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?

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Food Friday: Roving Ice Cream and Penguins on Wheels

Ice cream is pretty much second only to oxygen on my list of Things That Make Life Worth Living (and oxygen is only winning because I want to stay on its good side). I remember reading once that Boston consumes the most ice cream per capita out of any major metropolitan region in the U.S., and I see no reason to doubt this — given the proximity and availability of both Ben & Jerry’s and J.P. Licks, it’s only logical. When I was younger, it was perfectly normal to go get ice cream at Herrell’s (RIP!) in the dead of February winter. It is, in fact, still totally normal (except we have to go somewhere else. Stupid corporate takeovers of Harvard Square, etc.). What I’m saying here is that I have a cultural basis for my fundamental need for ice cream in my life and my stomach. It’s both nature and nurture.

waterfront delivery

The Crem Helado guy is so committed to his important task, he even ventures onto the beach.

Fortunately, the multitudinous ice cream carts of Colombia are here to satisfy my cravings. Granted, if I had to pick a winner in a battle of helado supremacy, Argentina would win over Colombia every time (I would fight someone for a Volta avellana y pistachio cone right now), but I’m here, and I can’t really complain. Sure, Colombia may not have Freddo, but Popsy isn’t half bad, there are a few gelato shops to be found here and there, and I’ve even spotted the holy grail of fro-yo in a few malls. But we’re not talking about brick-and-mortar shop here — this is all about indulging my laziness and letting the ice cream come to me.

It’s hard to go more than a few blocks without running into one of Bogotá’s ice-cream-cart pushers, especially on weekends. There are two fairly ubiquitous options when it comes to icy treats on wheel around here. The first, Crem Helado, arrives in a little square white cart, heralded by a ringing bell attached to the handle. This stuff is your basic ice cream truck-style fare, popsicles and creamy fruit-flavored treats. It’s not necessarily my favorite, but it’ll do in a pinch.

it's too hot here for penguins

BON ICE MAN!!!! Sans penguin, but still. You get the idea.

The better option, if you can take it, is the Bon Ice man (or woman. But usually it’s a man). These ones are easy to spot, as they’re always decked out in their bright blue uniforms, pushing either a bright blue cylindrical cooler or one shaped like a penguin. They sell frozen treats here, OUT OF A PENGUIN. I have been here for four months and I am still not over this. I will probably never get over it. Frankly, I never want to.

But not only is Bon Ice visually exciting — it’s also incredibly tasty, particularly if you ever had a childhood. Remember those Freeze Pops everyone used to eat all the time in the summer when we were kids (and, if you’re me and my friends, that you still keep in your basement freezer)? You know, the skinny sticks that are essentially just ice with sweet food coloring, and for some mysterious reason the blue ones are vastly superior to all other flavors and you always had to fight everyone else except that weird kid that liked the red ones better to get them? That’s Bon Ice, except it comes in flavors like mango and uva (grape), and costs about the equivalent of US 15 cents. Bon Ice vendors are somewhat less common than the Crem Helado dudes, and it is therefore totally appropriate to do what my friends and I do every time we spot one, which is to shriek “BON ICE MAN!” and dash toward him and/or the sacred penguin as quickly as possible. This will also probably never get old.

mmmm, sugar and ice

Medieval torture device? Paper shredder? Nope, just a raspado cart.

And then there’s raspado. Ohhhh, raspado, the Colombian version of Sno-Cones. Raspado is a bit harder to find around here — I haven’t had much luck locating a cart in Bogotá so far, but I’ve run into it on a few occasions in warmer climates. Raspado begins as a cup of shaved ice, which the vendor shaves off of a big frozen block right there in front of you, using a very cool and slightly steampunk-looking hand-cranked device. Once in the cup, your pile of ice is layered with various colorful flavor syrups that are no doubt full of food coloring and carcinogens, then drizzled with sugar or sweet condensed milk. Raspado has absolutely zero nutritional benefit, and it is awesomely delicious, especially on a sweltering hot day. Oh, and the most entertaining thing about it? Depending on which way you eat the stuff, the sweet liquid left at the bottom turns some kind of horrifying color, which is never the same as the color in your friend’s cup. So if you go left, it’ll be green; favor the right side, you’ll end up with a cup full of pink sugar water. Individual eating styles deserve unique colors!

Last but absolutely not least are the vendors: dudes (or sometimes ladies) who wander around with a cooler slung from their shoulder, selling what are basically creamy homemade popsicles for about 1,000 pesos (roughly 50 cents) in every flavor from coco to mandarina. These folks are usually found at high-volume events — I remember a particularly delicious mora ice cream I bought from one of these guys at an outdoor performance during the International Theater Festival here. About half of it ended up all over my hands, since it was actually sunny for once. Probably the best my hands have ever tasted, and worth every penny.

The point here is: In Colombia, they sell frozen treats out of a cooler shaped like a penguin. I dare your country to beat that. Go ahead, you won’t.

Food Friday: Ma-Ma-Mazorca!

It’s windy. It’s chilly. About every twenty minutes, it starts pouring like someone up there has a serious vendetta against south-central Bogotá. It is not exactly ideal conditions for a parade — or indeed, for any living creature to be outside, besides maybe amphibians.

one of the better excuses to consume lots of butter on a daily basis

Perusing the kernel-y offerings on a slightly more meteorologically appealing day.

But hark! Suddenly a glorious smell comes wafting down the street! I turn a corner, and there it is, shining in front of me like the Holy Grail: a mazorca cart! Technically, it’s smoking and steaming more than shining, but in this kind of weather, it’s really all the same.

So what, you ask, is mazorca? Some kind of mystical substance that provides shelter and warmth on the dampest of high-altitude afternoons? Not exactly, but something like that, and something that should be familiar to most of us. Hint: in Gringolandia, we call it corn-on-the-cob.

Okay, yes, corn on the cob is not exactly a new thing to those of us who grew up with summer in North America. Watching the sun go down from the comfort of a plastic chair at a barbeque while covering your chin with butter is practically a July rite of passage, after all. But for most of us, corn on the cob is a timely, seasonal food. It means grills, and lingering sunlight, and it’s only around for a few months, just long enough to remind us of what we’re missing the rest of the year.

waiting, waiting, waiting

The hard work of fanning the delicious, delicious flames. People who own mazorca carts must have awesome triceps.

So while mazorca is, technically, the same as corn on the cob, it doesn’t have nearly the same connotations. This is partly because Bogotá never feels like August in New England, but mostly because it’s readily — and cheaply — available in all kinds of places. No need to drag out the grill and lighter fluid when you can find someone else who’s doing your dirty, sweaty work for you. And don’t get me wrong — it is sweaty business, standing over hot coals, turning ears of mazorca over and over, waving smoke out of the eyes of your customers.

In addition to the lack of Memorial-Day-related-implications, mazorca also isn’t quite the same, taste- or texture-wise, as the corn we’re used to. Most of us in the U.S. eat primarily sweet corn — while mazorca is delicious, the kernels definitely don’t burst with flavor the same way sweet corn does. Mazorca kernels are larger and a bit tougher, almost starchy. The best description I can offer is that it feels like eating an ear of corn that’s halfway through the process of turning into popcorn. And when that concoction is slathered with butter and salt and handed to me in a napkin, steaming with heat, I can’t think of many things I’d rather be eating on a cold, windy, rainy afternoon.

bet those cows are jealous

Or on a sunny afternoon! That works too! Equal-opportunity mazorca eater, here.