I thrive on culture shock – it engages my senses and is intensely stimulating. I love arriving in an unfamiliar country and experiencing the sites, the sounds, even the unusual odors! I long for days, even weeks, where life is in sharp contrast to my own. On the occasion of my trip to Colombia, my parents and eight other daring adventure seeking souls accompanied me. My parents inspired my love for travel – naturally, they are one of my favorite companions.
Before I left, everyone I told questioned my judgment. I’m used to the reaction – it is the usual response I get for most of the places I have traveled. I don’t try to explain anymore. Instead, I offer this quote.
“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God” – Kurt Vonnegut
For this trip, the dancing lesson started in Bogotá, the vibrant capital of Colombia. We stayed in La Candelaria, the oldest district and historical center. The neighborhood is full of cobblestone streets and centuries-old houses.
Bogotá has gone to great lengths to change its crime rate and its drug-war battlefield image after being considered to be one of the most violent cities in the world in the mid-90’s. In 2012, the crime rate per capita shows that Bogotá is less violent than Chicago.
There was a strong police presence throughout the city that made us feel somewhat safe, and yet, I kept thinking “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
One of the things I loved about this hip, bohemian city was the graffiti.
There is a whole range of raw emotions revealed in the colorful street art.
I think the mosaic (pictured below) best sums up Bogotá.
The gray mosaic on the left signifies decades of civil conflict. The middle section is the intervention and comeback of the people. The last panel is the colorful transformation and vibrant future of Bogotá.
The gorgeous produce that comes from Colombia could inspire all of this colorful artwork. Visiting the local farmer’s market was a vegetarian’s paradise.
Well, except for the pig ears…
and maybe the roasted ants.
Now if I had seen these ants in my hotel room I would have called them rodents and demanded a discount. Instead, I happily ate them and enjoyed their salty Cornut taste and texture. Even my father who is a picky eater (understatement) ate one and liked it.
Outside of Bogotá, we visited the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá; an underground Roman Catholic Church built within the tunnels of a salt mine. The entrance looks like you are walking into a nightclub and not a church.
After visiting 14 Stations of the Cross (small chapels) I knew this was a sacred place.
After walking underground for a couple of hours we worked up an appetite, and ate at a Parque Restaurante, a restaurant in the nearby town of Funzipa.
The restaurant has functioning salt ovens where they can process their own salt from the local mines.
We were served a traditional, local favorite soup called Ajiaco Bogotano – (Chicken and Potato Soup, Bogota Style). It is made of chicken, potatoes, and flavored with a locally grown herb called “guasca“. Traditionally, cream and capers are added just before eating, and its condiments are white rice, and avocado. It was accompanied with a cornmeal bread stuffed with fresh cheese, called Arepa. It was a deliciously satisfying meal.
One bite of the soup, and I knew that I had to recreate it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Ajiaco (Colombia Chicken & Potato Soup)
For the soup:
- 3 lb. cut-up chicken skin removed, rinsed well
- 1 large white onion 1/2-inch-diced
- 1 green bell pepper seeded and 1/2-inch-diced
- 2 ears fresh corn cut crosswise into quarters
- 2 ribs celery 1/2-inch-diced
- 2 large carrots peeled and 1/2-inch-diced
- 3/4 lb. yucca root peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes or Yukon Gold potatoes
- 3/4 lb. Idaho potatoes peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 3/4 lb. small red potatoes peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 chicken bouillon cubes
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt; more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons dried guascas or oregano
For the aji:
- 4 scallions white and light green parts only
- 1 medium tomato peeled and seeded
- 1 small white onion peeled
- 2 fresh habanero chillies or jalapeños stems and seeds removed
- 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
- 3 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the garnishes:
- 2 ripe avocados peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 cup sour cream or greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup small capers rinsed and drained
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Make the soup:
Put the chicken in a large (at least 8-quart) stockpot and add 8 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce the heat to a vigorous simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, frequently skimming off the foam that floats to the surface.
Add all the vegetables, the garlic, the cilantro, and the bouillon cubes to the pot, along with the salt and pepper. Stir a few times to distribute the vegetables and submerge as many of the solids as possible. When the broth returns to a gentle boil, partially cover the pot and simmer, stirring once or twice, for 1-1/2 hours. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
Using tongs or a slotted spoon, pick out the chicken pieces and put them on a large plate. Stir the soup with a large spoon, breaking up some of the potatoes to thicken the soup slightly. Keep hot if serving soon or let cool and refrigerate.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones and shred it by hand. Discard the bones and tendons, and put the shredded chicken in a serving bowl.
Make the aji:
In a food processor, pulse all the aji ingredients until they’re finely minced. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Serve the ajiaco:
Put the avocados, sour cream, capers and cilantro leaves in small bowls and set them on the table along with the bowls of shredded chicken and the aji. Reheat the soup if necessary and ladle it into large soup bowls, putting a quarter ear of corn in each bowl. Let your guests add the garnishes and the aji as they like.
The soup and the aji can be made a day ahead.
To me, chicken soup contains the flavors of “home” wherever it’s assembled, eaten and enjoyed!
If you only go to Colombia for the food you won’t be disappointed… although the souvenirs came a close second.
P.S. I think the Columbians have a “nothing wasted” philosophy. I believe there is much to learn from that viewpoint.
…and then, she paused for thought.