Cuisine from Colombia

Who’s not excited about home and home cooking? We all are and for some reason, the farther you are from home, the more excited you are about all things back there. Hence, a substantial amount of time at any of our weekly exclusive “girl” gatherings is spent talking about home and about all the things we miss from back there. It’s at one of these gatherings that our friend Cata got us something to eat – something very typical of her home country.

I have to admit that I would probably never have agreed to taste it had it not been for Cata and the bond I share with her. I trust her too much and like her too much to disappointment her. To my surprise, it was crunchy, salty and, of course, tasty, but it would be unfair if I didn’t mention the strangeness I felt when I ate it. Wondering what it is and what kind of cuisine we’re talking about? The country the Lonely Planet describes as having a dream-like quality, the country known for its jungles, its safaris, its coffee and some amazing archeological heritage.Hola!! And Welcome to Catalina’s home country – Colombia!!

Colombian cuisine, like most other cuisines, varies by region and is influenced mainly by the cuisines of Native America, Africa and Europe. Cuisine from the Amazon regions of Colombia is influenced by Brazilian and Peruvian cuisines. Main ingredients of the cuisine include corn, potatoes, meat and rice, plantains and yucca. Meats of different kinds are so much a part of the cuisine that Cata mentions it would be difficult to cater to a vegetarian diet. Beef, chicken and pork are very popular. Cata explains that beef is so popular in Colombia that almost every part of the cow is used in cooking, and there is a different dish for every different part. I find it interesting when she explains further that Colombian cuisine is so diverse that what is considered a delicacy in some parts of Colombia, natives of other parts wouldn’t even imagine eating. One of Cata’s favorites – the roasted ant – she admits is one such thing. (I am thrilled I got a taste of the diversity. If you were wondering what that crunchy, salty thing was, now you know). Fruits, I understand, are consumed a lot in Colombia, both alone and as juices. I also find it interesting when Cata mentions that lunch is the main meal in Colombia, with dinner being mostly just coffee and bread. Breads of different varieties made from corn, sometimes called Arepas, are very popular in Colombia.

I was more than excited to be invited to lunch with Cata and her husband, Feiber, at their home on campus. I was served a typical Colombian meal consisting of soup, Ajiaco, served with avocados, capers, corn and thick cream. I understand the Ajiaco is sometimes served with rice, too, and is integral to Colombian cuisine. Ajiaco is a typical Colombian thick chicken soup, made with yellow potatoes (since the potato gives the soup its characteristic color) and corn on the cob. The dish gets its characteristic flavor with a special spice, Guascas, which Cata says is difficult to source here in Boston. Colombian cuisine, Cata stresses, is very elaborate and dishes are often difficult and time-consuming to prepare. I also understand that cooking techniques are so elaborate that some require ingredients to be mixed and ground in special utensils designed especially for the process. With a lot of difficulty, Cata finally managed to locate an easy-to-make version of the Ajiaco from the Internet.

To prepare it, you would need:

1 (3 « – 4 pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 large white onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
2 pounds yellow potatoes (Yukon gold) peeled and cubed
3 ears of corn, cut into 1 inch pieces

Pat chicken dry and season with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Heat butter in a heavy 7/8 quart pot. Brown chicken, skin side down, in two batches for about 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Add onion, oregano and remaining salt/pepper to pot and sauté about 5 minutes. Peel and coarsely grate russet potatoes and add to pot with chicken, broth and water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally until chicken is cooked through (about 25 minutes). Remove chicken from pot to cool. Add Yukon golds, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally about 10 minutes. Add corn, cover, and simmer (stirring) for about 5-10 minutes. Debone chicken and add back to pot. Serve with accompaniments (1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves, 1 cup heavy cream, 3 tablespoons drained capers, 3 avocados, cubed) on the side.

Thank you Cata for sharing the recipe and guiding us through this interesting journey through Colombian cuisine. We set off again, excited to explore more such delectable destinations. Join us next week as we explore yummy yum Mexico.

Niranjana Neelakantan Gupta is an EC Partner. A home-maker, Niranjana enjoys hosting friends, cooking, writing and travelling.