Sunday, July 5, 2009

How to Cook Like a Colombian Grandmother

This year is the second in a row that I celebrated the Fourth of July in South America while toasting the US's independence with British people. Odd, but fun. Last year it was Iguazu, Argentina. This year it's Cartagena, and I drank rum and mango juice instead of cachaca.

Toasting the holiday with a British girl in my program was great, but the meal I'd had earlier that day was the real highlight. It wasn't exactly the meal I'd normally eat to celebrate the holiday of Beer, Barbecue, and Freedom, but was delicious nonetheless. I've been telling Maria, the house owner, that I really, really need to learn how to cook Colombian food. On the 4th she gave me my first cooking lesson.

Before I go into further detail, a word about Maria: I adore her. She is one of the sweetest, most gentle, giving people I have ever met. She loves to mother everyone who's staying in her house. She only has one biological son, but plenty of other adopted children. For the first few days I was here, she would constantly hover, worrying about me.

Conversation we repeated about a dozen times my first week here:
Maria: "Leah, you have to eat more. You're young, it's hot outside. You need energy."
Me: "I'm not very hungry, Maria. I just got here. That happens when I travel - I need a few days to adjust."
Maria: "Ok, do you want some arepas?"
Me: "No, no, really, I promise, I'm fine."
Maria: "Ok, well I'm making some meat now. With salt, garlic...really delicious. I think you're going to like it."


Maria is always cooking something, which makes all her houseguests happy, because she happens to be very good at it. In honor of me and America's Day of Independence, she cooked a huge feast with coconut rice, fish, salad, soup, fresh juice, and fried plantains. Ay, dios mio. I watched carefully as she cooked everything, cataloging the steps.

Coconut Rice

1. First, you put either some coconut water (or milk) in a big pot with some sugar.

2. Wait until the coconut water and sugar reduce to a thick, honey-colored paste.

3. While waiting, sit around, snacking on nispero.

4. If you happen to be four years old, eat popsicle and practice looking deceptively cute and innocent.

5. Yay! Time to add the rest of the coconut milk, coconut rind, and rice.

6. Cook for about twenty minutes, then serve, along with fish, salad, fried plantains, etc.

7. If a minor flood happens to inundate your kitchen because the part of the house next to the kitchen has no roof, ignore water and continue eating. Note: this happened. We were relatively unconcerned. All turned out fine.