Food Friday: Granadilla!

I’d been saving this one until all of my visitors from home had come and gone, because I didn’t want to ruin the utterly unique experience of meeting (and eating) a granadilla. Now that I’m here all by my lonesome, I can finally enlighten the rest of the non-Colombia-visiting world about the very weird joys of the granadilla.

See? They look perfectly normal like this!

I’ve waxed poetic before about the plethora of amazing fruits that Colombia has to offer — the granadilla is one of these exotic delights (well, they’re not exotic here. People walk around all the time here eating them like they’re apples). On the outside, they’re pretty unremarkable — slightly oval, with a mottled orange skin that makes them look like a not-too-distant citrus cousin. Like a citrus, you can also poke your thumb right through the peel — and that’s where the similarities end. That’s where it starts getting weird.

As soon as you pop your thumb through the skin of the granadilla, you notice something peculiar about it: the peel gives way in tectonic plates of chunks, like Styrofoam. Directly under the thin peel, the inside of the rind is white, fluffy and aerated, as if it were designed to keep the innards safe on long, transcontinental journeys. But that isn’t the weird part. Those innards are what has spooked every person new to Colombia — hell, I even thought they were inedibly bizarre the first time I saw them.

grana-fingers

AHHH! Alien food!

The inside of a granadilla — the part you eat– is a slimy, dark cluster of seeds surrounded by clear goo that bears a strong resemblance to frog eyes, or what I imagine alien eggs look like. And as if that weren’t bad enough, those gooey seeds are enclosed in a layer of little white tentacles, like baby stalactites or ghost fingers, that seem to serve no biological purpose other than to freak people out. There is no way this is not alarming the first time you encounter it. It does not look like something that is meant to be consumed by humans, much less eaten in a casual fashion while walking along the street. And “eaten” is a generous description, since by necessity (unless you have a fork), it’s pretty much mandatory to stick your face into the opened shell of the granadilla and slurp out the seeds in the loudest manner possible. This is infinitely more satisfying than it should be.

People sometimes talk about things being “an acquired taste.” This usually confuses me, since they’re often referring to things that I find so revolting I don’t understand why anyone would want to acquire the taste for them. Granadillas, however, are a perfect example of an acquired taste. Once you get past the initial shock of slurping down something that looks like it’s about to spawn tiny amphibians at any moment, you realize that the gooey insides actually have a nice, light, not-too-sweet flavor that’s a refreshing break from all the rice we’re eating all the time here.

Some of us really, honestly like these things!
[photo courtesy of the lovely Jamie Wiebe, who tried a granadilla once and decided that was enough]

Plus, eating fake frog eyes is kind of fun, in a spooky, Halloween-themed-food kind of way. And then there’s the insistence of my Colombian friends that the best way to loosen the seeds (a necessary task before opening the fruit), rather than banging the granadilla against your hand a few times like I do, is to whack it against a certain, very specific spot on the back of your head — or, more amusingly, your friend’s heads. Any food that combines tasty flavor, weird appearance, the possibility of alarming my friends and family members AND the potential to hit my friends in the head is a winner in my book!

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Food Friday: Papas Criollas

Between my three-quarters German heritage and my Bostonian (so, Irish by osmosis) upbringing, it should surprise no one that I would choose potatoes to make a major appearance in my hypothetical last meal. I could happily eat potatoes nearly every day, in whichever form they wished to appear: fried, slathered in mayo and cubed into salad, baked with rosemary and salt, covered in butter and mashed into topography on my plate — you name the potato, and I’ll be there to eat it. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my favorite vegetable, but it turns out that I didn’t really know what true tuber love was until I arrived here in Colombia and met the papa criolla.

Salty criollas and a michelada on the sunny lakeside boardwalk: my ideal recipe for happiness.

