Entries from March 22nd, 2011

Comida Colombiana

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I have to pay homage to the food of Colombia, and I really want to do it properly.  It is my belief that a large part of any culture is shaped by its food and the traditions that envelop it, and by a landslide, my favorite way to get to know a new place is through my taste buds.  I want to know what the people are growing, cooking, and eating.  Five weeks is the longest I’ve spent in one country outside of the U.S., which really, when you think about it, is not a ton of time.  One hour is also not a lot of time to write a a comprehensive post on the topic, but it’s all I’ve got before I get to join my beautiful cousin, Tippy, who flew all the way from Minneapolis so that we could spend a week discovering Peru together.  So let’s get this thing going, shall we?

SOPA

I adore a good soup, and I had many memorable sopas in Colombia.  At Verdeo, a vegetarian spot near Parque Poblado, I had celery and potato soup in a light, steamy, beany broth.  Simple, clean, rejuvenating.  Don’t pass through Medellin without a lunch at Verdeo.

In Santa Fe Antioquia, we ate liquid carrot cream of a shockingly bright orange color.  Normally, I prefer soup of a piping hot temperature, but this one was cooled to tepid, and it was stunning.  We had asparagus blended to the consistency of liquid velvet, finished with a swirl of cream, at Jardin Botanico.  A swirl of cream is the holy grail of soup accoutrement, in my book.  Judging by its prevalence, I’ve got a feeling Colombians have a similar affection.

Mondongo, a traditional Colombian stew made lush from diced pieces of tripe, is garnished with sliced sweet banana.  I know this isn’t the most appetizing sounding marriage of flavors (was it the stomach lining that threw you off?)  but I am telling you, it is hypnotic.  And cazuela, made with soft brown beans, chicharron (fried pork rinds), diced avocado, and corn, and topped with a mound of fried potato strings.  But my favorite was the ajiaco:  a soup of tender, thinly shredded chicken and three (or four?) types of potatoes, distinctively flecked with a weedy herb called guasca, and pooled around a short cob of corn, the kind with big, charming, knobby kernels.  The accompanying garnishes took this soup over the edge, for me.  You take a spoon to a halved avocado, dropping curls of buttery green into the soup before you finish the whole thing off with a drizzle of cream and a smattering of capers the size of olives.  This dish was so good, it made me laugh the first time I tried it.  Don’t you love when that happens?

(the photo below is the antithesis of a justifying visual, but it’s the best I’ve got – I settled for mediocrity, I know it, but I did it because I was distracted by its aroma – the start of a new, lifelong infatuation).

Ajiacos y Mandangoes is the place to get good Ajiaco in Medellin.  I went once with my new friend Esther.  We sat for two hours and shared two bowls of soup.  We were the last of the lunch rush remaining, probably because everyone else had to get back to work.  As we were on our way out the door, we spotted a carrot cake resting patiently on a ledge with only a couple of slices missing.  So we ordered a piece to share, sat back down, and stayed for another thirty minutes.  Esther is 79 years old, but she didn’t look a day over 60.  She was visiting her son who is teaching English in Medellin.  We talked a lot about Richard Simmons.  Hell, if his videos are one of the tricks to staying effortlessly vibrant, like Esther, sign me up yesterday.

PESCADO

On the coast, you eat fish.  To not is to cheat yourself.  Most always, fish is served whole, with coconut rice, citrus, salad, and patacones (green plaintains pounded flat and fried until crisp skinned but still soft on the inside).

Never have I ever tasted such seafood.

Or met such fishermen.

TIPICOS

Tipicos are usually had for lunch.  Filling and easy on the wallet, tipicos consist of a meat, such as beef, chicken, or chicharron, white rice, a salad of cabbage or avocado, and a soft-yoked fried egg.  Sometimes with chorizo, sometimes with french fries, but always, always with an arepa and a fried banana.  A staple combination plate for Colombian people, and a must-try for any visitor.

FRUTAS

A kaleidoscopic array of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures.  Oh my, the fruits of Colombia.  Mora (blackberry) is blended with vanilla ice cream, comes in yogurt and is a jelly filling at Dunkin Donuts in Medellin.  Maracuya, a fruit that, once cut open, spills out a seed-filled liquid to be eaten with a spoon, seeds and all.  The juice is sour but addictive.  I had a piece of cheesecake glazed with maracuya seeds.  My god.  It was beautiful, but you’ll have to trust my word because we ate it all before I could snap a photo of it.   Imagine a custard-colored, thick square slab with a consistency like flan, glazed with a delicate veil of flat black maracuya seeds.  Brilliant.

And the juices made from these fruits.  So fresh, so healthful.  This was banana papaya.

