When the Spaniards landed in the 16th Century, this area was so rich they called Cartagena “El Dorado” - the golden.
Today, the narrow streets lined with wooden balconies and handsome stone doorways have scarcely changed in 200 years, earning Cartagena official recognition as a world heritage site. This is the city so vividly described in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who lives across the street from my hotel.
In the surrounding streets, itinerant vendors offer time-honored snacks - plates of cut fruit, empanadas, crisp “chicarones” of fried pork rind, and “papas rellenas,” spherical balls of deep-fried mashed potatoes stuffed with meat.
“Bollos,” resembling tamales wrapped in corn husks, are filled with mashed yellow or white corn (the latter called “limpio” or “clean”) and may be flavored with coconut and anise. Thick slices of plantain are whacked flat with a cleaver and fried as pancakes called “patacones.”
“Arepas” are a fried round of cornmeal mush; they may be stuffed with egg, vegetables and meat. Plain ones practically take the place of bread.
With snacks like these, who needs a restaurant? Nonetheless, I’m wandering one evening through a small plaza when I notice the packed tables of Paco’s, clearly a local favorite.
A clipped accent sounds familiar, and it turns out that the owner, Nicholas Beeson, is British. Within minutes I am pestering him with questions: Where did the local cooking originate? Why is it so plain, almost bland by most Caribbean standards? Why no spices and chili peppers?
“Here in Cartagena and along the coast it’s an ideal climate for tropical fruits,” he explains. “We have more in common with the Caribbean islands than Bogota, which is high in the mountains.”
Starchy ingredients are abundant. Cassava, now an African staple, originated here; corn does well, potatoes come from the hills, and rice is grown in the river deltas. All of these make great background for notable Cartagenian “sopas” - half soup, half stew.
But vivid seasonings are missing. Olive trees grow but do not bear fruit in a climate lacking the four seasons. The intense heat limits herbs to wonderfully pungent basil, oregano, coriander. Infused teas such as chamomile, cinnamon, anise and a type of allspice are the only common varieties. As for peppers, two or three sweet varieties grow on higher ground but, to my astonishment, chilis do not do well anywhere.
The next day, Beeson takes me to an open market that is a maze of dilapidated stalls where we taste strange fruits and peer into mysterious simmering pots. We stop for refreshment at Socorro’s, a decrepit stand strategically placed to catch maximum foot traffic plus a sea breeze. Even so, the temperature over the charcoal stoves must be 120 degrees.
Here and elsewhere all the cooking is done by women. Socorro is the archetypical matriarch, her black eyes everywhere and her smiles reserved for customers. Chunks of fish are sizzling in deep fat and a lurid pot proves to be “tentacion” of plantain, simmered with cinnamon, sugar and soda pop.
I sample a bowl of fish soup made from heads and bones, flavored with coconut milk and aromatic with allspice. Beeson talks of his farm, where brazil nut trees shoot up 7 feet within a year.
“It seems like paradise here,” he says. “Practically anything grows somewhere within this vast, wild country. But there’s a down side to this fertility. Don’t forget, that’s why the coca plant takes root here so easily, too.”
Arroz a la Cartagenara
This aromatic rice is a specialty of Cartagena. To make it into a delicious main course, just before letting it rest, stir in 1/2 pound raw peeled shrimp; the heat from the rice will steam the shrimp.
1 red onion, cut into pieces
3 green onions, cut into pieces
2 plum tomatoes, peeled and cut into pieces
1 green pepper, cored, seeded and cut into pieces
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon annatto seeds, optional
Salt, black pepper
1-1/2 cups long-grain rice
1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
3 cups water
1 tablespoon sugar
Combine onion, green onions, tomatoes, green pepper, garlic and vinegar in food processor. Pulse until quite finely chopped.
Heat oil in large casserole. Add annatto seeds, if using, and saute gently over low heat until oil becomes reddish yellow, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove seeds with slotted spoon and discard them. Stir in onion mixture along with salt and pepper to taste. Saute over low heat, stirring occasionally, until dark and pasty, 20 to 25 minutes.
Add rice and continue cooking 8 to 10 minutes over low heat. Stir in coconut milk and water and sugar, and bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, until rice begins to dry, 15 to 18 minutes. Cover and continue cooking over very low heat 20 minutes. Rice should be moist and tender.
Leave rice, covered, 10 minutes in warm place. Stir with fork. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Yield: 4 servings.