the accompaniments to this dish are equally, or perhaps even more, important than the main attraction. I made a simple tomato and lettuce salad as well as patacón pisao, which are twice-fried green plantain slices. I also made Colombian coconut rice, which involves first reducing coconut milk until it becomes thick and brownish, then adding rice, water and raisins and simmering until the rice is cooked.
Sancocho and ajiaco are, apart from bandeja paisa, the other two most likely contenders for national dish of Colombia. They are often grouped together, as I have done here, because, even to a seasoned chicken and vegetable stew connoisseur like myself, they appear very similar. As I understand it, sancocho, meaning “to parboil” can describe a wider variety of stews, including chicken, pork, beef, fish, or a mixture of those, with a mixture of vegetables such as corn, potato, cassava, plantain or tomato. Sancocho is also not uniquely Colombian, and can describe popular meat and vegetable stews in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, The Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama and The Philippines to name a few. Ajiaco, on the other hand, is relatively more restricted in geographical distribution, being common to Colombia, Cuba and Peru, but particularly popular in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Unlike the “anything goes” ethos of sancocho, ajiaco’s recipe prescribes a specific combination of chicken, three types of potatoes, guasca (the galingsoga parviflora herb, native to the region), and often garnished with sour cream and capers. I therefore suppose that ajiaco could be a type of sancocho, but not all sancochos could be ajiacos. Am I overthinking this? Regardless of the name, I made a chicken and vegetable stew which I hope could be safely described as sancocho. I first food processed some carrots, onion, garlic, capsicums, cumin and huge handfuls of coriander in chicken stock to make a smooth base. In this I stewed pieces of chicken, cassava, potato, corn, sweet potato and green plantain banana, until the flavours had melded and a hearty chunky soup emerged. Just the thing for a cold night in the Andes!