I recently traveled to Colombia with my beautiful wife for the first time. It was a journey of discovery and adventure, great food, cheap rum, and quite a lot of time spent riding horses. In short, it was amazing.
I’ve been married for almost 2 years now, and with Marcela’s patient teaching, my Spanish is slowly getting better. But it’s safe to say that I was as out of my depth in Colombia as a cruise ship giving a drive by to a Mediterranean island (ie: run aground on a frequent basis).
Nonetheless I did my best to persevere and communicate with my mother in law, sister & brother in laws, and my niece as best I could. Which was entertaining for them if nothing else. But after a while the ¿Cómo amaneciste? and ¿Esta cansada? started to come as easily as “tengo hambre” (I’m hungry) and fragments of words and ideas slowly started to meld themselves into something that could vaguely be called communication.
I was introduced to many of the great things that make Colombians love their country. The food, the music, the dancing, the drinking, the family, the football, the landscapes and the zest for life that people have despite a vast majority of them being very poor.
If there is one dish that perhaps can sum up my experience in Colombia, it would have to be Sancocho. Sancocho is somewhere between a soup and a stew (depending on how you make it). But what is perhaps more important about Sancocho than what goes into it, is where you make it.
Sancocho’s home is the street. When Christmas time and holidays come around, Colombians take to the street with a bottle of aguardiente (the local spirit of choice), a blackened old pot, a bucket of water, and as many ingredients as they can get their hands on. A makeshift fire is lit on the sidewalk, and the pot lowered onto it, propped up by bricks, rocks, or whatever spare car parts can be found lying around. Then someone takes on the all important job of fanning the flames while the water starts to boil and the soup is built.
Into the soup goes pork (cerdo), chicken (pollo), oxtail (cola de res), potato (papas), green plantain (platano), cassava (yuca)
onions, garlic, mazorca (big corn that isn’t sweet), coriander (cilantro), and spices like cumin (comino), and paprika (pimenton).
Then the long slow process of the cooking begins. Each vegetable or meat being added at just the right time so that the end result is a deep rich stock (caldo), falling off the bone soft meat, and veges with just the right level of give. It should all hopefully coincide with the point where everyone is drunk enough from aguardiente and tired enough from dancing, and just before someone starts a fight over who gets to choose the next song blasted out into the street via the speakers that have been dragged outside. This is when the soul and body restoring qualities that only a great sancocho made on the street can provide are needed most.
I got to make sancocho twice in Colombia. Once on the street in San Antonio de Prado, Medellin, with my brother in law Hamilton (that’s him fanning the flames in the video), his friends, and all the family. And once just outside the small town of Andes, Antioquia in the heart of a coffee growing region, next to a river, after walking down a hill for a kilometre to get there. Some local kids managed to goad me into jumping off a bridge 3m above the river, and though I thought I was going to at one point, I didn’t die, and there’s nothing like escaping death to bring about a hunger. Sure as hell made the walk back up that hill more bearable anyway.
You can, of course, order this dish in many restaurants in Colombia (or make it yourself at home), but it will never be quite the same as this one.