This woman, Maria, has a stand directly across from the Alpujarra stop of the Medellin metro.  She makes the most incredible strawberry juice.  She’ll pull up a plastic chair for you, encourage you to sit, and refill your glass to the brim.  If you take the metro to El Parque de los Pies Descalzos, you’ll walk past her.  Do yourself a favor and stop for  a juice on the way.

I loved to cherry pick a new fruit eat time I visited the market.  I picked up a rustic beauty called a tamarillo, or tomate de arbol, one day.  Shaped like an egg and dusty-skinned like a plum, I fell for it at first site.  At home, I pressed a knife lengthwise into it, expecting to make contact with a pit.  But the knife slid cleanly through, and in the center was a hook of black seeds.  The taste and texture was like a tomato, just much more sour.  Maybe I chose one that wasn’t ripe – I really don’t know, but I didn’t love it.  However, I’ve found a good amount of tamarillo enthusiasm online.  If available in Argentina, I’m going to experiment with some salsas and sauces made of tamarillo.  Kyle, Agustina, and Natasha, I hope you’re up for some taste testing.

POSTRES

In Cartagena, women would walk the streets and beaches with baskets of fruit and desserts, often balanced on their heads.  I ate fried coconut bars (like rice crispy bars, but entirely of coconut – swoon)  and tamarind balls rolled in sugar.  I told you earlier about the taffy on a stick.  And arequipe, a popular milk caramel, is very often eaten on its own with a spoon.  Mary Jo hit the jackpot when she poured arequipe over ice cream and dotted the whole thing with a miniature tamarind ball.  The tart, spiky flavor of the tamarind with the smooth sweetness of the arequipe and the chilled, vanilla cream was something I am not going to quickly forget.

Okay, there is more to say but my time is officially up.  It’s noon and the sun is out.  The bar is open.  The pisco is flowing.  And by the way, it was as hard to say goodbye to Mary Jo as ever.  We had the greatest five weeks of traveling together, and I’ll cherish the time for the rest of my days.  Thanks for everything, MJ.  See you soon.

Te echaré de menos, Colombia

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I’m back from Providencia with a few more tan lines, a lot more mosquito bites, and runaway granules of sand hiding in pocket crevices, the biggest giveaway that we’d spent the better part of the last week at the beach.  We were in San Andres, an island off the coast of Nicaragua (but still part of Colombia) when we found out about the tsunami in Japan.  We’d let the sun bake us to a deeper color before we took a small boat to a neighboring island to swim with sting rays.  On the ride back to San Andres, the rain came and rinsed us clean.  The captain passed each of the passengers a plastic cup of rum to ease our chattering teeth.  As we sat down to dinner, video of the catastrophe played on a big screen.  It didn’t seem real.  How could it be?  The image of the water gushing past the coastline, obliterating everything in its path, replayed again and again.  We ate without enthusiasm, and we left, and it was the last of any coverage we saw for the next five days.  There was no easy access to internet or t.v. in Providencia to give us further idea of just how horrible the situation was.  And so I didn’t really think about it.  It just didn’t seem real.

Now that I’m back and am catching up on the latest threats as a result of this sad occurrence, it makes this whole trip seem less important and more personally important at the same time.  Less important for obvious reasons.  More important because again, in an instant, I am snapped back to the reality of how fragile one day of life really is.

So what can I tell you about Providencia that can accurately convey its effects?  I could tell you about the sea, and how it stretches for miles in gradations of blue and green:  at the brightest part of the day, from cyan to cobalt to the color of freshly spilled ink.  To gold and periwinkle as the sun sneaks closer to eye level and finally slips snugly below the horizon.  If you’ve been to the Caribbean, you know what I’m saying.  I hadn’t before this.  I had no idea that water came in so many colors.

I could tell you about the catamaran we took for a three hour trip from San Andres to Providencia.  The boat  that rocked us from our seats as it bounced over the waves, splashing water aboard and caking our skin with a good layer of salt.  Schools of flying fish  that seemed to want to race the boat, and tried to, before disappearing swiftly back below the surface.

And the man and the car he drove to deliver us from the arrival dock to our Posada, a trip we shared with a wonderfully fun couple from Warsaw, whom we bonded with first over our shared awe of the exceptional interior decor of the cab itself.  Pinned to the entire inside perimeter of his car was a wide strand of lavender fringe, like what you might find hanging from the bottom of an antique lamp shade inside the office of a gypsy fortune teller.  A taxi cab with class, if I’ve ever seen one.  And later, over a card game, coconut pie from a favorite local restaurant, and reggae.

I should mention the horses that roam freely about the beach, and the men that train them and bathe them just after sunrise.  The beaches were nearly bare, save for a horse or two.  It felt magical.

