- Beth Ellis & Forrest Maddox
4.18.2021 Dinner in Cartagena
Caldo de Costilla
Soup features heavily in Colombian cuisine, showing up at almost every meal. This soup is often eaten for breakfast, and is rumored to be an excellent meal after a late night of partying. Indeed, throughout the country this soup is famed as a cure for the worst hangovers, even Bourdain said “it brings you back from the dead.” Translating literally to “rib broth”, it features beef short ribs braised with carrots, potatoes, and coriander. The broth is seasoned with achiote, a mild peppery spice often used to lend yellow color to a dish, and common in Caribbean cuisine. (No gluten).
Arepas de Queso Asadas
One of Colombia’s staple foods, arepas are available from the street corner vendors to tables in the finest restaurants. The Cartagena version is often stuffed with fresh cheese (as in this preparation) or egg. Arepas are made with masarepa - a partially cooked corn flour that is specifically milled for arepas (it doesn’t undergo the nixtamalization process of masa harina, the type of flour used for tortillas and tamales). The origins of the arepa are murky, with Colombia and Venezuela claiming to be the birthplace of the beloved food, and it's likely that its origin lies with the Muisca - the indigenous people who inhabit the area that straddles the border of both countries. Arepas can be eaten plain, topped, or stuffed with a myriad of fillings, but we think it goes excellently with the soup - just dip some in the broth and top with the ají. (Contains dairy; no gluten, vegetarian).
While Colombian food is not typically spicy, it is almost always served with a dish of ají pique - a sauce of ají rojo chiles, onions and cilantro. You can dip your arepas in it, and add it to every dish on the menu - Cartageneros will spoon a bit onto every bite of an empanada or arepa! (No gluten, vegan).
Pollo en Salsa de Coco
The path of coconut domestication around the world is truly a study in human migration and trade patterns; coconuts have been cultivated for thousands of years, and there are two genetically distinct lines of coconut palms - Indian and Pacific. Caribbean palms can be traced back to the coconuts that originated on the coasts of India. The Indian coconut traveled to Africa, and then to the Caribbean on European ships. While this mild, sweet chicken dish is popular around the Colombian Caribbean coast, coconuts are an especially common ingredient used in a wide range of regional dishes. For our version, we first marinate the chicken in garlic, cumin, oregano and lime before preparing a Colombian sofrito of onions, red & green bell peppers, and carrots. Then we braise the meat in both coconut water and coconut milk. (Contains fish; no gluten, no dairy).
Arroz con Auyama
Though rice was originally domesticated in China 10-12,000 years ago, it has obviously gained some traction! It was brought to South America and the Caribbean by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, and is part of almost every meal in Colombia, indeed throughout Latin America. It is cheap, easy to transport, store, and prepare, it’s high in calories, and - importantly - delicious! Auyama, calabaza, or West Indian pumpkin, on the other hand, is indigenous to the region. Pumpkins have been cultivated in the Americas since at least 3,500 B.C., rivaling corn and beans as some of the oldest known crops of the Western Hemisphere. While auyama is often used in soups, it’s also delicious when cooked with rice, breaking apart and imparting a lovely sweetness to the dish. (No gluten, no dairy).
Ensalada de Aguacate y Cebolla
This light salad of avocado and red onion is a perfect accompaniment to the heartier dishes in this menu. The delightful fruit (favorite of millennial toast-eaters everywhere and popular scapegoat for housing affordability!) originated in Mexico, and was domesticated there 9,000-10,000 years ago. “Avocado” is the Anglicization of the Spanish “aguacate”, and through some fantastic linguistic misunderstandings, the avocado is known as an “avocat” in France, which is also the French word for “lawyer.” From Mexico, they traveled down through Central America to Colombia, where they have been bred to thrive in the humid, tropical conditions. Colombians love their avocados, from smoothies to salads they feature predominantly in the cuisine. Although we couldn’t find true Colombian avocados, this salad still feels like it should be eaten on the Muros de Cartagena. (No gluten, vegan).
Yuca (or cassava, or manioc) is a starchy tuber - often compared (and prepared similarly) to a potato.While it has made its way around the world, it is native to South America. Bitter yuca is primarily ground for flour, while sweet yuca (the kind typically found in the US) is boiled, roasted, mashed or pressed into countless dishes. Its flavor is very mild, and its appeal is really a matter of preparation, and you can’t go wrong with coconut milk and sugar! See if you can taste the star anise, one of the defining features of this regional specialty from the Caribbean coast of Colombia! (Contains dairy; no gluten, vegetarian).
Latin American Beer
If you can find a Colombian beer such as Aguila or Poker go with that (and please let us know where, as we couldn’t!), otherwise go for a good Mexican lager such as Modello.
A refreshing shandy of 1 part Colombiana soda (available at Tienda La Libertad) and 2 parts beer (and a splash of aguardiente depending on your mood). We like ours with a squeeze of lime as well.
Available at Arbor Farms Market
Colombia’s climate is too equatorial for wine production, but fortunately it’s more southerly South American neighbor Argentina makes more than just Malbecs, like this exceptional Torrontés. Produced in Cafayate in the north-west province of Salta, Argentina, this region is one of the highest altitude wine regions in the world, with some vineyards up to 10,000 ft. above sea level (essentially the foothills of the Andes). The dry, desert-like conditions bring out the best of the Torrontés grape, which is an offshoot of Muscat of Alexandria. This incredibly aromatic wine has notes of lemon, peach, rose, and passion fruit, which pairs amazingly with the sweetness of the coconut found throughout the menu.
