Looking for that Elusive Good Meal

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
Trip End Dec 22, 2011

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Flag of Colombia  , Bolívar,
Monday, October 17, 2011

When this trip was still in its conceptual stages, undertaking two multiday treks through the highlands of Guatemala and possibly one in Nicaragua seemed like great ideas.  The area around Xela where I had tried to sign up for the treks is now swamped with massive flooding with a resulting state of emergency. Dozens of people have died and roads are washed out.   In fact, as I was leaving Xela, torrential rains were already sending mudslides down the mountains. As fate would have it, I bought that plane ticket out of Guatemala to catch my boat and skipped any trekking along the way.   That may have been one of the smartest moves I have made in a while as I would definitely be caught up in the weather that is pounding a good part of Central America.

A rainy day here in Cartagena gave us the perfect excuse for some indoor trekking of a different kind...sampling the local food joints.  I must say I am not a huge fan of Colombian cooking, at least from this region.   Breakfast is a greasy affair of eggs with empenadas or arepas.   Looking a lot like a Hostess fried pie, an empenada is a napkin soaking fried pocket filled with meat or chicken along with potatoes and vegetables.   I think the gooey high fructose corn syrup fruit substitute in the Hostess pie is actually the healthier choice here.   An arepa is simply a flat corn dough patty fried up and served with the eggs or eaten alone with some cheese.

Fueled by these greasy gut bombs, we moved on to lunch.   A restaurant with ancient fans cooling formica tables looked promising due to its lack of gringo clientele.   The place was packed with people seemingly enthusiastic for the food and the grittiness inside gave the place some street food cred.   Meat stew both very tough and bland leads me to believe my taste buds just must not be on the same wavelength as the average Colombian's.  Visions of Taco Bell and Big Macs danced through my head as I tried to salvage lunch with half a bottle of tasteless hot sauce.  Trust me, I need a food catastrophe elsewhere to even to even contemplate passing under the Golden Arches to beat down the hunger pains.

I love food.  Sampling foods is one the greatest joys of traveling, especially in colorful countries like Thailand, Syria, and Sri Lanka.   I live for anything local that blows away my taste buds and leaves me scouring the internet for the recipe.  Only a few weeks ago, Mexico just kept my mouth dancing with so many great flavor combinations and the freshest of everything.  The Upper Peninsula of Michigan introduced me to broasted chicken, amazing pancakes and the best in local mom and pop restaurant cooking.   I can still taste that delicious habanero laced ceviche at Panama City's fish market.  

Colombia is fully parked on the other end of the spectrum and I have yet to digest a decent breakfast, lunch or dinner.   In fact, I threw one empenada in Capurgana off the dock into the sea for it was just too greasy to stomach.  Even the napkin disintegrated in my lard stained fingers,   The world's worst hamburger calls Capurnaga home as well. Remember the old Wendy's commercial Where's the Beef? Yep, I felt like that as I searched a plate size stale bun for a half dollar size piece of meat.   How in the hell do you screw up a burger??  Have you ever seen a french fry that bends in half when held upright? Neither had I until I tried one in Sapzurra.

With today's culinary tour looking about as grey as the weather, dinner time came and none of us was all that enthusiastic to try more tasteless local specialties.  Come to think of it, my most memorable meal in Colombia has been yesterday's slice of vegetable pizza where I wowed the American guy with my Spanish.   Funny to think pizza that could be at home in Anywhere, USA has been the single item to wow my taste buds.

We gave up on dinner and just headed to the grocery store, Exito, here in the center of town. As I wandered aimlessly around the well stocked aisles looking for dinner ideas, I got to thinking.  How can so many great ingredients exit Exito's shelves and combine to make so many bad dishes out there in the street?   Meat doesn't have to be shoe leather tough.  Not everything has to be soaked in grease to be palatable.

Exito actually provided my tastiest meal of today's culinary tour.  An oatmeal yoghurt drink, a piece of cheesebread from the bakery, and some lemon flavored Dasani water came together in my basket for a random dinner.   The very healthy low calorie drink had just the right amount of sweetness and filled me right up. The bread had a nice texture and the no calorie water had some tartness. Best of all none of my selections spawned from a pot of boiling lard and I actually felt satisfied for once.

My cooking classes in Laos and Thailand taught me that the perfect dish combines sweet, sour, spicy and salty.  I will keep looking for that elusive Colombian meal that blows me away and combines more than corn meal, beef jerky tough meats, salt and oil.   It's got to be out there somewhere.  
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