Papas criollas are one of several species of potato native to Colombia, and they’re reason enough alone to convince any true potato aficionado to visit here. They’re small, gold-skinned potatoes with soft insides, ranging from the size of a marble to about a ping-pong ball (although they don’t play games, as far as I know). Papas criollas are one of the three types of potatoes used to make ajiaco, Bogotá’s traditional soup, and they show up alongside everything from hot dogs to picadas (essentially a plate of meat with toothpicks). This is one of the sides I’m thrilled to receive with meals — no matter how many other starches the Colombians throw on the plate (and rest assured, they will be many), you’ll never catch me complaining about the criollas.

I’ve consumed them in towns across the country, eaten them with forks and toothpicks, found them rolling across plates, tucked in napkins and piled in plastic cups. I don’t know why they taste so much better than other kinds of potatoes, but the fact remain that they do, and I’ll just have to keep eating them until I figure out what the secret is. In the meantime, does anyone know how the USDA would potentially feel about the import of really, really tasty potatoes?

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #4: Agua de Panela

Every culture (and every individual within that culture) has its own methods for dealing with illness, or even just the common cold. Some people swear by garlic cloves, others resort to endless bowls of chicken soup or other kinds of comforting broth, while still others just pop NyQuil until they’ve convinced themselves they feel better. I’m personally terrible at being sick — my two coping mechanisms, in order, are total denial and then eating whole oranges while drinking incessant cups of herbal tea with honey until I can’t think about citrus anymore. It may not be the most medically advanced strategy, but I haven’t died yet, so I have no evidence that it isn’t working.

I’ve only had a cold once so far in Colombia, and thank god, because while I may have the constitution to deal with Colombian gripa, I’m definitely not strong enough to handle the universally accepted cure: agua de panela.

Let’s start with the basics. Panela is a solid form of sugarcane, produced primarily in the coffee region of Colombia and sold in square blocks in pretty much any market across the country. It functions as a sugar substitute, since it essentially is just a block of unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s delicious in coffee, but less so when it’s the main ingredient of a drink.

Those of you who took Spanish in high school may have figured out by now that agua de panela is exactly what it sounds like: panela water. There’s nothing more to it — just a block of panela dissolved in warm water and served like a piping hot cup of sweet tea. I’m sure both Southerners and butterflies would delight in this beverage, but as someone who prefers my sweet drinks to involve fruit, it’s not really, dare I say, my cup of tea.

But that sure puts me in the minority here. Agua de panela is nationally accepted as the most effective and highly recommended cure — or preventative measure — for the common cold. It’s cold outside? Agua de panela. You’re coughing? Agua de panela. It’s 11 a.m.? Why not have some agua de panela?

Given how much soda Colombians typically consume, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the national preference for drinking sugar water at the drop of a hat. Still, the next time I start sneezing, you can find me in a corner with my tea and oranges — hold the butterfly nectar, please.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Food Friday: Historic Pastries in Villa de Levya

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This gallery contains 10 photos.

Delicious treats from Villa de Leyva. I swear we ate real food while we were there — but you wouldn’t know it from my photos. Clearly I have my artistic (and gastronomic) priorities in order.

Vacation, By the Numbers

Days: 13

Different airports: 4

Co-travelers: 4 — always 3 other people, but two switched off mid-vacation

Number of times I had to unpack my entire backpack so an unfriendly customs official could rummage through my undergarments and judge the number of earrings I bring on vacation: 1

Meals eaten at Mexican restaurants: 3

Meals eaten at pizza places: 2

Total number of avocados consumed: at least 7

Hikes: 4

Hikes on volcanoes: 1

Times I thought I might pass out for various reasons: 3

Times I actually did pass out: 0. Yay me!

Ziplines conquered: 13

Micheladas consumed: 5. More, if you want to count the 1-liter one as more than one beer (it was $5! I love Quito)

Buses taken: 11

Dollars spent at Otavalo market in Ecuador: UGH.