The city of Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, was founded in 1533 by the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia. Numerous indigenous tribes lived in the area prior to Spanish colonization, though where the city currently sits was already abandoned when Heredia arrived. In fact, the first documented human community in all of Colombia - the Puerto Hormiga culture - was located in this region; artifacts from this culture have been found dating back to 4,000 BCE, and they are the earliest human artifacts found in all of the Americas. As European colonization began to dominate the continent, Cartagena became the primary port of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, exporting silver from Peru, and - terribly - gaining the infamous reputation as the most important Spanish port in the African slave trade. Because of its importance in Caribbean and transatlantic trade routes, it was known to be a city of great treasure and riches, which led to relentless attacks by pirates, as well as French and English privateers. Attacks on the city went on for centuries, and from the 16th through the 18th century, Spain poured great resources into fortifying it as the seat of its colonial military and economic power in the region. Today, La Ciudad Amurallada (the Walled City) is named for the colonial walls built during this time. In 1984, UNESCO named Cartagena a World Heritage Site, as it showcases the most extensive colonial military fortifications in all of South America. The city remained under Spanish rule until 1810, when it declared its independence. Spain, of course, did not take kindly to this declaration, and several years of war followed; a decisive victory by Colombian forces in 1819 finally ended Spanish colonial rule.
Currently, Colombia is still reeling from over five decades of civil war, which ended - at least on paper - in 2016. During that war, over 200,000 people died and five million more were displaced. The country began post-war tribunal proceedings in 2018, and the efforts of that tribunal are currently gaining momentum, with the first indictments handed down in January of this year, and the responding pleas to begin this month. The civil war had many complex narratives and actors, and the United States played a role by directly supporting the Colombian military (in addition to the less direct, but no less tangible effects of American drug policy). Since the 2016 accord, however, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have begun assembling in guerilla camps again, ostensibly because the government has not delivered much of the aid and investment in the country that was promised in the agreement.
All that said, Cartagena has been largely spared from the drug wars and spasms of violence of inland Colombia, and prior to the pandemic, tourism was a staple industry of the city; its many monuments, castles, and colorfully painted historic buildings coexist with skyscrapers, nightclubs, art galleries, museums, and deluxe resorts. During the peak of cartel activity, Cartagena was considered the only safe place to visit in Colombia - there was a truce among all the organizations that the city was off limits, since even kingpins needed a safe haven to vacation with their families (Pablo Escobar had a mansion on an island off the coast of Cartagena). Beyond the resorts and beaches, the city is shrouded by art and artists. Perhaps it’s the heat, or the colors, or the web-like streets, but strolling around one finally understands how Gabriel García Márquez developed his brand of magical realism; , his novel Love in the Time of Cholera was set in Cartagena, and he lived there on and off during his life. Music is also omnipresent in the atmosphere of the city, spilling from nightclubs and from picós (speakers) in the streets - over 1,000 native rhythms have been identified in Colombia, and over 100 musical genres. Champeta is a dance and musical genre that originated in Cartagena in the 1970s and 80s, and has grown in popularity as it has shrugged off a racist and classist stigma aimed at its Afro-Caribbean roots. This tutorial will get you warmed up (and bravo to you if your quadriceps last beyond the two-minute mark)!
The city is also well regarded as a gastronomic hotspot, with a diverse set of culinary influences. There is, of course, Spanish influence in all Colombian food, but it’s equally matched by African and indigenous influences, with a healthy contribution of Caribbean island flavors and ingredients, especially along the coast. Just east of the city center, the sprawling Bazurto Market is the starting point for many chefs and cooks in Cartagena, with the freshest seafood, meats, and produce in the city, which one journalist lovingly describes as having “the feel of an ongoing party and the aftermath of a riot.” The food is flavorful, but not typically spicy, and fish and coconut feature heavily in many regional dishes. For most Cartageneros, lunch is the main meal of the day, to be eaten at a leisurely pace with family and friends, while dinner is often lighter fare. Most meals - including breakfast - feature corn, meat, and rice or potatoes (or both!), along with fresh vegetables and fruit. Colombian biodiversity is second only to that of Brazil, and the food reflects this - seafood, beef, pork, lamb, goat, and a limitless variety of tropical fruits and vegetables show up in countless combinations on the Colombian plate. “Colombia es sabrosura!” is the slogan of a tourism campaign that began in 2018 - sabrosura translates roughly to “ineffable charm that can almost be tasted”, and references the food, the music, the drink, the vitality and the passion and pride of the Colombian people.
Featured Recipe: Ají Pique
Makes about 2 cups
100g pickled malaguetas or aji peppers, finely chopped (substitute fresh chillies if jarred are unavailable, seed according to spice preference)
30 g pickling liquid of peppers (substitute white vinegar if using fresh chilies)
¼ cup orange and lime juice, equal parts orange and lime (or ¼ cup juice of bitter orange)
¼ cup olive oil
30 g scallions, finely chopped
15 g garlic, mashed in mortar and pestle or very finely minced
225 g yellow onion, finely chopped to ¼ in dice (about 1 medium onion)
30 g finely chopped cilantro (about 1/3 - ½ bushel)
1 tbsp grated panela or brown loaf sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, taste and adjust for salt
Refrigerate and allow the flavors to meld for at least 30 mins.
Recipes Inspired By:
Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla
My Colombian Recipes, a wonderful online resource for authentic Colombian cooking
Our friends Laura & Stephanie, who gave feedback and suggestions for an authentically Colombian menu
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode on Colombia
This article explains the cultural importance and origins of champeta.