The crabs that scuttle across the roads and hide out in the corners of bathrooms.  The prized peacock that struts across the lawn near the Sirius dive shop of Southwest Bay, where we spent most of our time.  The roosters that lift a person from deep sleep each morning, like clockwork.  The fishing boats that dot the water near the shore and the owners who, without a thought, offer rides to the neighboring beaches, or to Cayo Congrejo for snorkeling, swimming, and a 360 degree view of that mesmerizing sea.

About the mixed seafood platters of white fish caught the same day, lightly fried and served whole, the sweetly tender black crab meat, delicately shredded and tossed with garlic, black pepper and red spices, all served next to flattened green plantains, fluffy, grainy coconut rice and halves of fruit that resemble orange in color but lime in taste.  Or the sweets of Cafe Studio, namely: the pies.  Coconut covered by a meringue blanket.  Lemon.  Chocolate that resembled more of a bread.  Cappuccino pudding.  The sweet mangoes native to the island which, once ripe, fall from the trees with a light swat of a stick.  The local beer of choice that is, I kid you not, Milwaukee’s Best.  I resisted it until 12 hours before our departure, and then I drank three in a row.

Providencia is the kind of island that will throw an unforeseen fork in a person’s road map.  The kind of place people visit, fall in love with, and decide to relocate to because they can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.  We met two such people on our short trip.  I’ve got a feeling that it had a bit to do with the picturesque setting and a lot to do with the people who inhabit it.

What I want to remember most keenly from the five days in Providencia, and really from my whole trip to Colombia, are the people I met and the ways in which they lived, some so different from how I live, yet, when stripped down to the basics, are in fact very much the same.  There’s a resiliency, a connection of the human spirit, one we’ve used to survive since the beginning, that seems to be most recognized whenever disaster strikes.  Imagine if that human connection was felt a little more strongly, a little more often, all around the world.

Colombia, I’ll miss you.  Your kindness, your culture, your salsa, your passion, your people.  I’ll miss it all.

la continuación en una serie de fotos

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We arrived at the Medellin bus terminal on Saturday, home from Rio Claro, and right away took another bus to Santa Fe, Antioquia, a pueblo an hour (mas o menos) West of Medellin to meet some friends.  We added two to the group of seven, our ages ranging from 26 to 79.  We ate fried food on sticks in the middle of the main plaza.  With dropped jaws, we watched a group of gorgeously chiseled men and women twist, turn, and shake their bodies at mind-bending angles to traditional, coastal beats at a tempo I didn’t think was humanly possible.  We shared a carton of rum.  And we spent the better part of Sunday lounged around the hotel pool.  Sunday had all the makings of a Puff Daddy (P Diddy?)  music video.  Except for the hotel’s music of choice, which ranged from Barry White to Rod Stewart, and besides our games of choice, which ranged from sudoku to ping-pong…..

 


For a day, we felt like divas.  Divas who read the local pueblo paper with a vigor usually reserved for things like zip lining, or salsa dancing, or, for some I suppose, standing as extras in cheesy hip hop videos….

If you make it to Colombia and you’ve got time to visit Santa Fe Antioquia, do it.  And I think I can speak for all of us when I say it is recommended to stay in Hotel Mariscal Robledo (per person, breakfast and lunch included, we paid around $55/night.  Did I mention beers were $2?).

I smell coffee.  Time for an afternoon pick-me-up.  Have a really, really wonderful weekend, all.

un fin de semana para recordar, parte uno

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Would you believe me if I told you that here, a whole pineapple costs about $0.50?  And that’s at the expensive market.  A can of imported, gelatinous, condensed, but nonetheless somewhat of a personal creature-comfort soup is more than $4.  It’s true.

The topic of this post is not Foods of Colombia.  I’d expect a well-deserved backlash if it was, since one of the two foods I’ve mentioned is tomato soup.  The food post is coming.  More research is required.  The perfect arepa has yet to be discovered.  I’m still shopping around for unforgettable fruit juices and flaky pastries that could bring a person to tears.  No, this post is about last weekend.  I’ve been working on it since  this morning yesterday morning.  First at a French cafe that played electronic tango and served cafe con leche, then later at home over a mustard, mozzarella, lettuce, and yuca chip sandwich.

Wow.  The tomato soup was one thing, but that last admission?  Raises some serious questions as to my qualifications on food writing, doesn’t it.

Last Friday, we packed our mosquito spray, sunscreen, a deck of cards, and swim suits, and we headed for Rio Claro.

We rented a cabana room with one wall completely open to the jungle.  We danced with swaying palm leaves.  We beat-boxed to the sound of a thousand cicadas.  A gecko skipped across my feet (once while I was awake, and once while I was in bed wondering what sort of creatures we were disturbing at that very moment).  We forgot a flashlight, but luckily Mary brought her blackberry so didn’t have to crawl home in the dark from the lobby to the cabana.  The fresh air knocked us into a deep sleep by 9 pm, and a steady rainfall kept me dreaming.

