Monday, January 15, 2007

Columbian Culture: A Digression

As much as wine and food and culture go together, I thought I would let you in on a wonderful experience I had this weekend getting to know the Columbian culture and Columbian people (and I don’t mean those University students on the Upper West Side.) Four of us were invited to Queens this Saturday to experience some traditional Columbian food and hospitality. We were all a little trepidacious about the whole thing given we didn’t know our hosts exceedingly well and our Spanish is shabby at best. We decided to go nonetheless, in the name of a real NYC adventure.

We arrived at our hosts’ home to open arms and the most generous, welcoming group of people I have perhaps ever had the pleasure of meeting. Although we did not understand each other all of the time, it was sufficient to smile politely when a meaning or two was lost amongst the chatter. Upon entering their home, we were ushered into the tiny kitchen to snack on delicious homemade empanadas served with equally delicious homemade salsa. As far as I can tell wine is not a huge part of Columbian culture, however, they immediately poured us each a glass of nice white wine to wash down our first course.
The feast continued with the biggest Tamales I have ever laid my eyes on. Columbian Tamales are made with corn dough (which, come to find out, our hosts made from scratch with a hand crank!) and these were stuffed with sausage, chicken, green olives, carrots, chic peas and various spices — sort of like paella all wrapped up in a plantain leaf. They take eight or nine hours to make and were made especially for us, with love. I immediately felt at home when we were told we should finish everything if we wanted an invitation to come back, which brought back memories of Sunday dinners with my Italian grandmother.

In addition to the gigantic Tamales, there were plantain chips served with some of the best guacamole I have ever had. The guys polished off the wonderful Tamales as instructed and the women did their best, mostly because we were not sure if there was another course to come (a detail that was lost in translation.) There was indeed another, non-traditional Tamale on the menu which looked especially tasty. Thankfully they offered — we accepted gratiously — to wrap them up for us to enjoy another day.
Next there was dessert along with further warm conversation and getting to know one another. Dessert was followed by coffee and a shot of anise-flavored liqueur made from sugar cane (i.e. firewater) that is said to aid in digestion.

We said our goodbyes and entered the subway feeling — in addition to very, very full — inspired by these genuine and welcoming people who embrace their culture and embraced us like we were family that day. Although we tend to think of Columbia as the country that suffers from Civil War, armed groups, drug cartels and widespread poverty (which it does) we forget that there is also a Columbia rich in tradition, natural resources, elegant port towns and, most of all, pride.

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