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Barbecue and Fried Fish: Foods of the Colombian Llanos

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Colombia is nothing if not diverse. My wife grew up in Bogotá, a sprawling city-in-the-mountains where the food consists mostly of stick-to-your-ribs stews and soups, fried or grilled meats, and plenty of starches. The kind of stuff you need to keep you going in the thin air up at 2,600 meters (for point of reference, that's a good 50 percent higher than Denver). More than once over the course of visiting various family-in-law members I've been reduced to a whimpering, quivering mass pleading for mercy in the face of an endless train of boiled potatoes, yuca, arracacha, platanos,, and the starchy, large-kerneled local corn. And that's before the meat, cheese, and ultra-sweet desserts even arrive at the table.

On my most recent trip, we made the journey out of Bogotá southeast to the llanos, the vast plains regions where most of the country's excellent beef comes from. The ride is only 90 kilometers as the crow flies, but can take several hours by car along the winding roads and long tunnels that lead you 2,100 meters down through the mountains. Our trip took five hours, as one of the major bridges was under construction, allowing only one lane of traffic to pass through at time; we had to wait while the cars heading back to Bogotá streamed past us. Not a fun situation when your stomach is still reeling from a 30-fruit tropical fruit tasting the day before.

But the cows are spectacular. The breed of cattle they raise—the cebú (zebu in English)—is originally from South Asia and have large, pretty eyes (like my wife, who I suspect has a cebú somewhere in her ancestry), floppy pointed ears, a distinct hump on their back, abnormally large dewlaps,* and spectacularly flavorful (if lean) meat.

*As if we all know what "normal" is when it comes to dewlaps.

Barbecue is King

Cebú

Enough with the zoology lesson; on to the food. The most famous dish of the llanos, and perhaps the most spectacular of Colombia's immensely varied regional cuisines, is their barbecue. Large cuts of meat are skewered on six foot long metal poles that are leaned vertically toward pits smoldering with hardwood fires. Six to eight hours of slow cooking later, the fat has rendered into a crisp shell and the meat is tender enough to shred with the fingers while still retaining plenty of moisture. Just like the brisket of Texas, seasoning is very sparse seasoning—most often just a heavy sprinkle of salt and perhaps a douse of beer—it's the flavor of the hardwood that dominates.

Head, Shoulder, Knees, and Toes

Ternera a la Llanera (known locally as mamona), the barbecued quarter of a veal calf, is the most famous incarnation, though my personal favorite is chiguiro, the large aquatic rodent more commonly known in the U.S. by it's Brazilian Portuguese name capybara. With succulent white meat and a healthy amount of fat, it's closest comparison is pork shoulder, though chiguiro is far more flavorful, with a slight gamey undertone. For a giant rat, it's shockingly good, though unfortunately, according to at least one local source, the species has recently been deemed threatened, and is no longer available for legal sale.

Deeper in the llanos, heading towards the more dangerous Guerilla territory, I'm told that giant armadillo is not an uncommon item for barbecue, though according to an 1880 article from the New York Times, the meat is greasy. I hope to judge for myself these days. I've yet to meet a quadruped I didn't like.

Even more troubling is talk of the government banning the use of open fires altogether, wood or otherwise. It'd be a tremendous blow to the culinary world. Imagine every barbecue joint in Texas suddenly switching from wood and coal to gas pits. There'd be an understandable uproar. My recommendation: Get down there and try it before it's too late.

Of all the meats on offer, pork is oddly enough the only one I've eaten with consistently mediocre results. Perhaps the Colombian pork is drier, or perhaps it's that the Colombians are wise enough to use the fatty cuts like the butt, belly, and ham in their wonderful, lightly fermented and semi-dried chorizo and longaniza, leaving the drier loin cuts for the pits. They do develop crisp skin and a great smoke ring, and forget about making pulled pork out of it, but doused with enough aji—the Colombian version of Mexican salsa that ranges from mild boiled egg-based versions to fiery chili sauces—almost any meat is edible.

The simplest aji I know is as easy and delicious as it gets: chop up an onion, some hot peppers, and cilantro, top up with water, and season with salt aggressively. Try it. Seriously.

Eat sausages at every opportunity you get, whether in the Llanos or not. Different from dry-cured Spanish chorizo or crumbly Mexican chorizo, Colombian chorizo is mildly seasoned by comparions. Their flavor comes mostly from the tang of partial fermentation, which lands them somewhere between a fresh Bratwurst and a dried Italian salami or a saucisson sec in flavor.

Rivers and Rice

Though they don't quite share the same deserved fame and spotlight as the barbecue, fried fish and rice and corn-based breads are ubiquitous foodstuffs in the Llanos. Fresh river fish like the large amarillo or the piraña-shaped cachama are caught and cooked up coastal-style, served with fried plantains of two types: the smashed green plantains known as patacones (tostones is the more familiar term to us), and sweet, ripe black plantains called maduros. I prefer the sweet.

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Before frying, the fish is scored at microscopic intervals all along both sides in order to break up some of the many bones, tenderize the flesh, and help it cook faster. After a quick dusting in highly seasoned corn meal, it goes into the fryer where it crisps up within minutes. Served with the highly acidic orange-fleshed limes of the region, it's moist, juicy, well-balanced, and perfectly satisfying, with none of the muddy flavors that farm-raised freshwater fish can carry.

Even more impressive is the hospitality shown to us. We were there mid-week during the off-season, when most restaurants and hotels are closed. The small, family-owned fried fish shop we stopped at was opened by the father-and-two-kids team just for our benefit. We ate fried fish while they sat next to us eating their own tasty looking lunch of stewed beef rib soup.

Breakfast can be as simple as cheese, coffee, and fresh fruit (check out our guide here), or heartier working-man fare: A cazuelita of fresh, bright orange eggs (yes, I know they don't actually taste better) served with crisp, rice-based rosquitas (or pan de arróz)—circular crackers with the tang of a Cheez Doodle—or envueltos de mazorca—steamed, lightly charred tamale-like corn cakes with the sweetness and moist, coarse crumb of good Northern-style cornbread.

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Certainly the best thing to try is their rich, bittersweet local version of hot chocolate, served frothy and intense in small glasses with a side of soured milk cheese to dip into it. My wife likes to tear it into little chunks and drop them in the bottom of her cup so that when she's done with the chocolate, there's a small pool of stretchy, ooze, sweet, and salty melted cheese at the bottom. It's really good.

There are way more foods out there than I've had a chance to eat or photograph, but that just gives us more to look forward to on the next trip, right?

Check out the slideshow for some more detailed views of the food and the people.

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