We fell asleep near the celadon-colored river for which the property is named.

 

During the night, the rain was busy turning that gem-colored river to a murky tint of tan.  To be serious for a second, the photo below is a visual representation of a very real and common problem in Colombia,  the unfortunate erosive effects of the typical climate on the mountainous terrain.  Well-suited to grow a wide variety of crops (coffee, sugarcane, bananas, wheat, potatoes), but ill-suited to withstand the high amount of yearly rainfall that keeps much of Colombia in a constant shade of green.

 

 

The next morning, we drank coffee and ate eggs on green wooden chairs in the middle of the jungle.

 

 

We zip-lined in the middle of the jungle.

 

Do I look dauntless?  Tranquil, even?  I wasn’t.  I was terrified.  My legs were trembling.  Heart was thumping.  I thought I was going to throw up all over our perfectly sweet, highly amused, teen-aged guides in orange, also above.  The same guides who, after dealing with us for forty-five minutes, must have felt inclined to do something a bit more daring.  Here they are floating joyfully down Rio Claro, seconds after they’d soared through a set of decently rough rapids with nothing but life jackets to shield themselves from jagged river rock.  Show offs.

 

 

Can you the blue blurb in the photo below?  That’s a butterfly.

 


Here’s another.

 

After lunch on Saturday, we walked to the front of the property to wait for a bus because that’s the way to get back to Medellin if you don’t have a car or a motorcycle.  We probably could have hitchhiked, which we considered for a solid seven minutes (just kidding, family).  We stood by the side of the road and waited for a bus, any bus, to rumble around the corner.  One was scheduled to pass by at 1:30, mas o menos.  Everything is mas o menos in Colombia.  It means more or less, approximately, give or take a few.  It allows for a nice pocket of pliability and usually enough time to locate a couple of beers for the journey, however long or short.

 

The bus stopped and the co-captain leaned out the door to wave us in as we trotted with our backpacks across the road.  He greeted us with a toothy smile, called us reinas  (or queens, in Spanish), gave our beers an approving nod, and we were off before we had a chance to identify open seats.  Which brings me to the topic of seat neighbors.  Sometimes you hope to sit next to someone interesting who will change your life with illuminating, forthright conversation.  The kind that makes you see, so crystal-clearly, that yes of course he wasn’t the one for you, that someone more suitable will surely come along, and yes, within the next three decades, that timing is everything and although you’ve heard it seventeen thousand times before, for some reason unknown to you, this is the time it actually sticks.  That the choices you’ve made in life are up to this point have made you who you are, don’t you see?  Fear is an acronym for False Experiences Appearing Real.  Or, my personal favorite, and a much less philosophical definition:  Fuck Everything And Run.

Sometimes you hope to sit next to someone who will barely acknowledge your existence.

And sometimes, you hope to sit next to someone like Ranello.

Ranello could rock a unibrow like no one else.  It rose and fell in an amusing cadence as he spoke and joked with us in broken English.  He pulled out a trophy and proudly told us that he’d won it in a competition involving improvisational singing and joking with audience participation.  He said he knew a version of English, called Bullshit, before he let out a big belly laugh that reverberated through the bus and quickly infected both Mary and me.  Pretty soon we were all laughing together.  It is my belief that if you can effectively tell a joke in a language that’s not your own, you have achieved an enviable level of social success.

 

Parte dos, to come.

hour of beer

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It’s 2:00 p.m., and I just made myself a michelada.

I also have some news.  In January, I applied for a course that would certify me to teach English to adults, called the CERTA.  My intention was to take the course while in Buenos Aires since the timing worked out perfectly, to prepare myself to move somewhere for six months to a year to teach English and earn money while traveling.  The interview was this week, and everything went well.  I thought about it for the past two days, and something didn’t seem right.   Did I really want to spend the majority of my time in Buenos Aires in a classroom?  I came to South America to learn Spanish and to experience the culture, the people, taste the food, to spend time with friends and to open my mind and heart to a wider world, and to, ideally, write about it. Taking the course would leave little time for much else beyond lesson planning and classroom work.  So yesterday, I decided that I’m going to take Spanish classes instead.  Intensive, morning classes that will leave the afternoons free.  Free for wandering, eating empanadas (and I will, everyday), meeting locals, and practicing Spanish.  It sounds ridiculous and hard to believe that this will be my life for the next few months, but I want to take full advantage of it while I have the opportunity.

Tonight, we’re going salsa dancing.  Tomorrow, we’re going to the jungle.  I hope you have a great weekend, wherever you are.  See you next week.