Steps climbed at La Piedra near Guatapé, Colombia: 670

2×1 happy hour cocktails purchased: 12

Cocktails that were actually good: 4

Unsuccessful attempts to find Pablo Escobar’s grave: 2

Cats at hostels: 4

Motochiva rides: 1

Number of eggs eaten: I can’t count this high

Fourth of July parties attended: 1

Success: total

More coherent, complete sentences and photos to follow!

Food Friday: Chontaduro

So this is more or less the evil twin of my cholado post. When I arrived in Cali, one of the first things my friends living there asked me was, “Have you tried chontaduro yet?” Since they were asking with a tone of voice that implied less the sharing of a really exciting secret than some serious schadenfreude, I was already a bit suspicious. But when in Rome, etc.

who knew the knife wasn't the scariest thing on that plate?

They look innocuous enough, right? They could totally be plum cousins!

At least I had braced myself, though, so the next day, when one of our gracious hosts came into the room I was sharing with my two other visiting Bogotá friends with a full plate of the shiny red fruits, I was ready. Or so I thought.

I was ready for something weird, for sure, but at first they didn’t look that strange. Chontaduro, which grow on palm trees and go by different names all across South America, have shiny red skin and are about the size of a large strawberry or one of the mini plums here that I love so much. So far, so good. Normal-looking, normal color, nothing deeply frightening. Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.

Instead of biting into the little beasts, though, you peel them — I’m not sure if the rind is edible at all for anyone besides birds, but in Cali at least, they don’t eat it. And that’s when things get a little stranger. Since it bore a passing resemblance to other small pitted fruits, I was expecting something like a peach or plum to emerge from that bright red skin. Wrong. The innards of a chontaduro are orange, flaky and fibrous — they look kind of like a tiny, round sweet potato with a big pit in the middle. And that’s more or less how they taste, too, except without the “sweet” part.

otherwise I'm going outside and corralling a few bees

Wait, where did the honey go? There’s no way I’m getting through this plate without it!

That’s right. Chontaduro are a fruit that taste like the terrible cousin of a potato (if they tasted like potatoes, you can believe I’d be eating a pound of them every week). I don’t even know why they bother calling them fruit, since they seem much closer to a starch like yuca than a juicy fruit. In Cali, they eat them with salt and honey, which makes the taste marginally better, until you realize that you’re essentially just covering it with enough honey to hide the flavor of the fruit itself. Once I took one bite, I realized why my friends had been smirking when they inquired about my chontaduro experience.

Maybe it’s an acquired taste, since most caleños don’t seem to mind it at all, or maybe they place more importance in its alleged power as an aphrodisiac (can someone explain to me why all the most disgusting foods — with the exception of chocolate — are the ones reputed to be aphrodisiacs?), but either way, I’m somehow missing the appeal of the whole thing. Even after eating a whole plate of them, because I’d rather eat some gross stuff covered with honey than be rude.

Still, though, the next time I have an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Cali, I think I’ll be sticking with cholado.

whatever the opposite of 'nom' is, that's this photo

One bite down, ten more (and a plateful of salt) to go….

Food Friday: Cholado

they look just good enough to eat, don't they?

Oh so tempting…

On my trip to Cali a few weeks ago, I think it’s safe to say that about 30% of my conversations with my best friend revolved around cholado. How excited we were to eat cholado, where we were going to buy cholado, how much cholado we could possibly eat in one weekend — if it involved cholado, you can be sure it was discussed at great length.

So what, you ask, is this magical, delightful treat that so captured our imaginations and taste buds? WELL. Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about raspado?

that is a brave woman, right there

DO YOU SEE HOW MANY BEES ARE ON THIS CONTAINER RIGHT NOW??

Cholado is more or less its bigger, sugarier, fruitier cousin — and man, is it delicious. It’s also a specialty of Cali and the Cauca department, appearing under brightly-colored carts every few blocks in the cities and towns of that region. I guess icy treats are a much easier sell in places where it doesn’t rain every two hours.

