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Bruce Palling

From Cocaine to Cuisine

mehdi33300 / Shutterstock.com

Colombia is transforming itself into a foodie’s haven…

What is Colombian Cuisine? Until now, the Latin American food scene has been dominated by Mexican and Peruvian but the Colombian Government and the Bogota Chamber of Commerce are keen to join the club. Their first move has been to sponsor Madrid Fusion, the leading avant-garde food festival, which put Modern Spanish Cuisine on the map, to hold an annual food festival in Bogota for the next five years. This culinary roadshow brought 20 of the world’s leading chefs to Bogota for workshops and collaborations with the best local chefs and food historians. The roll call of chefs sounded like a list of participants in the Netflix Chef’s Table series - Slovenia’s Ana Roš, Peru’s Virgilio Martínez, Sweden’s Magnus Ek, Japan’s Yoshihiro Narisawa and Spain’s superstars Joan Roca and Quique Dacosta.

Last year, Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant awards were also held in Bogota, further evidence that it is gaining traction as a serious food destination.

Benjamin Lana, the vice president of Madrid Fusion and the organiser of the recent event in Bogota, has no doubt about the future popularity of Colombian cuisine. “Colombia is well known for its music and literature but not their food, so we have to help them promote it,” he says. “These days, chefs are not just cooking products but also ideas. Fifteen years ago, it was molecular cuisine and science in the kitchen but that is now more or less over and instead, sustainability and the celebration of local products is paramount. On that score, there is hardly anywhere as diverse as Colombia, so this is only the beginning.”

It was fascinating to hear one of the farmers explain that while the raw material for cocaine production was obviously a far more lucrative crop, he switched because too many of his colleagues had been eliminated by rival cocaine consortiums.

Javier Masias, a leading food commentator from Peru, suggests: “The reason why Madrid Fusion is a game changer is because it opens local chefs to new ideas – we tend to be blasé because we have seen these chefs either in their own restaurants or at other festival events, but it is ground breaking for local chefs.”

Javier does have a word of caution though when it comes to the local produce: “One thing that has yet to have an impact is the quality of the local produce – there is room for improvement – I am talking about typical vegetables too, like carrots. It’s curious, but a lot of the best local cuisine still doesn’t get to Bogota.The capital is quite isolated from the remainder of the country partly because of the poor road network and the violence associated with the drug trade.”

Leading Colombian chef Harry Sasson has been instrumental in encouraging former coca farmers to switch to palm hearts both for domestic and overseas consumption. It was fascinating to hear one of the farmers explain that while the raw material for cocaine production was obviously a far more lucrative crop, he switched because too many of his colleagues had been eliminated by rival cocaine consortiums.

The sheer diversity of the country makes it impossible to talk of Colombian cuisine as a single entity – rather like India defies generic categorisation. In sheer dimensions, Colombia is big - the same size as France and Spain combined. There is the cuisine of the Andes, the Amazon, the Pacific and Caribbean as well as the land in between. A decade ago, the most renowned restaurants in Bogota were Italian, French and Japanese but now there are numerous establishments celebrating local produce.

Last year, Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant awards were also held in Bogota, further evidence that it is gaining traction as a serious food destination.

The best place to discover the diversity of Colombian produce is Leo, a Bogota restaurant run by Leonor Espinosa and her daughter Laura. Known as the mother of Colombian cuisine, her menu displays 40 products unique to Colombia, including different species of edible ants, wild rodents and a giant freshwater fish called pirarucu, whose real delicacy is its tongue. To eat its 15-course dinner feels a bit like making an expedition to an edible rainforest – you are offered a local blackberry fermented drink along with Pacific clams and yuca leaves from the Amazonian jungle. What makes this so intriguing is to experience fruits and vegetables with completely different tastes to anything you have ever tried before. The waitress has an iPad with illustrations of all of the produce to assist anyone who needs to know more about what they are about to consume. Although there is a complete list of local drinks to accompany every dish, there are also the very best Latin American wines from Chile and Argentina along with those from Spain and France.

Harry Sasson has 30 years experience as a chef and is the father of Colombian cuisine. From the outside, his establishment looks like a luxurious colonial villa but inside is far more contemporary with a wall of greenery and lattice work that makes you feel as if you are inside a geodesic dome. As well as championing the use of palm heart - which is like a rustic version of asparagus - his other exceptional dishes include fresh crab and avocado with herbs or steamed grouper with succulent roast potatoes and grilled sweet bananas.

Will Colombia emerge as the next must-go Latin American food destination? It is certainly heading in the right direction but it is a slow process.

The hippest destination in Bogota is Prudencia, located in Candelaria, the historic colonial centre of Bogota. Run by Mario Rosero and his American wife Meghan Flanigan, this stylish destination is only open for lunch and serves a range of ingredients, which are cooked over open flame or barbecue. There are three grills and smokers at the rear of the property plus a wood oven. Changing daily, the menu features bold dishes such as pork shoulder with monta chilli, cumin, porter and whiskey along with wood-grilled corn with burnt onion sauce. There is always a vegan option too, such as wood-grilled eggplant and zucchini with minty spinach. Meghan has noticed far more interest in local ingredients and techniques: “People are a lot more focussed on looking at Colombian produce or regional cuisine within the country – if you went to eastern Colombia a few years back, no one really cared about culinary traditions but now they are restoring them, thanks to the growing interest from Bogota.” In order to expose customers to new produce, she said one prominent chef would actually smuggle new ingredients on the plate and not identify them to avoid people refusing to try them.

Mini Mal is another well-established local ingredient restaurant. The menu includes fascinating background on the dishes served. Their peanut and mute corn soup recipe was given to them by a grandmother from the Inga tribe called Mercedes Tisoy de Jacanamijoy – which is served at the festivities of the Sibundoy Valley and “supposed to fill the other’s heart with one’s breath.” Or there is a rabbit and sweet chilli stew served with a plantain and eggplant tamale plus fresh greens.

The other classic restaurant is El Chato, which has an entire wall devoted to dozens of jars of different spices and herbal combinations. Chef Alvaro Clavijo has worked in a number of major international restaurants, including Noma in Copenhagen, Per Se in New York and L’Epicure in Paris. Again, he focuses on local ingredients with a twist – chicken hearts with local potatoes, sour cream and egg yolk dust or squid ink infused rice crackers with crab and mango.

Will Colombia emerge as the next must-go Latin American food destination? It is certainly heading in the right direction but it is a slow process. With increased international exposure, more people will become curious enough to give it a try, so in time it may rival the existing destinations of Mexico and Peru.