Jul 2012

Blog, South America


Uncovering Cuisine in Cartagena

I had rivers of sweat running down my legs and beads of perspiration dancing on my skin.  Growing up in 115 degree weather, I know what hot feels like, yet it sure didn’t prime me for the heat that rose off this cement.  If I had taken a shower in my clothes no one would have known the difference.  However, every morning I attempted to run along the promenade. And without fail, by 7:30am my run would turn into an unsteady trot and then into a sad limp.

After spending the morning recovering from near heat stroke, Brad and I would pop our heads out of the hotel in search of lunch.  On one particular day, as we walked around a corner in the Getsemani neighborhood, we were drawn into a packed comedor buzzing with a multitude of oscillating fans.  Not one table was left open; however we squeezed into a 2X2 table occupied by a lone female. A chalk board outside listed the options for the day.   As with most Colombian midday meals, it was two courses, starting with a bowl of soup.  As my internal temperature continued to overheat, I watched the locals happily eat their steaming bowls of sancocho, a thick stew of boned meat, herbs, yucca, plantain, yam, and corn.  It seems as though national eating customs don’t change just because you are in 112 degree Cartagena.  When in Rome I suppose… I ate the first course.  Love at first sip.

Next up was seco, literally the ‘dry’ non soup portion of the meal – rice, beans, patacones (mashed, fried plantain), a small salad, and meat.  After dozens of standard rice and bean lunch platters, I quickly realized this was something special.  The rice was stained brown in a caramelized mound, molasses in flavor and laced with plump raisins.  I vowed to search high and low until I figured out what I put in my mouth.  And yes, I did find it.  Secret ingredient for arroz con pasas: coca cola!  This one side alone brought us back to La Tertulia three more times, wanting more.

While we chowed down on food, Nacho claustrophobically waited on a ship inside a 20X40 container, waiting to transport him from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.  In no time he’d be cruising past the Panama Canal and infamous Darien Gap.  Until then, we had to wait. Luckily, Cartagena was a gem of a city; a 16th century Spanish port on the Caribbean Coast.

Wandering the historic district within the 11 kilometers of city walls (Las Muralles) was an attraction in itself; beautifully cobblestoned streets, bougainvilleas draping from balconies, and plazas lined with food vendors.  The walls of the city, once used to protect the city against enemies were now a place of congregation.  Friends sat on top of the wall while business took place down below.  Shaded by the sturdy wall, a barber purposefully cut hair while a lady sat slumped back in a plastic lawn chair nonchalantly gave pedicures, client’s toes tanning in the morning sun.

Every evening along the wall an amateur baseball game began, with half the field in the grass and the other half spilling out onto the busy street; 3rd base painted on the asphalt.  Intense yelling battles occurred as opposing fans shouted accusations at one another.  Earlier in the day the PE teacher blew her whistle while students took turns running up and down one of the many ramps of the wall.  Across the street, the desire for more space forced the locals to pull their lawn chairs off the sidewalk and into the streets, cars whizzing by.  Cartagena was very much a living city.

Things slowed down midday as the sun relentlessly beat down, forcing everyone inside, to a shady spot, or to the juice stands.  Large fish tank like aquariums were easy to find on the streets, manned by a person with a large spoon, plastic cups, and a deliciously large amount of fresh juice.  Every flavor under the sun existed; watermelon, mango, strawberry, tomate de arbol; but limonada seemed to be people’s choice.  Other men pushed carts down the street filled with carafes of coffee.   Small Dixie cups were offered, filled with either tinto (black coffee) or café con leche (coffee with milk); a quick pick-me-up.  In addition to all of the drink options, there were plenty of vendors selling kebabs of meat or fried treats.  One popular greasy item was the arepa con huevo (a thick corn tortilla cut down the middle, whole raw egg cracked inside and then fried).

In addition, we tried many sweets found in the famous arcaded walkway known as El Portal de los Dulces.   In the adjoining Plaza de los Coches, which was formerly a slave market, you could watch traditional Carib dancing.  As a native Colombian such as Shakira would say, hips don’t lie.  These people knew how to dance.

In the adjoining Plaza de los Coches, which was formerly a slave market, you could watch traditional Carib dancing.  As a native Colombian such as Shakira would say, hips don’t lie.  These people knew how to dance.

Recipes from Cartagena (CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW)

Arroz con Coco y Pasas (Rice Cooked in Coca-Cola)
Colombian Beans
Sancocho De Gallina (Colombian Chicken Soup)
Arepa Filled with Egg (Arepa de Huevo)

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