By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Historically, the lush South American country of Colombia has been a mixed bag of triumphs and tragedies.
Once home to the highly organized Muisca Confederation and the ultra-sophisticated Quimbaya Civilization (known for its spectacularly detailed gilt masterpieces), the early Spanish conquistadors believed Colombia enshrouded the illusive El Dorado city of gold.
Named after Christopher Columbus – even though he never set foot on Colombian soil – Colombia was throughout its colonial history a magnet for conquerors and adventurers, liberators and oppressors, scoundrels and pirates, slave-traders and marauders, most in search of its presumed secret stashes of gold and emeralds.
While most of those buccaneers and fortune hunters never found the country’s alleged stockpiles of jewels and gold, what they did discover was an astounding nation of vast ethnic diversity and seemingly endless geographic variegation, with lush rainforests, pristine beaches and misty Andean highlands.
And while five decades of violent guerrilla warfare and the scourge of cocaine cartels, brutal kidnappings and blatant corruption kept Colombia off most tourist maps during the late 20th century, in the last two decades, Latin America’s fourth-largest economy has undergone an astonishing transformation from a failing narco state to a thriving modern society with a plethora of premiere destinations ranging from its exquisite colonial gem of Cartagena to its vibrant and bustling capital of Bogota.
No longer considered as a no-go destination, Colombia is now in the midst of a tourism boom, with more than 8.5 million foreign visitors in 2017, representing a 36 percent surge from the previous year.
Beyond the colonial charm of Antioquia and the sultry salsa of Cali, tourists to Colombia are also discovering one of the country’s other secret treasures: its incomparably delicious cuisine.
Colombian cuisine is not only a sumptuous blend of the culinary traditions of its Caribbean shoreline, Pacific coast, mountains and ranchlands, but also a reflection of its rich historic mashup, with influences from indigenous Chibcha, Spanish and African cookery.
From its colorful Andean “bandeja paisa” (“rural tray”) platter, with an array of red beans, white rice, shredded beef, fried plantain and avocado slices, to its coastal “sopa de abundancia” (“soup of abundance”), a hotpot broth of shrimp, squid, fish, cheese, pasta, and coconut milk, Colombian cuisine is quickly becoming the unexpected favorite among international foodies in the know.
This month, the Presidente InterContinental Hotel in Mexico City’s Colonia Polanco is offering an extraordinary sampling of Colombian epicurean delights at its upscale Café Urbano restaurant, with 17 dishes from across the South American country, all lovingly prepared by Colombian chef Janier Grisales, who once owned the prestigious Avril and Bokaboka restaurants, in Cali and Cartagena, respectively, and is now the executive chef at Hotel Now in Cali.
“I wanted to present a variety of Colombian dishes, to show the diversity of our cooking styles,” Grisales told Pulse News Mexico shortly after the July 11 opening of the “Así sabe Colombia” (“This is how Colombia Tastes”) festival, which will run through Friday, July 20.
“The food from the coastal region is very different from the food from the Andean region, and the food from the north of Colombia is very different from that of the south.”
In general, Colombian dishes are meaty and hardy, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables thrown in for good measure.
A Colombian ceviche, such as the white fish version offered on the Así sabe Colombia festival’s menu, is made sweet by the addition of chopped apples and shaved coconut.
Coconut milk is used in abundance and fried plantains and rice are staples in Colombian dishes.
You won’t find a lot of chili peppers or other capsaicinoids in Colombian cooking.
Instead, the flavors are subtle, boosted by delicate herbs and simple flavorings.
Included in Grisales’ Café Urbano festival is Colombia’s classic, unofficial national dish, the previously mentioned bandeja paisa, to which he has added a fried egg, bacon and sausage, in keeping with “the way my grandmother used to serve it.”
Grisales has also incorporated his modern-day interpretation of the aforementioned sopa de abundancia, which he explained was a potluck community stew where everyone in the neighborhood would contribute whatever they had in the cupboard to make a group meal.
The coconut milk base gives the sopa a distinctively Asian tinge and the herbs and spices Grisales adds create a medley of different flavors that enhance the seafood’s natural goodness.
For openers, there are sweet yucca fritters in a spicy honey sauce and green plantain balls stuffed with ground pork belly, both of which are exceptional.
In addition to the bandeja paisa, the main dishes include a shredded oxtail with mashed potatoes and a semi-piquant criollo sauce that is about as spicy as Colombian food ever gets.
There is also a gorgeously presented fiambre de pollo, composed of steamed chicken with rice wrapped in a banana leaf and an equally enticing encocado de camarón, which consists of giant shrimp smothered in a creamy coconut milk sauce and served with rice and salad.
Grisales recommended we try his “merengón” merengue for dessert, which was stuffed with fresh berries and curdled cream and was absolutely delicious.
The menu also includes a selection of fruity nonalcoholic and alcohol-based beverages.
The teetotaler lulada with an exotic Colombian lula citrus fruit and sour orange leaves is particularly refreshing, as is the more potent Mama Inés, with blackberry and ginger liqueur and frosted brown sugar.
The Así Sabe Colombia gastronomic festival at Café Urbano will run through Friday, July 20.
The restaurant is located on the mezzanine floor of the Presidente InterContinental hotel in Colonia Polanco, at Campos Eliseos 218 (tel: 5327-7700, ext. 5424).
Parking is available in the hotel and all major credit cards are accepted.