World-renowned chef, author and Emmy winning television personality Anthony Bourdain visits Colombia in the next episode of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," airing Sunday, April 28, at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook.
In the days counting down to my trip to Colombia, I daydreamed about the culinary delights to come. It was my first time traveling to South America and nothing excited me more than the food: exotic fruits fresh off the tree, full-bodied coffee from the richest beans in the world, and succulent steaks in a country known for its beef production.
I traveled with my boyfriend, who was born in Pereira, one of the three main cities making up Colombia’s “coffee axis.” I begged him to give me an idea of what to expect on my plate. In the past, he had regaled me with stories of eating cow’s tongue for Christmas dinner and drinking juice from tropical citrus fruits whose names I could hardly pronounce. What foods would I be bragging about when I arrived back home to the States?
“Well,” he said, thinking a moment. He shrugged. “Colombia is pretty famous for its potatoes.”
And yet, on my first day in Colombia, I found myself perusing the menu at a gourmet burger place. I was baffled when the server brought my boyfriend, his two siblings and me three bowls of French fries - each of which looked slightly different.
“Try this one with this sauce, and this one too. You’re going to love it,” I was told.
They did know other countries had French fries, right? But I grabbed a few different fries and noticed that oddly, they tasted nothing alike. Some were cut into wedges and had a very thick texture and almost sweet taste. Another had been fried with more grease and a few spices and felt more starchy. Although the U.S. exports about $2 million in potatoes annually to Colombia, these tots were a new experience for me.
My boyfriend’s sister laughed. "You Americans just don’t understand the potato. We do."
Colombians, as it turns out, love potatoes. There are neighborhood stores that only sell beer and potatoes, both of which you can order by phone and have delivered to your door. Potatoes are served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — and even the small meals in between.
While the U.S. has the rather demure-sounding National Potato Council, Colombia boasts the Federación Colombiana de Productores de Papa (The Colombian Federation of Potato Producers), or the Fedepapa for short. Spoken aloud, it can be heard as fe de papa: faith of the potato.
I was still dumbfounded: what was so special about these potatoes?
I posed this query on a recent Saturday to Adriana Mejia, a waitress at Las Arepas de Julia, a Colombian restaurant in the suburbs of Atlanta. She looked at me as if I’d asked why hot sauce is spicy.
“It’s important because we put it into everything,” she said, waving a hand over the vast menu. “Every dish. We fry them, we cook them, we roast them, we make them runny, we load them up, and we eat them plain. So many of our dishes need a potato to work.”
She’s right. There’s a hearty stew called sancocho that uses potatoes as a base ingredient, and caldo de papa, a clear meat broth with potatoes that serves as a great hangover cure. Potatoes are found inside fried empanadas, which are eaten as snacks.
The calentao meal takes leftover rice, meat, and potatoes — along with whatever leftovers are in the fridge — and cooks them up with eggs for breakfast. Papas chorreadas mixes oil, potatoes, scallions, tomatoes, and spices into a runny salsa, topped with a layer of cheese.
The simplest way to eat potatoes is la papa salada — boiled potatoes with tons of salt. Each recipe uses a particular type of potato, and a Colombian cook will know each variety’s specialty.
Perhaps the most famous of all potato recipes is called ajiaco (ah-hee-AH-coh). Ajiaco is the regional dish of the capital, Bogotá, a massive city set high in the mountains. Ajiaco is a thick potato soup, stewed with pulled chicken, corn, and three distinct types of potatoes. It’s served with cream, capers, rice, and avocado on the side. Those three potatoes, along with a strong herb called guascas, are the ingredients that clinch the soup into a national favorite.
Ajiaco uses the three most common spuds in Colombia: the Criolla (a small, round, bright yellow tater that thickens the soup; it is grown at a very high altitude), the Sabanera (a dryer variety grown north of the capital in the province of Boyacá and used more like the American baked potato), and the Pastusa (a softer, more crumbly potato grown in Pasto, far south near Ecuador).
Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes Mountains for thousands of years. Originally grown in Peru for sustenance, potatoes are now grown throughout Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia as well. The tubers flourish in the dry air of high altitudes, with different varieties growing better low on the mountain, or on the shady side, or where the plant is exposed to more sun and wind.
Depending on the locale and the type of seed used, potatoes can be just about every shape and color imaginable, resulting in thousands of possibilities. My boyfriend’s mother, Carmenza Gay Roa, once saw an emerald-green potato at an exhibition in Colombia, and she’s always wondered what it tasted like.
This all was a massive gastronomical surprise to me: Colombia mashed my preconceptions of potato. If you have cravings — for just about anything — you can find a Colombian potato dish to satisfy your longings and culinary imagination.
Perhaps all you need is a little faith of the potato.
A Colombian potato primer:
Though ajiaco would be the best Colombian flavor to recreate at home, unfortunately, the varieties of potatoes and guascas are not readily available in the U.S. If you want to try an easy Colombian potato dish, give papas saladas a whirl. This is Señora Carmenza’s recipe.
Here in the U.S., we use the phrase salt and pepper to describe someone with dark hair with a few grays mixed in. In Colombia, you might yell to a pal on the street, “Oye, qué pasó papa salada!” What’s up, you salted potato?
In a pot over the stove or a pressure cooker (which will make the process faster), add ten unpeeled potatoes and enough water until the potatoes are covered. Use a hard, compact potato. Carmenza recommends the pastusa or tocareña or something similar.
Cook the potatoes in water only until they are soft inside, all the way to the center. You can take a toothpick and stick it into the potato. When you lift the potato with the toothpick, and the potato falls by itself, it’s soft enough.
Drain the water, but don’t dry off the potatoes. You want them a little damp. Take one teaspoon of salt per potato — in this case, ten teaspoons — and pour the salt on top of the potatoes. Shake and roll the potatoes around until the salt sticks to the sides of the potatoes. You want your taters covered in crusty patches. The salt doesn’t have to be evenly distributed.
Allow the potatoes to dry with the salty crust. Papas saladas are traditionally served with guacamole and ají, a spicy, finely-chopped salsa. Eat them whole, pouring a little guacamole and ají on each bite.
Got a favorite tater method you'd care to share? Spud it up in the comments below.