Imagine if a sno-cone and a fruit parfait had a baby and shoved it into a giant cup with a straw. That’s essentially what cholado is: a sugar-high in a cup. It’s made by tossing a bunch of different kinds of fruit (pineapple, maracuyá, papaya, strawberries, etc.) into a plastic cup the size of a Big Gulp, adding shaved ice and food coloring, and topping the whole thing off with a strawberry, sticky-sweet condensed milk and a vanilla wafer, just for the hell of it.

all of that color is purely natural, of course

Bet you’re jealous you don’t have one of these right now

Grab a long-handled spoon and a straw (yes, you’ll end up needing both), and you’re good to go.

I only ate one of these treats during my weekend in Cali — not because I didn’t like it, but rather that one per weekend is about the limit that a normal digestive system can handle. Any more and I would’ve been bouncing off the walls for the whole week. It’s been long enough since that delicious day, though, that I think I’m just about ready for another.

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Food Friday: Arequipe, or Whatever You Call It Where You Live

If you’ve visited pretty much any country in South America, you’re probably already familiar with arequipe, or at least with one of its cousins. It goes by many names: arequipe here in Colombia, dulce de leche in Argentina, manjar in Ecuador, and something in Mexico that I won’t write here because it’s a dirty word in Argentine Spanish and I don’t want to offend my former host family. Google it yourself.

evidence of my non-love for the 'quipe

Not all arequipe is created alike. Some comes in a plastic container from a roadside stand somewhere west of Bogotá….

Whatever you want to call it, arequipe is a sugary treat made from heated, caramelized milk and, obviously, a lot of sugar. Like many of the dulces here, I often find it overwhelmingly sweet — a little bit goes a long way. Conventional wisdom has it that Americans have a serious (and seriously problematic) sweet tooth, so maybe I’m just an abnormality, but to me it seems that people here eat way more sweets than at home, and  dulces here have a hell of a lot of sugar. Lunch at my school always comes with some kind of candy, and everyone from kids to adults walk around snacking on sugary confections. You’d never see an adult in the U.S. walking around with a lollipop, but here, it’s pretty common.

but really, I'd probably eat dirt if it were covered with chocolate

…some comes slathered in chocolate and baked into a cake…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re talking about arequipe. Colombians put arequipe on/in EVERYTHING — cakes, pastries, croissants, cookies, you name it. There are arequipe-flavored lollipops, ice cream, chocolate bars and cappuccinos. And that’s if they even bother pairing it with something — half the time, people will just eat it right out of the container with a spoon, like a sugarier version of me with a jar of peanut butter.

GET AT ME, arequipe con cafe

…and some is coffee-flavored and further evidence of the brilliance of the Colombian people.

I have to admit, I still haven’t totally adjusted to the national obsession with arequipe. Don’t get me wrong — I love my sweets, but I prefer my sugar fix to arrive in the form of chocolate or possibly frappes (I believe those of you who aren’t from the Northeast call them milkshakes. Colombians call them batidos). I didn’t really love dulce de leche while I lived in Argentina (unless it arrived inside alfajores, which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life, or at least until they gave me diabetes), and apparently my taste buds haven’t changed significantly in the last three years.

who am I kidding? I totally want to shove my face in it

You know what? At least I’m bothering to put it on cookies instead of just shoving my face in it. Small victories, people!

As with every rule, of course, there’s one exception: last week I discovered, lurking in my second-closest supermarket, arequipe con café. Yeah, that’s right, kids: it’s coffee-flavored arequipe. Because the only thing that can make a bowl of sugar better is caffeine. Friends and family, expect me to return to the U.S. with about ten jars of this stuff.

Still, while this product was obviously designed specifically with me as its target consumer, I’m not yet a full-fledged arequipe convert. Sure, it’s tasty in small doses, or as a topping, or when flavored with my biggest food vice after chocolate, but for the foreseeable future, I think I’m going to reserve my spooning-empty-calories-directly-from-the-jar impulses for Nutella.