Colombia's Post-Conflict Battle for the Palate
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
War can kill culinary legacies too.
By Wesley Tomaselli
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It’s not the safest sourcing strategy, but it works. Stressed, sleep-deprived and riddled with anxiety, Colombian sous chef Felipe Urian paces up and down the side of a road outside Bogotá’s central bus station in the wee hours of the morning. He’s waiting for his order of sacha inchi — an exotic nut with a delicious, savory flavor that will go into one of his restaurant’s dishes. The 1-kilogram bag costs him about $50 and gets dropped off by a bus driver, who runs it to Urian along a 15-hour route from Putumayo, long known as a center of conflict.
Urian is sourcing product for El Ciervo y El Oso, in the center of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. Owned by Camilo Ramirez and his wife, Maria Arango, the restaurant is on the front lines of a movement where young chefs are scrambling to rescue their country’s forgotten ingredients. As with Putumayo, big chunks of Colombia’s fertile farmland and waters were for decades inaccessible to most of the country as the war between government forces and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels raged. A U.S.-backed security initiative that started in the early 2000s and the 2016 peace accord with FARC rebels have now made many of those regions reachable again.
We can actually go to these places now and meet farmers and taste their food.
Camilo Ramirez, owner, El Ciervo y El Oso restaurant
That new access is letting chefs in cities like Bogotá, Cali and Cartagena hit the road; seek out the essence of their country’s farmland, coasts and rivers; and bring it back to the urban plate. And while the country debates the implications of that peace accord as it votes Sunday in the first round of presidential elections, one place where an undeniable impact is emerging is on restaurant menu cards.
Today, there are about 35 chefs or chef-backed projects buying ingredients from zones earlier shut off because of the armed conflict, according to estimates by Eduardo Martinez, spokesperson for Colombia’s chapter of Slow Food, the global organization working to save disappearing food traditions. Of these, 25 chefs have emerged over the past decade, he says.
“We can actually go to these places now and meet farmers and taste their food,” says Ramirez, El Ciervo’s owner. “I mean, I’m still scared to go down to some of those roads. But less scared than before.”
At Bogotá’s Salvo Patria restaurant, run by partners Juan Manuel Ortiz and Alejandro Gutierrez, the line turns out fish and seafood dishes from the Pacific coast, where drug traffickers have long fought for access to export routes for cocaine. The Selva Nevada ice cream brand, available at some Carulla markets — similar to Whole Foods — sources exotic fruit, vanilla and cacao from conflict-torn regions.
El Ciervo y El Oso offers a half-vegetarian, half-omnivore experience. The kitchen serves up wild beans from Montes de María. The sacha inchi comes from Putumayo, where coca — the crop used to make cocaine — has long been king. Part of the government’s peace plan with FARC rebels involves a rickety program to switch out illicit crops like coca and swap them for equally profitable alternatives.
The culinary revival underway mirrors many of the same post-conflict challenges that other aspects of Colombian life and society are grappling with. Even though the FARC signed a peace deal, it’s not all black-and-white.
In Guaviare — from where Selva Nevada sources ingredients — a dissident group is still alive, even though the FARC has demobilized. And in many parts of the country, coca fuels the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, even with the FARC abstaining from conflict. Other criminal groups are already grabbing up the lucrative cocaine market share FARC left behind. Farmers are in a bind: Those in Putumayo can sometimes triple or quadruple their monthly income by farming coca.
Ortiz of Salvo Patria sometimes feels the movement isn’t sticking. “Sometimes I fear we’re getting a little too ahead of ourselves, like this gastronomic boom in Colombia isn’t coming from the right place,” he laments. Unlike Peru, where the return of traditional gastronomy came after ordinary people got back in touch with their traditions, what’s happening in Colombia is “sudden, and not as big as we want it to be,” he says.
Some places from where Ramirez and Ortiz source their fish are still whipped by conflict. Look no further than the fishmongers in Tumaco, on Colombia’s seafood-rich Pacific coast. They’re squeezed between competing drug-trafficking groups for access to their dinghies and motorboats. Needed for shipping drugs, their boats get hijacked routinely. Ramirez mimics a gun with his hand and holds it to his head. “They say, ‘Jump and swim or take a bullet and die.’”
But even the access available today, amid these lingering tensions, was unthinkable some years ago. In 2002, FARC guerrillas and paramilitary groups controlled about two-thirds of the national territory. Traveling down some main highways meant taking serious risk. Other roads were simply no-go zones. So the idea of going and finding a farmer in a place like Montes de María, from where Ramirez and Arango now source their beans, casabe and ñame roots, “wasn’t just unthinkable, it was stupid,” says Ramirez. “You’d be in trouble.” Now, the chefs are hoping the revival they’re leading moves beyond their budding ring of restaurants.
On a sleepy Monday afternoon after service, Ramirez and Ortiz hover over a mango salad on El Ciervo y El Oso’s menu. It’s filled with crunchy sacha inchi nuts. “Delicious,” says Ramirez. “This is the best salad in all of Bogotá,” says a beaming Ortiz.
When they were growing up, the driver who delivered the nuts would probably never have made it to the capital. Slow Food’s Martinez now sees “signs that we could have sacha inchi nuts being sold in our supermarkets in the next few years.” Those gains could reverse quickly if Colombia’s tenuous but hard-won peace unravels. Colombia’s democratic journey is at the heart of its current elections. But the country’s culinary legacy may be at stake too.