For Colombian chef Patricia Soto, the word “potato” means very little. “It’s like saying ‘spices’, or ‘vegetables’,” she says. “You have to be more specific.” Tubers lie at the heart of Colombian cuisine, and Soto is particular about the differences between the different kinds—it’s central to Colombian cuisine, she says.
Soto is a consultant chef for culinary institutes around the world, and travels to promote a view of the country “beyond the dominant drugs-and-crime image”. On her first visit to Delhi, she spoke to Lounge about soup, guascas and the magic of fresh juice. Edited excerpts:
Soto voce: Tubers are stars.
What lies at the heart of Colombian cooking?
The potatoes! There are more than 15 kinds that we use in food, from the basic, all-purpose yellow potato, to the pastusa (which melts easily) and the criolla (usually roasted or fried). We use it in soup, especially this signature soup called the Ajiaco. The Ajiaco uses three kinds of potatoes mixed with chicken, cream and a herb called guascas. Potatoes are also mixed with green peas, meats, beans and legumes. It depends on the region you’re in. They all have remarkably varied cuisines.
In what ways are the cuisines different?
If you go to the Orinoco region, the food has a distinct Caribbean flavour. They use a lot of coconut milk and fruits, and cumin, cilantro and coriander. They favour a lot of sweet and salty tastes. Near the capital Bogota, you’ll find equally eclectic food, but spicy. Near the Andean region, it’s different. It’s low in spice, and mainly uses combinations of grains and potatoes.
Is there a Colombian technique? What does the typical Colombian meal involve?
Well, we use everything, really. A lot of households use wooden furnaces, and we do everything to food—from boiling to roasting to frying. An everyday meal would consist of rice, tapioca, maybe a side of cheese and potatoes. There’ll be fruit-based ice cream, or Arequipe—which is a thick milk caramel dessert.
What about festivals or special occasions?
During festivals, there’s a lot of coconut rice served with chicken. On Sundays, we eat a special soup called sancocho—usually with pork, plantain and cassava.
During the February Barranquilla Carnival, people make this special soup with three meats called the Sopa de Guandu, and of course, we drink lots of aguardiente (a clear alcoholic drink)!
Speaking of drinks, I have to mention Colombia’s love for pure natural tropical fruit juices. We never buy juice in a market; it’s always made fresh at home.
Which fruits are the most popular for juices ?
Oh, there are so many. We use maracuyas (passion fruit), guanabanas (soursop), guayusas (a tree native to the Amazon), curubas (banana passionfruit), moras (Andean blackberry), mangoes, oranges, mamons (Spanish lime), corozos (a type of palm), pineapples, watermelons, zapotes (sapote), nisperos (loquat) and papayas.
Mashed green plantains with cheese, crispy onions and chilli
10 green bananas
500g grated buffalo cheese
500g white onion
50g red chillies
Cook the bananas until tender. Remove the skin and purée. Mix with butter and salt, and add half the grated cheese. Cut onions into rings, dip in cold water with sugar and refrigerate for an hour. Drain, dry with absorbent cloth, roll in flour and fry until golden brown.
Make a timbale (a drum-shaped mould) with mashed bananas and create a hollow in the centre of the mould. Fill it with the crispy onions and half of the grated buffalo cheese and red chillies. Place the timbales under a grill to melt the cheese.