Lost in Colombia: An Authentic Taste of Cartagena

City Travel, Colombia, Couples Travel, Dispatches from the Road, Food & Wine — By on April 14, 2009 at 2:31 pm

La Perla Cartagena By Amanda Pressner
LG Executive Editor

Ask a local in Cartagena to describe the flavors and dishes that make up his city’s cuisine (or better yet, as a head chef in one of the city’s myriad restaurants) you’ll probably be met with some quizzical looks, or as I did, blank stares. Define the local cuisine? ¿Como?

To me, it seemed like a pretty simple question, especially as The New York Times recently hailed this Caribbean city as a culinary destination (saying that “For Foodies, Cartagena is now on the Map,”) yet not a single chef or restaurateur I spoke with could give me a straight answer. Eventually, after much rephrasing, I gleaned that there is, in fact a specific cuisine native to Cartagena, and it’s one that utilizes plenty of fresh seafood, sweet, tropical produce, coconut milk and surprisingly, almost no fiery spices or heavy seasonings.

According to Colombian chef and cookbook author Teresita Román de Zurek, “In Cartagena, there is an equilibrium and harmony of flavors, where none stands out from the rest.” That means letting the main ingredients’ true flavors shine through, rather than disguising them under a blanket of red hot chili pepper.

Part of the reason that it’s tough to pin down the indigenous flavor of Cartagena is that the city’s culinary scene has evolved into quite the international affair. Within just a few blocks, you’ll find eateries serving French, Italian, German, Greek, Peruvian, Cuban, Arabian and Creole food, plus a spate of new restaurants that specialize in a fusion of Colombia plus any of the above. One surprising new development: The Hard Rock Café has opened up an outpost here, a move that’s been call for celebration, rather than alarm.

“It raises the standard for all of the restaurants here in Cartagena,” said Manuel Busquets, co-owner of the new Cuban nightclub café Guantanamera. “We know that they are delivering a superior level of quality and service, and we need to do the same.

Despite the local hubbub surrounding the mega-chain, Jeff and I decide to skip the Hard Rock and instead check out La Perla, a brand new Peruvian-fusion restaurant near the Plaza Santo Domingo. We loved the baby octopus prepared with aji amarillo (yellow chile) and yucca mash and a dessert that’s very traditionally Cartagenian: a ring of fresh strawberries doused in a simple syrup and served with a spoonful of vanilla ice cream.
If you’re looking for an even more authentic taste of the city, visit El Portal de Los Dulces. This candy market, referenced in the Gabriel Garcia Marques novel Love in the Time of Cholera, has been around for more than 100 years and features a truly impressive assortment of sweets displayed in glass jars. You’ll find everything from coconut and rock candy to caramels-colored confections stamped in to the shape of palm-sized babies (not exactly my idea of appetizing, but to each his/her own).

Suddenly feeling more partial to savory treats? Keep your eyes peeled for a street vendor grilling up some arepas, a traditional cornmeal bread stuffed with cheese or other fillings. Each region of Colombia (and Venezula) prepares their own a little differently, so you can sample the local flavors-and quell those mid-afternoon stomach rumbles-for only 75 cents apiece.

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