The first ever Azafrán Gastronomy Festival was held in Bogotá last month and although I was only able to attend two events, I had a really positive experience and I’ll definitely go again next year. All the scheduled events sounded interesting and covered topics like cookbook publishing, food photography, passion for food and opera, and the rise of the chef, just to name a few.
A Conversation with Julian Estrada
The first event was a discussion led by Julian Estrada, Colombian restaurateur, anthropologist and food historian, titled ” La Desconocida Cocina Popular Colombiana” (Colombia’s Unknown Popular Cuisine).
Popular cuisine can be defined as a culture’s oral culinary tradition passed down from generation to generation or hand-written cookbooks kept within the family and eventually bequeathed in hopes that the recipes will live on. Popular cuisine, Julian insists, is not traditional or national or regional; it refers to the foods and traditions of the urban and rural inhabitants of a country and is basically the food that is eaten on a daily basis. It can be prepared at home or at a restaurant and be rustic or sophisticated – it comes down to a common set of ingredients, flavors and techniques.
The conversation covered the how’s and why’s of this forgotten popular culinary heritage. How does a culture allow its culinary traditions to die off ? And then who, if anyone, is responsible for preserving those traditions? This isn’t just food for the sake of eating, this is food that represents a nation and expresses a strong sense of identity, just like language, religion, music and other folklore.
Julian’s arguments were not new but even so, a sad reality. The vast majority of people born and raised in Colombia have a very limited knowledge of what their own gastronomic heritage involves. Few people are doing anything to help keep these traditions alive either because they never lived to experience them in the first place or our fast-paced, modern-day lifestyle has robbed them of the time, cooking skills, tools and interest to do so.
One good example that Julian gave was arepas. The arepa is still a staple in most if not all Colombian kitchens and it is one of those ubiquitous foods that Colombian’s crave and search out whether they are at home, on the street or in another country altogether. In a typical supermarket you can find maybe 4 to 5 varieties. But can you guess how many varieties of arepa there are throughout Colombia? 72 varieties!!!
72 varieties of a round, corn-based patty differing in the kind of corn that is used (42 varieties of corn), the shape and size of the patty, and the spices and condiments used in the preparation. My guess is that very few Colombians know how many arepas exist in the country. Julian compared this distant relationship between food and people with typical attitudes in countries such as Spain, Italy, Japan and France that have a much stronger relationship with their culinary identity. I think we all know how strongly most French people feel about their food and yet here in Colombia, Julian senses an overall feeling of underestimating and ridiculing popular cuisine.
Lastly, Julian explained the definition of gastronomy not as the ability to cook but as possessing a vast knowledge of ingredients, procedures, origins, and the ability to combine cuisines or ingredients in a way that enhances a dish in an innovative and respectful way. This is a critical point in creating and nurturing culinary or gastronomic awareness, for both those who cook and those who eat. Researching, documenting, and appreciating culinary traditions is necessary in order to preserve identity and this is, in large part, what Julian Estrada strives for daily.
The National Prize for Gastronomy
Chere is a smoked fish, usually bocachico, and the sauce was made with coconut and borojo, a tropical fruit found in Central and South America. The accompaniment was a mini chontaduro tamal whose flavor reminded me more or less of sweet potato. Every day I see carts on the streets of Bogotá filled with chontaduro but I had never tasted one until this event – I’m glad I finally did.
In order to enter the competition you must have a team that includes a chef, a researcher, and a bearer of the culinary tradition. For this event we had the pleasure of meeting Chef Guillermo and Maria Agustina, bearer of the Choco culinary tradition. The highlight, aside from the innovative food and a taste of some exotic new flavors, was Maria Agustina’s singing. She said that it was impossible for her to cook without singing and so she broke out into song at least 5 times, sharing songs native to her home and even one that she composed for her daughter’s 15th birthday. It was truly unforgettable.
Both events were wonderful and equally nourishing – one for the mind and one for the body. I really hope this is the first of many festivals of this kind because I think it’s important to keep these kinds of discussions alive and pay attention to the food that we are eating now as well as the food that our ancestors ate.