Saturday, June 10, 2017

eating my way through colombia

My love affair with Colombian food is long and sporadic.

It all started back in 1972 when I was stationed at Castle Air Force Base just outside of Merced, California. One of Merced's greatest assets was its close proximity to Yosemite National Park.

A group of us from the base would regularly get up early to drive to the park to spend the day skiing, hiking, or just standing with our mouths agape at the beauty of the glacier-gouged valley. On the way home, we almost always stopped at a Colombian restaurant in Cathey's Valley -- the name has long slipped into that dark crevasse in my mind where the calculation to convert fahrenheit to celsius lives.

The name may be gone, but not my memory of the food. I have mentioned this before, but before I ate there, I would have suffered the same misconception Jack Ryan had in 
one of my favorite scenes from Clear and Present Danger. Agent Murray asks Jack what the food is like in Colombia. Ryan responds: "It's like Mexican food."

Ryan was completely wrong. Colombian food is nothing like Mexican.

Let's start with the most obvious. Unlike Mexico, Colombians do not base their cuisine on tortillas. Instead, the basic "bread" item is the arepa -- a corn cake about the size of a large biscuit. They accompany almost every meal, in various forms.

You can see one on the upper edge of the plate.

And that photograph is a great place to start our conversation. The combination of food is known as bandeja paisa, and it reflects the genesis of a lot of Colombian food.

Almost all national cuisines have their origins in the countryside. French and Italian food may have become refined, but each dish started out as a filler on a farm house kitchen table.

A bandeja paisa fills the same purpose. We were served this meal during our visit to a coffee plantation (sipping my coffee) -- the implication being that this is what the coffee harvesters would eat. And filling it was.

In addition to the arepa, the meal includes ground beef, chorizo, chicharron, an egg, rice, and a large bowl of Colombian red beans. The only thing missing was a fried plantain and blood sausage.

I have never been a fan of chorizo. That is not surprising. I am not a fan of most sausages.

When we stopped at one restaurant that served nothing but chorizo, I thought I was going to go hungry. Instead, I decided to tackle my prejudice. I was surprised how mild and meaty the chorizo was. The grilled chorizo, that is. Another piece had been cooked in a broth turning the casing into a very unappetizing gelatinous mess. It was not quite so good.

My grandmother loved chicharron. Fried pork rind or belly. Even though it is quite tasty, my tolerance level for fat only goes so far. But Grandma would have loved it.

Of the lot, my favorite was the Colombian red beans. Mexican frijoles pale in comparison. They are usually cooked with inexpensive cuts of pork and spiced just enough to bring out their beany flavor.

I ordered the dish as often as I could. It was a treat with some fresh Colombian avocado.

Colombian food is not built around fruits and vegetables. But if you like meat and starch (and I do), you have come to the correct country.

My first meal in the Coffee Zone was one of my favorite food combinations. Chicken and rice. With a token tomato thrown in for color, I guess. And, as was true of most restaurants in Colombia, the serving was more than ample. (Yet, most Colombians are as svelte as the French.)

When meat is not grilled in Colombia, it is breaded and fried Milanese-style. Including this fish with its breaded head and tail.

On our hiking trip to the wax palm forest (coming to jesus), we stopped at a restaurant noted for its creative renditions of traditional dishes. Mine was grilled pork in a cheese and cream sauce -- a combination that worked far better than it sounds. Accompanied by a disk of fried plantain as large as a dinner plate.

Americans eat nachos while watching football. Colombians know what a man (and woman) really needs while watching real football -- meat and potatoes.

We stopped at a hamburger place in Bogota to watch Real Madrid play Barcelona in a Spanish league match (climbing the greasy pole). Patty thought we needed a nice platter of Colombian snacks -- blood sausage, longaniza sausage, Argentine chorizo, Santarosario chorizo, and, by far my favorite of all Colombian foods, the small oven-roasted Andean potatoes known as papas crillos al horno.

I am still not certain how we each avoided having a cardiac arrest before the final goal.

You may have noticed, in my photographs, the almost complete absence of fruit and vegetables (with the exception of the odd tomato or cup of cole slaw). I do not know why that was true because Colombia has plenty of both -- as this street vendor can verify.

Most of the places we ate served up rather traditional country food. And that was fine with me. I like walking away from a table feeling as if I had experienced a hearty meal.

But we did have several meals that were not what most people would expect when they hear the phrase "Colombian food." One of the most memorable was a very simple breakfast at the patio restaurant in Sevilla pictured at the top of this essay.

The cook prepared an egg with a slice of tomato in a pot the size of a sugar bowl, and then basted the combination in an oven. The result was simple and delicious, proving once again that complex dishes are not better simply because they have more ingredients.

Sometimes, though, they are better. During our trip, we saw several Crepes and Waffles outlets around the country. Two college students started the restaurant chain in Colombia in 1980. It has now expanded to Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Spain, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. There are seven in or near Mexico City.

The restaurant stuffs almost anything imaginable into a crepe. In my case, it was hoisin chicken.

What I have not discussed is dessert. The reason is obvious. I am not very fond of sweets. I am like this little boy. Show me sugar -- and I will walk on by.

Well, that is not exactly true. Because our stop at Crepes and Waffles was one of our last meals in Colombia, I decided to indulge in a treat I have not had in years -- a banana split. It was a way to enjoy Colombian bananas in a non-fried state.

Like most forbidden indulgences, the anticipation far outweighed the enjoyment of the experience.

That certainly was the food exception on this visit to Colombia. Cathey's Valley introduced me to Colombian food. Now, I have had the real thing.

And, if I want more, it is just an airline ticket away.

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