There are few countries in the world where you can’t get a Chinese chow mein, an American hamburger, an Italian pizza or spaghetti, a Mexican tortilla, an Argentine steak, a German sausage, French fries or a baguette. It’s getting increasingly easy to find a Thai chicken satay, a Middle Eastern shawarma or a döner kebab, a Peruvian ceviche, smoked salmon from Norway or a Spanish paella. All these dishes are almost as globalized as the iPhone or beer.
However, there are countries with an almost secret culinary culture, unknown to the immense majority of the world and as exotic as the camel-milk cheese of some regions of the Sahara. Not long ago, during a trip deep into the Colombian Amazon, in the region of Vaupés, after a fruitless night of hunting with a River Pirá-Paraná Indian, I saw my companion focus the beam of his flashlight on a long string of busy nocturnal ants. He immediately crouched down, and began to eat them in a frenetic rhythm, decapitating the ants and sticking them in his mouth like a voracious child stuffing himself with bubble gum. He offered me some to try, and I tasted them without much enthusiasm (a drop of sour oil), but I remembered a fact I learned in books about evolution: we humans all have specific digestive enzymes in our stomach for breaking down the hard exoskeleton of bugs, which proves that in our species’ past we were all insectivores. If not, we would probably not have survived the great famines in the primitive struggle for life.
But it’s not only Amazonian Indians who still eat ants in my country. In the very urban city of Bucaramanga – in the east of Colombia – fried hormigas culonas, fat-bottomed ants, are famous, an ancient dish of indigenous origin, which is testimony to our still being, in part, what we used to be. In Mexico they eat chapulines – grasshoppers – at certain times of the year. And in my country, Colombia, foods that are eaten daily that almost nobody knows anywhere else in the world.
Here are three products that might be the perfect example of our cultural syncretism. The first one, comes from sugar cane, a plant brought to Colombia by Spaniards from Andalucía, and it’s called panela. Panela is a sort of rock of unrefined sugar, or a loaf of hardened molasses, of a beautiful burnt yellow colour, like Italian terracotta. In my region, Antioquia, people in the countryside who are very early risers greet the dawn by sipping aguapanela, a hot drink that simply consists of boiling water with a chunk of panela. With money and a bit of luck, you can mix in some chocolate or coffee; and if we’re being magnanimous, we can add a drop of milk.
But panela, or rather, unrefined sugar cane molasses, is the origin of another, much more important Colombian (and Caribbean in general) product: rum. The short and successful word rum (root of the Spanish word ron and the French rhum) was invented in the ‘sugar islands’, one of the small Antilles of the Caribbean, most likely in Barbados, where in 1654 they began distilling a drink of fermented cane juice they called rumbullion which seems to mean, in the local dialect, turmoil or rebellion. Another etymological theory has the word being derived from the scientific name for sugar cane, saccharum officinarum, but it’s more difficult to imagine that the slaves of those early sugar harvests knew so much Latin as to be able to extract and decant those two final syllables. Wherever the word comes from, the marvellous liquid known as rum is the spirit (the name that alchemists gave to alcohol) of the New World.
Great distilled drinks had their origin in sailing and interoceanic trade. First, Dutch sailors came up with the idea of ‘reducing’ wine by heating it up (taking out its spirit in a still) and from there brandy was born. This distillation of wine was rough stuff, but it combined three advantages: it weighed less than wine, took up less space and lasted longer. The idea was to add water to it again on the other side of the sea, but the drink ended up being enjoyed as it was, strong and pure.
Let’s move on to the typically American product, made from corn, the grain of the New World, and our daily bread: the arepa.
There’s nothing as disappointing as having a foreign guest at home and not managing to make her understand the subtle differences between the various varieties of arepa. Anxious to demonstrate the riches of our cuisine, one tries to alert her to the delicate nuances between an arepa de pelao (which is cooked in ashes), one of chócolo (fresh corn), one of yellow corn, another of white threshed corn, another of ground maize with cheese or mixed with yucca . . . Nothing, they don’t even catch the difference between white corn cakes and tamales, they confuse the sweet corn arepa with one of made from maize flour, the egg arepa with plantain cakes. Their taste buds are not educated to distinguish what they’ve come to try already grown-up. All we humans are like this: heedless of flavours we don’t know from a very early age. To me, for example, all sausages are the same.
Arepas are worthwhile as they are but also taste of what we put on them. The Venezuelan arepa, for example, which is a bit thicker than Colombian ones, has become more sophisticated with great additions. It’s like a miniature pizza, with a cornbread base, which can be enriched with meat, sauces, cheese and vegetables, and also by varying the cooking times. Some like it almost raw and others more toasted.
Arepa, furthermore, in the Spanish of my land, is a word with other connotations. If you look closely at a folded arepa, with its creases, and with the juices that trickle out as we nibble, you’ll understand. And here we arrive at the third product I want to point out, the proud plantain, whose phallic shape is hard to ignore.
