Today and tomorrow are Carnaval de Bogotá, now celebrated in Bogotá every year in honor of the city’s foundation. [I’m going to use the Spanish spelling – carnaval – even though it drives my spell checker nuts.] Most of the cultural events take place in the heart of Parque Metropolitano Simón Bolívar. The festivities also include pre-carnaval celebrations during the month of July. One of the main objectives of the carnaval is to promote and encourage the cultural, ethnic, and musical diversity of Colombia.
Comparsas: parades of groups with dance and music that represent the different regions and cultures of the country.
Verbenas: suburban street fairs involving dance, music, games and food from different regions of the country.
Pre-carnaval: days of motivation and preparation for the carnaval including events such as street theater fairs, puppets, story telling, etc.
Children’s Carnaval: since 2005 the carnival has included a parade of children in costume on the main streets of the city.
Bogotá was one of the first cities in South America to hold its own carnaval. According to some sources Bogotá was founded on 6th August 1538 by conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, and a celebration (carnaval) was ordered by the Spanish crown a year later. The history of the Spanish conquest of the general region of what is now Colombia is complex, and I won’t go into it. Basically, the conquest was part of the search for the legendary city of El Dorado, and involved the subjugation of numerous indigenous peoples, notably the Muisca in the area around Bogotá. Battles were fought in jungle and mountain territory at great cost of life to the Spanish.
The 1539 celebration was likely held in Lent (hence the name). From about 1561 indigenous people were included in the festivities, and, although sources are sparse, there seems to have been some sort of joint Hispanic and indigenous annual celebration down to the 19th century, when it ceased.
The modern celebration of carnaval in Bogotá dates back to 1916, when the first queen of Bogotá’s student carnival, Elvira Zea, was crowned in a contest. After winning the contest she used her real name as her Queen’s name: Elvira I. At that time the queen was the person in charge of opening the celebrations. In the following years the carnaval grew in number of comparsas and beauty queens. In the 1930s, however, the national government and the mayors of Bogotá suspended the carnaval due to disorders caused by drunkenness. An attempt to revive the carnival in 1960 failed for reasons of alcohol abuse and violence.
Carnaval was revived yet again by Bogotá’s mayor in a Government Resolution enacted on April 14, 2005. The move was part of a general effort to change both the national and international image of Colombia which had been plagued with corruption, crime, and violence associated with the cocaine trade.
Nowadays Carnaval promotes a collective atmosphere of fellowship and a celebration of life, creative expression, and enjoyment. It further seeks to generate a feeling of belonging to the city, to enforce processes of reconciliation and fair play, and the inclusion and recognition of all districts and cultures of both the Capital and of Colombia in general. The carnaval’s motto in 2005 was “celebrate life and express yourself as you wish.” The main parade involved thirty comparsas, each of them consisting of at least fifty members. Since then carnaval has consistently grown and has a different theme each year, but always focusing on cultural diversity, reconciliation, unity, and fun.
Bandeja paisa is popular in Colombian cuisine and at one time was promoted as the national dish. There are variations such as bandeja de arriero, bandeja montañera, or bandeja antioqueña. “Bandeja” is dialect for “dish” or “platter”and “paisa,” “arriero,” etc. are regions within Colombia. The main characteristic of this dish is the generous amount and variety of food, involving both Spanish and indigenous ingredients. In a traditional bandeja paisa there are red beans cooked with pork, white rice, carne molida (ground meat), chicharrón, fried egg, fried plantain (plátano maduro), chorizo, arepa, hogao sauce, blood sausage (morcilla), avocado and lemon. It is served on a platter or a tray.
The current form and presentation of the Paisa platter is relatively recent. There are no references in food writing about this dish before 1950. It is probably an interpretation by local restaurants of simpler peasant dishes. There are several variants of the dish all over the country with the deletion or addition of ingredients. Some Antioquian restaurants offer an “extended” bandeja paisa, also known as “seven meats platter,” which contains, besides the aforementioned ingredients, grilled steak, grilled pork and liver. In 2005, the Colombian government planned to make bandeja paisa the national dish, with the name changed to “bandeja montañera” (mountain tray) to avoid the exclusion of people outside the Paisa Region. Nonetheless, the commercial Colombian tourism industry has pushed ahead without official government sanction by emblazoning ads, menus, and brochure information with imagery of the bandeja paisa as the single most typical Colombian dish.
Trying to recreate an “authentic” Colombian bandeja outside of Colombia is probably as impossible as creating Chinese cuisine outside of China, but Colombians abroad do manage, and so you can too – after a fashion. One of my Colombian students showed my how to make fried plantains in the way that his mother made them. Not hard. They are an essential component of bandeja paisa, but are also a common addition to numerous dishes.
Start with ripe plantains which you can usually get in supermarkets in areas with a sizeable Latin American immigrant population. You need to peel them, which you may be able to do like a banana if they are very ripe, but will need a knife otherwise. Once peeled, cut the plantains on the diagonal to make long slices about ½ inch (1.25 cm) thick. Heat cooking oil in a deep skillet to about 350°F /175°C. The amount of oil varies from cook to cook. A depth of about ½ inch (1.25 cm), same as the thickness of the plantain slices, is normal. Fry the slices in a single layer, turning once, so that they are golden on both sides (about 3 minutes per side). Now the fun begins. Place the cooked plantain slices in a single layer between two layers of heavy brown paper (from paper bags) on a hard surface, and beat them as flat as you can with a mallet or rolling pin. This process removes excess cooking fat from the slices, and tenderizes them. Then return the slices to the hot fat to fry again for a few minutes on both sides. Drain on wire racks and serve the slices with plain white rice and assorted meats.