Producing the best expression of a traditional dish is all about realising potential. How many times have you bitten into an arepa, and thought “I see what they’re trying to do here, but they didn’t quite get there?” That question was directed at you, Paul Fowler. I’ve often had the same feeling when it comes to such Colombian crowd-pleasers as empanadas, tamales, and obleas. When it comes to one of my favourite topics of conversation, namely, food, it’s not the thought that counts. It’s the food. I guess a bandeja paisa works nice in theory, but, then again, so do the Smurfs.
This is where this Top 5 comes in. Here, I want to celebrate the places where they get it right. Where a national dish no longer gets the Coach’s Trophy (nice kid – always turns up to practice. Shame he can’t play cricket at all) but receives accolades that actually mean something. Here are our Colombian Food MVPs.
1. The Tamal.
Colombians can be a fiercely proud people, and nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to food. It’s often the case that someone from, say, Cali, will vow and declare that the best arepas in the universe can only be found in… wait for it: take a wild guess… um… Cali. Oddly enough. However, there seems to be only slight dissension when it comes to the Tamal Question. It’s widely held that the picturesque rolling hills of Tolima are home to the Ultimate Tamal. It’s the seasoning, I reckon. All across Colombia you’ll find the meat in tamales so tender that it’s falling off the bones, and the stuffing of the right consistency; but it’s really only in Tolima where this is all balanced perfectly in a lip-smacking plantain-package of amazeballness.
The Tolimese aren’t just famous for their tamal perfection. I challenge you to find any pork experience that beats lechona from Tolima. If you do, send it this way. Or, maybe it’s better if you don’t – I may just die from bliss.
SUPER BONUS ROUND:
Tamal with lechona. Now they’re just getting silly.
I think you need to make a trip to Ibague.
Did I just think that, or write it?
2. The Arepa.
A constant source of debate all around Colombia, and particularly in the Gondoresque See Colombia Towers, it’s inevitable that any arepa I choose for the title of The Best is going to leave the majority of Colombians in a monumental huff. Why exactly?
I’m working on my Theory of Arepa Relativity, and while some of the calculations are still a bit iffy, the main thrust of it can be expressed thusly:
E ∝ 1 / B c²
where E signifies the professed excellence of the arepa in question, B is the distance from the birthplace of the Colombian (or, indeed, Venezuelan) in question, and c is the speed of light. That is, the closer the arepa gets to the birthplace of the speaker, the significantly better the arepa magically becomes.
So, most people are going to be either indifferent (if not from this neck of the woods), or, indeed, thoroughly indignant when I say that Cartegena’s expression of the Arepa ‘e huevo is as good as arepas come. I guess I better not say it, then. Oops. It may not be particularly healthy, but, gee! Boo hoo! Go run a marathon afterwards! Crispy on the outside, a tad gooey on the inside, these are hot little bits of the Arepa God Particle. You need to have one. Who said that?
3. The Empanada.
Only slightly less contentious than the arepa, the empanada is pretty much loved wherever it is found – generally near the tail-end of a late-night drunken spree. I’m going to risk derision right here and right now by saying that I’m often disappointed by this particular fried delicacy. And this disappointment is often heavily directed at the pastry. Dry, stale, and somehow chalk-like, sometimes even the spiciest of dips can’t get that taste of disappointment out of my mouth.
This is rarely an issue in Pasto. The secret is that the empanadas here are añejo. You read right: just like fine tequila or rum, the pastry is made from carefully aged grain. The result is that the shell, often a liability, is transformed into the greatest asset. Crispy and bursting with flavour, Pastuso empandas are decidedly For The Win.
4. The Oblea.
Sorry, Bogota Oblea Lady. As much as I love you, your obleas have a superior. And this superior reigns in the lofty heights of Manizales’ Chipre area. To tell you the truth, I don’t know why this spectacular sightseeing haven of the City of Open Doors and Amazeballs Obleas is named after the island of Cyprus, but that’s not the major concern now. We’re talking about the crisp, oh-so-sweet freshness of its messy circles of delight. The wafer, along with all the ingredients, are eternally fresh, and never have that musty old stale icecream cone taste other obleas are susceptible to. Maybe it’s because this place is so ridiculously popular, especially on the weekends; but that does kind of start a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Don’t try to work it all out; instead just glory in the sticky magic which is Oblea Perfection. Go minimalist, I suggest: just cream and caramel. Don’t get caught up in details.
5. The Bandeja Paisa.
You guessed it: the home of the best bandeja paisa is also its spiritual home. Medellin, famed for its innovation, never made a better breakthrough than that of this gut-busting lunch challenge. Good anywhere, it’s only with the fabled friendliness of the paisa, and the surrounds of the City of Everlasting Spring – oh, yes, and the premium local produce – that the Bandeja Pais truly shines as brightly as it can. Especially if you get a fresh, properly toasted arepa. It’s no arepa ‘e huevo, but it does the job! Tell your distended stomach to shut the hell up, and get amongst this paisa glory.