The plantain comes from Africa, but today we consider it more Colombian than cumbia. The plantain is a kind of large banana that only horses can eat raw, because in humans it produces stomach cramps. But don’t go confusing it with a banana. The banana is a gentle, sweet, ingenuous child. The plantain is a more complex adult. It can be eaten green and hard, as it is in its youth, or pintón, spotted like a giraffe, ripening and sweet, perhaps its best state, or maduro, which is when it reveals its most recondite juices. Patacones are made with green plantain. The name patacón comes from a Spanish gold coin, round, yellow and big, called a patacón. Patacones are like gold coins eaten fried with salt. If you put a bit of avocado on top or a sauce called hogao (a mixture of scallions, ripe tomato and vegetable oil), the patacón begins to be celestial. My favourite Colombian dish is made with ripe plantains: baked maduro. A ripe plantain is slightly sweet, without being sickly, and reaches its apotheosis when one slices it lengthwise and fills the gash with bocadillo (guava jam) and mild white cheese. Roast plantain filled with cheese and bocadillo, with a little vanilla ice cream on the side (don’t forget that vanilla is a Central American orchid), is one of the world’s great desserts.
Panela (or rum), arepas and plantains: this sums up our hybrid Latin American world. We don’t need rum to be better than whisky (although I do prefer it, myself); we don’t need arepas to be better than bread (and I admit that some bread is better than arepas), for in any case the world would be a much poorer place if there was only bread and arepas didn’t exist, if we always had to drink whisky and not also rum, every once in a while. And as for the plantain, I can’t think of a European product to compare it to. Some day (as has already happened in Germany with the potato and in Italy with the tomato) Europeans will also wonder: how did we possibly live without the plantain? Or maybe it won’t happen, but for only one reason: plantains can’t be cultivated in Europe, because plantains need longer than just a summer to grow. Plantain is a serious thing and to get to be as delicious as it is, it needs at least six continuous months of hot weather.
And then there is the most typical dish of my region, Antioquia, known all over the country as bandeja paisa, in which the symbiosis of all the continents arrives at the orgy of the most complete colonial dish. Paisa is the colloquial adjective for people and things from Antioquia and a bandeja is a platter, which is what you need to serve such quantities of food that would never fit on a mere plate. I always suspected that just as sancocho (the championship dish of our slow food tradition) has European origins (its ancestor is the Spanish cocido or meat and chicken stew), bandeja paisa must have them too. Curiously it was on a trip to Great Britain, in Wales, when I had an insight into where the origin of our bandeja paisa might lie. Staying in a little family-run hotel near Hay-on-Wye, my very dear (but very vegetarian) translator, Anne McLean, suggested I order a full English breakfast. I did so and suddenly there was set before me a sort of bandeja paisa, although slightly simplified: baked beans, bacon, slices of toast, fried eggs, sausages . . . At first glance it was practically a bandeja paisa in miniature.
Then I remembered a number of antioqueño surnames: the Bridges, the Wills, Blair, Warren, Gallon, Cock, Johnson, Moore, Eastman, Nicholls, White . . . Well, all these surnames that now seem to us as paisa as arepas and panela have their origins in the gold mines of Antioquia: Marmato, Riosucio, Zaragoza. Mining engineers being scarce, the government imported some from the British Isles in the nineteenth century, making very sure that they were all Catholics and not impious and heretical Protestants, enemies of the Supreme Pontiff. Since bandeja paisa is a typical meal for miners who need to start the day with a bomb of calories that allows them to go all day without eating again, I believe the influence for creating this jumble of all the products of the earth must have been an idea of the British miners nostalgic for those disproportionate English breakfasts.
I should say that bandeja paisa can only be eaten in the morning, or until noon at the latest, as lunch. If anyone dares to eat a bandeja at night, says a friend of mine, he’ll have such terrible nightmares that he’ll almost inevitably end up dreaming of making love to his own mother or devouring his own father’s liver. I don’t think our typical local dish will ever go beyond international borders to become a global meal. Why? Perhaps a description of it will suffice to explain: the bandeja consists of a large portion of kidney beans, accompanied by white rice, slices of ripe plantain, arepas, patacones of green plantain, chicharrón (pork crackling, our bacon, thick as a book), pork sausage, cabbage, lettuce and tomato salad, blood pudding, avocado, dry ground meat, a fried egg, all accompanied by sips of aguapanela with lemon (and for those who want a drop of rum), and finished off with mazamorra or cornmeal porridge. Digesting it requires ten hours of hard labour and it helps to have a British miner’s stomach, which also needs to be Catholic, of course.
Plátano maduro al horno / Roast Plantain
One very ripe plantain (slightly soft and black on the outside)
One tablespoon butter
One tablespoon grated panela (or unrefined whole cane sugar)
One stick guava paste
Cubes of mild white cheese such as mozzarella
Preheat the oven to 350º F.
Peel the plantain and make a deep lengthwise cut leaving both ends and the curved side intact. In this little canoe arrange the filling: little cubes of butter, cheese and guava paste. Sprinkle the grated panela on top.
Optional: add a little ground cinnamon.
Bake for half an hour or until the plantain is a dark bronze colour.
It can be served on its own, as a dessert, preferably hot and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Héctor Abad’s most recently translated novel, Recipes for Sad Women, is now available from Pushkin Press.
Photograph by Mike Brand