A friend, very much a foodie (I’m just a New Yorker, he’ll contend), suggested to me that Colombian food is unrefined. Unlike Peruvian food, he elaborated, which has spanned off into exotic sushi rolls, and butter-like-down-the-palate-sashimi by institutions like Nobu. The menu says so, the chef’s inspiration came from ceviche; and let’s agree here: What hole-in-the-wall in Lima does not produce the most mmm.. my mouth waters at the thought! Some tiradito! Please, tiradito anytime!
And unlike Mexican food: Jalapenos and dark chocolate sauce on lamb. Tortilla chocolate mole soup. Who was this genius who first dared to mix these flavors?
At first, the idea that Colombian food was unrefined made me angry. This was the food that first nurtured my body.
Like, the Sunday afternoon meal of Ajiaco: Grate two red onions into a splash of tingling olive oil. Add chopped yellow potatoes, the kind that only grow close to the Andes mountains (but you can buy them in Queen’s. Take the F train to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights). Add chicken broth and pieces of cut-up chicken breast and three or four pieces of corn. Simmer for a few hours. Add guascas, a green herb that seems to grow, like weeds, in lawns in Colombia. (They sell it in Queen’s, too, in dried form.)
Guascas are like weeds, you ask? You put weeds in your soup? I can see where you might start regarding ajiaco as unrefined. But it’s delicious, and eat it on a winter day and you’ll have to turn on the AC. It’s that nourishing. Ajiaco, I was made to believe, was first invented by Spaniards who settled in Bogotá during colonial times, and was later appropriated by native Bogotanos. Bogotá suffers from an identity problem: it’s in the tropics but its altitude plunges its temperature and one must always wear a winter sweater before dawn and after dusk.
The meal to eat after a horseback ride in a ranch–Plato Antioqueno: red beans and chunks of pork topped by fried eggs. And accompanied by arepas, baked flattened white corn.
Okay, I see, it all does sound like peasant food, essentially. But is French peasant food not the classical schooling that first inspired Paul Bocuse’s nouvelle cuisine?
I will give you this, I like to spread Taramosalata on my arepa. Which does come to my friend’s point: Native Colombian food has not evolved much and it was never very sophisticated to begin with. (Do you think it’s because Colombia doesn’t have Mayan or Incan ancestry in our blood? Or chefs who migrated from Imperial kitchens in China?) One must mix our food up a little, take it out for a night in the town. I wish chefs in Colombia would be more interested in experimenting with Colombia’s own ingredients and flavors and less so with copying Vietnamese or Thai or French or Italian cuisine.