A taste of Colombia
Earlier this month we spent 18 days in Cartagena, on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It was a technical stop, to work on the boat rather than for tourism. Still, we all had to eat and I found that scouting for local produce was a perfect distraction to the frustration of life in a shipyard.
When I asked friends in Mexico about Colombian cooking, I was told there was lots of rice. And indeed, rice is served with everything. It is a staple eaten for lunch and dinner, prepared in dozens of ways (plain, coconut, chicken, seafood, beans, mixed…) and served along side dishes like pasta, potatoes, beans, yucca or plaintain. Colombians think nothing of heaping their plate with 2 lots of carbs, and green vegetables seem to be an afterthought. It is an acquired taste, my teenage son thought he was in heaven, I learnt quickly to share an order with Terry as servings are generally large.
Our first trip to the supermarket was an eye opener: I expected to find tortillas and chilis like in Mexico, but found rows upon rows of deep-fried snacks : arrepas ( corn cakes made flat or filled, sweet or savoury, with cheese or butter…), empanadas (meat turnovers), deditos de queso (cheese fingers), plaintain chips (cooking, bananas), chicharrones (crispy pork rind), even something called piglets (fried green plaintains filled with chicharrones and refried into crispy balls!) The healthiest option were tamales or fresh fruit salad. And that was for morning tea.
Then we moved on to lunch. I took the easy way out, and ordered take away: roast chicken and boiled potatoes, work lunches of grilled meat, rice and soup from the shipyard canteen…nothing fancy, but perfectly suited to our circumstances. We did eat out a couple of times to sample more “elaborate” Colombian food: once with the kids to a forgettable steak house, and another one with Terry to a restaurant called Mar de las Antillas where we feasted on regional specialties like fish medallions in garlic sauce, ceviche, name and cheese soup, brown coconut rice and plaintain fritters (double carbs again!). A combination of Caribbeans and South American fare, meat also features heavily but the cuts are very different to what we’re used to: the beef is not as tender, and the pork definitely on the fattier side ( coming from someone who loves pork belly, that says a lot! ) I would have loved to sample the desserts but was too full.
And don’t Colombians love their sweets! In a country that grows so much coffee, rice, corn and sugarcane, is it such a surprise to find super sweet desserts like dulce de leche (caramel), cocodas (coconut balls) , fruit jellies, flan de coco (coconut custard)… Just take a stroll down the Portal de los Dulces in the old Town and try to resist these sugary temptations displayed in glass jars. Or answer the call of street vendors selling tropical fruits all cut up into pieces in sealed plastic bags, ready to eat as finger food.
2 weeks on, the technical issues are becoming mere anecdotes, we will end up joking about, but the food memories will linger and provide inspiration long after. Last week, I found that all we had in the fridge was left over rice and pork spare ribs (a product of me cooking enough for 8, catering for the possible extra guests…as if , in an anchorage!). Remembering how Colombian accommodate rice a dozen ways, I came up with my own version of Arroz Mixto, rice with pork, with the addition of snow peas for greenery, chicharrones for crunch and fried eggs for that extra gooeyness.
Pork Rice and Snow Peas
4 cups cooked rice
2 cups left over cooked pork spare ribs or pork belly with rind on
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
200g snow peas
2 tbsp olive oil
¼ cup soya sauce
4 tbsp coriander
For the chicharonnes: cut off the rind of the spare ribs, rub with salt, lay in a baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes. They will render some fat but since they’re already cooked they won’t take long to crisp up, just watch they don’t burn, as some of mine did!
For the rice: heat olive oil in a wok on medium-high heat, add chopped onion and crushed garlic, sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add pork sliced, stir, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover, stir in the cooked rice, the soya sauce and cook over low heat for another 5-10 minutes. In the meantime, blanch the snow peas , and add to rice mixture for the last 2 minutes of cooking. Keep warm, while you fry the eggs, making sure the yolks remain soft.
To serve: place the rice mixture on individual plates. Top with a fried egg, a sprinkle of coriander and a couple of pieces of chicharrones. Season to taste. My son likes to mix the egg in and turn this dish into a creamy risotto-kind, my daughter prefers to dip the chicharrones in the egg yolk little soldiers-style. Your choice. Enjoy!