Medellín is an interesting city… at least the bit that I know about it which mostly includes that nearly every local I’ve talked to said not to get too far out of Poblado (especially at night) and that a couple decades ago it was a war torn city seemingly run by Pablo Escobar. I’m staying in the El Poblado neighborhood, and walking down any of the streets near my apartment hardly gives a clue to the latter fact. Signs are in English, many times at a restaurant I hear more English spoken than Spanish by the customers and the dining options are almost limitless in cuisines. In only 10 days I’ve eaten sushi, Israeli, Mexican, Italian, Spanish, ramen, hamburgers, fried chicken and more. Of course, I’ve been on the hunt for Colombian food as well!
In researching the local cuisine last month I was happy to see a lot of hearty dishes. Comfort food style stews, soups and cazuelas are popular choices at the spots serving “typical” dishes. After a month in Perú eating ceviche and Asian fusion I was in the mood for something a bit more fulfilling and different. There was also something familiar and comforting in the food… I started digging into the history of the area to get a glimpse of what to expect.
As with most of South America, Colombia was inhabited by the Spanish in the 1500s who later brought African slaves to the area. The rugged rainforest mountains of Colombia don’t leave a lot of open space for large animals or crops that need dry land. Combine the heritage of the people and the ingredients and you have the perfect recipe for bean based stews, lots of corn, rice and potatoes, all touched by the Latin spice and attitude of Spanish descendants. Here are a few dishes I’ve had that stood out more than the rest in my first week exploring Medellín.
It’s been a bit colder here than the past three months for me, so warm and rich food hits the spot well. Combine that with a bit of a cold I picked up this week and the only obvious choice for lunch yesterday was ajiaco. The Colombian version of chicken soup seems to have three main tenants to be “the real thing”- a trio of potatoes, lean chicken and guascas. The potatoes should include a variety known here as papas criollas which are small yellow new potatoes that add a distinctive color to the dish, and usually sabanera for the texture and pastusa that soften and thicken the broth. In the US, I would substitute baby yukon golds, reds and russets for the potatoes. The chicken is generally white meat, and seemingly always skinless. And finally the guascas, which are the leaves of a plant in the daisy family. The taste is somewhat like oregano, but pretty unique, and generally considered a necessity for this dish to give it the bright herbaceous flavor. The dish is a rich and thick chicken stew, some say named after an indigenous chief named Aji and his beautiful wife Aco, that is generally served with condiments such as cream, capers, avocado, lime, corn and arepas.
Though I ate this dish for lunch in a nicely appointed restaurant, I can easily see its origins in the mountains of Colombia. The ingredients are easy to grow and store, the fresh herbs brighten up a hearty broth and the potatoes make it filling enough to get you through a long day of work. I imagine they would have skipped the cream, but the condiments served alongside the soup so that each person can make it their own fits right into modern dining. It is akin to the 30 plus sauces at Buffalo Wild Wings or the plate of garnish a good pho shop serves so that you can make your meal just as you like.
A dish with a bit more freedom in it’s creation, as it truly is just a simple dish originating from the mountains of the Northwest portion of Colombia. The term paisa also describes the people that come from this area, but more on that later…
Stewed red beans, hogao, chorizo, chicharron, avocado and a fried egg. With an arepa on the side of course! The casserole would not meet the expectations of my American readers, as it’s not baked or topped with cheese and bread crumbs. (Maybe we can just agree to call those Hot Dish as the Minnesotans do?) Here, it is more of a stew like consistency as the beans thicken the juice they are cooked in, then is further thickened by the addition of the hagao. Easily compared to salsa, hogao is a tomato based sauce with onions, garlic, cumin and other spices or herbs that are all cooked down to combine the flavors without losing the freshness of the tomatoes. Though it is served as a condiment alongside pátacones (tostones in most other places, thick double fried slices of green plantain) or the like, this sauce is widely used as a seasoning ingredient as well. In this cazuela, it is added to the cooked beans to add flavor and richness.
Once the base is done, crispy chicharrón and chorizo are added and give a great texture, umami and saltiness to the stew. Some recipes will also include ground beef, fried plantains or potatoes as well to richen the base. Big chunks of avocado are next for a nice rich fattiness then the whole thing is topped with a fried egg, hopefully with a yolk soft enough to stir into the broth and coat bites with its luxuriousness.
Menu del Día
It’s not a dish, but a concept of offering a small 2-3 course meal at a fair price. The same is offered in Argentina, Peru and Chile as well. A sign of the whole region’s connection to Spain. In a future post I’ll explore the concept a bit more as it has some really interesting roots starting 50 years ago in Spain under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. Many here include a soup, salad, bit of meat and fried plantain. Thanks to Justine for the photo of lomo saltado from a Menu del Día in Lima, Peru.
More about the Paisas
Before my arrival here I had noticed some familiarity in the food I was reading about that I just couldn’t place. Upon a bit more study of the people of this area of Colombia, the Paisas, it made perfect sense. Their ancestry is based in Spain, and specifically from the Basque region thereof. In the 17th century, they sailed across the Atlantic to Central and South America with many settling in the Antioquia region of Colombia. In the 1800’s, many migrated to the western United States for the gold rush in the Sierra Nevadas. Plenty soon realized they could make a better living by ranching and eventually came to be known as excellent and hardworking sheepherders, sprawling out through northern Nevada to run and develop ranches where the Basque culture still thrives in the modern day. So there you have it, I left the Sierras of northern Nevada and wound up in the mountains of Colombia to still be surrounded by many of the same cultural heritage. And now the familiar flavors and style of food that has become a bit lost in Nevada yet remain strong here in Medellín now make much more sense to this wandering chef.
The potatoes of Winnemucca Farms, the oxtail and beans at Louis’ Basque Corner in Reno or a grilled steak at The Star Hotel in Elko are all Nevada classics that would fit right into the cuisine of Medellín. As would the proudness of heritage, state and business savvy. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these comforts of home as I explore the streets of Medellín over the next few weeks. Maybe I’ll stop into one of the casinos and put it all on black to really bring that Nevada experience home. And now I’m off to find a picon punch…