Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Colombia - More Than Just Nose Candy

One of the most memorable food comments I have ever heard, and to this day still ponder, came from Anthony Bourdain, a person with whom I strongly identify and, but for the grace (or lack of grace) of God could have followed. He said “it is through food that the people of the world embody and interpret the sum of their cultures.” Direct quote (I think). No better example of a how a people’s Diaspora can affect cuisine and express the root cultures’ mannerisms better than food in Colombia.
Colombia, though best known for the 2 C’s, coffee and coke, is home to a rich Spanish heritage, beautiful beaches, sprawling natural countryside, and breathtaking women. The UE visited a good friend who currently resides in the nation’s capital, Bogota, as an ambassador of the goodwill consistent with the United States. The stage was set – what better than to have some flavorful, spicy and savory Latin American food?

Enter the Europeans, and ruin all flavor.

I have come to find over time that Europeans (Italians aside) tend to have a little more bland of taste palette (hence the need to conquer nations for their spice trades), and the European influenced meals in which the UE partook over this trip were no different. Mexican dishes made lacked pepper, steaks leaned on butter for flavor, even the great arepa made less sense in this country. The most beautiful segment of dining in Colombia was the seafood – fresh out of the Caribbean (see previous post for Caribbean seafood thoughts).

We dined at a place called El Techo, which was touted to the the best Mexican food in the city. While it definitely fit that bill, it was far below what the UE expected. The mexican food here was cheesey and savory, but not spicy as the food he is used to. Not disappointing (particularly thanks to some AMAZING margaritas), but definitely different than the expectation placed on South American food. Some of the dishes leaned more towards a stew than a plated dish, with melted xocomil cheese overwhelming the other flavors.

Once sense was made about the Euro influence over the country, the food began to make more sense. While not overly audacious in its flavor contruct, many of the meals we had were subtle and rich, particulaly the seafood at Langosta, the spanish word for Lobster. This menu touted 20 unique dishes based around lobster as some form of ingredient. The chef was even so kind as to serve us with a delightful lobster bisque that blew away about 75% of any other bisque that has had the unfortunate gumption to pass itself off as such. The Seafood Rice (top left) was the winner at this venue, with such a diversity of flavors and textures that at the end of the meal, we found ourselves sopping the sauce off the plate with bread.

We did stumble upone what might possibly be the best recipe for creamed spinach known to man. At an Argentinian steak house in Bogota, we made the standard orders of meat and green sides. What we weren't prepared for was the creamy and salty spinach they would bring us - flavored with fresh salt back bacon that permeated every ounce of chlorophyll in the leaves. Trust when I say that to have sampled that combination of smoothy creamed spinach spiked with a hint of pork and crispy crunchy bacon was the next best thing to ambrosia on Earth.

Wandering the streets, we passed the local arepa stand and the UE's palette sense (read: stomach) started tingling. What were these aromatic delights that sizzled in front of him? Pounded corn cakes stuffed with parmesean and butter, grilled to a light brown crisp, that's what. Unfortunately, these did not pass the high standards of the UE, even for street food. The corn cake was less than tasty, and the filling reminded him of childhood when eating a stick of butter and dry grated parmesean cheese from the tube was still normal.

On the plane ride back into the US of A, the UE reflected on his time in Colombia. The food, though a bit off from expectations, was still quite enjoyable, and given the cultural context of European rule, satisfying in a more subtle manner. So what exactly was it about the trip that had the UE befuddled?

The confusion came from the people. Incredibly friendly, but very guarded, the people of Bogota and Cartagena were both open and reserved, a quagmire that seemingly represents the food issues at question. The food, though expected to be lively and exquisite, often would be mild mannered, and at times fell flat on expectations forcing the eater to console himself with a Club Colombia beer. Similarly, the people seemed receptive to our social banter, engaging us for hours of conversation, salsa dancing, and fun, but at the end of the day, they held their own perceptions about Americans and ethnicities close, forcing the posse into awkward, yet ground-breaking discussions, enlightening the locals to their ignorant ways. In hindsight, it was a grand achievement to serve as ambassadors for the United States in a less formal way, however just coming from a place where the people were so warm and friendly as the Caribbean, it was difficult to stomach such a stoic country (though not as bad as Japan). In the end, the UE and crew made some lasting impressions on the locals, hopefully for the good of our future together.

-The UE

P.S. For what its worth, not all Colombia food was terrible. Fast food there at 3 in the morning after too much rum still hit the spot – hamburguesa con queso never tasted so good!


Sharif said...

yeah we had to eat two orders of the hamburguesa con queso... luckily we had a cougar on had to place the 2nd order, while we man-handled the papas fritas.

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