Aug 052016


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.


Celebrations include:

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.


Dec 072015


Today is Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas), a very popular holiday in Colombia. December 7 is the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday in Colombia, and the unofficial start of the Christmas season in the country, as it is in much of Latin America. On this day, people place candles and paper lanterns (with candles inside) on their windows, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares – everywhere they can be seen – in honor of the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception.


The celebration of the Day of the Candles dates to December 8, 1854, when Pope Pius IX defined as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, published in Ineffabilis Deus. In anticipation of this decision, people lit candles and paper lanterns to show their support and belief in this idea. In Colombia, as in many places all over the world, this announcement was observed by lighting candles. The Catholic Church of Colombia kept alive the celebration and made an annual tradition of lighting candles the night of December 7. El Día de las Velitas is celebrated throughout Colombia, but traditions vary in each region and city.


In the municipality of Quimbaya, in the Department of Quindío the most important cultural event is the Candles and Lanterns Festival (Fiesta Nacional del Concurso de Alumbrados con Velas y Faroles), which began in 1982 and is held each year on the 7th and 8 December. Each of the neighborhoods in the township competes to produce the most spectacular lighting arrangements, and many visitors come from throughout Colombia to admire the displays.


In Bogotá, the Christmas decorations reach their peak on this day; the city, fully decorated, plans late activities for the whole family since most Colombians would be out and about admiring the shows, many streets close to traffic and allow pedestrians to walk freely and stop to admire the light arrangements. Malls, museums, stores, and other public places have extended hours of operation. There are many shows that take place on this night, live nativity scenes, caroling events, among others.


In the Caribbean Region of Colombia, the lighting of candles and lanterns takes place on the early hours of December 8, before sunrise, instead of the night before. Devout Catholics wake up before sunrise and light candles with their family members. Many people stay up all night and party in celebration and light the candles some time before they go to bed. Naturally, there is abundant food and drink.


In Colombia, natilla is the most popular Christmas dish and is eaten along with buñuelos and manjar blanco. It’s something like a flan or pudding usually, but can be made in a sliceable form. Basic ingredients include milk, panela (blocks of brown sugar), cinnamon, and cornstarch. Occasionally people like to add grated coconut, coconut milk, or raisins, but these are optional. To garnish it, powdered cinnamon is spread on top of the finished natilla. Store-bought, natilla is common but one of the best known Christmas traditions in Colombia is making natilla over an improvised campfire in the streets or home patios.


As with so many of my recipes, you don’t need explicit directions if you have some experience as a cook. But if you have never eaten natilla you’ll need some guidelines so that you know what you are aiming for. This kind of custard is, unfortunately, not to my taste so I can’t give too many helpful hints. I will say that it uses a lot of cornstarch for thickness which has a distinctive taste if not cooked enough. I also recommend using coconut cream for flavor even though technically it is optional. Natilla is best eaten along with something else, such as Colombian buñuelos (fried doughy cheese curd), to temper the milky sweetness – in my humble opinion.

Natilla Navideña Colombiana


½ cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
1 cup cream
½ cup cream of coconut (optional)
½ cup grated panela or dark brown sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp butter
powdered cinnamon


In a large measuring cup or small bowl, whisk the cornstarch into 1 cup of the milk. Set aside.

Put the remaining one cup of milk and the cream into a heavy saucepan. Add the cinnamon stick, a pinch of salt, the panela (or brown sugar), and the cream of coconut (optional).

Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until it almost reaches a boil. Remove from the heat , and whisk in the cornstarch mixture.

Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and becomes shiny, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and the vanilla.

Divide the natilla into serving dishes, or place in one large dish. Chill until ready to serve. Sprinkle with powdered cinnamon before serving.

Nov 032015


The separation of Panama from Colombia was formalized on this date in 1903, with the establishment of the Republic of Panama, formerly the Republic of Colombia’s Department of Panama. After its independence from Spain (part of the independence of the Viceroyalty of Peru) on November 28, 1821, modern-day Panama became a part of the Republic of Gran Colombia which consisted of today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador. The political struggle between federalists and centralists that followed independence from Spain resulted in a changing administrative and jurisdictional status for Panama. Under centralism Panama was established as the Department of the Isthmus and during federalism as the Sovereign State of Panama. Panama had tried to separate from Colombia throughout the 19th century but was not successful until the U.S. intervened on behalf of Panama because of its interests in building the Panama Canal which Colombia would not agree to.


The Isthmus of Panama had been an important trade route between the Pacific and the Atlantic for centuries. Panama was enormously important to Spain strategically because it was the easiest way to transship silver mined in Peru to Europe. Silver cargos were landed at Panama and then taken overland to Portobello or Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean side of the isthmus for further shipment.

Spanish authorities exercised little control over much of the territory of Panama, large sections managing to resist conquest until very late in the colonial era. Because of this, indigenous people of the area were often referred to as “indios de guerra” (war Indians) and resisted Spanish attempts to conquer them or missionize them. Because of the incomplete Spanish control, the Panama route was vulnerable to attack from pirates (mostly Dutch and English) and from New World Africans called cimarrons who had escaped enslavement and lived in communes or palenques around the Camino Real in Panama’s Interior, and on some of the islands off Panama’s Pacific coast. One such famous community amounted to a small kingdom under Bayano, which emerged in the 1552 to 1558. Sir Francis Drake’s famous raids on Panama in 1572–73 were aided by Panama cimarrons, and Spanish authorities were only able to bring them under control by making an alliance with them that guaranteed their freedom in exchange for military support in 1582.

The prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540–1740) while contributing to colonial growth; the placing of extensive regional judicial authority (Real Audiencia) as part of its jurisdiction; and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire helped establish a distinctive sense of autonomy and of regional or national identity within Panama well before the rest of the colonies.

In 1846 Colombia and United States signed a treaty under which the United States was obliged to maintain neutrality in Panama in exchange for transit rights in the isthmus on behalf of Colombia. In March 1885 Colombia thinned its military presence in Panama by sending troops stationed there to fight rebels in other provinces. These favorable conditions prompted an insurgency in Panama. The United States Navy was sent there to keep order, invoking its obligations according to the treaty of 1846.

In 1885 the United States occupied the Colombian city of Colón, Panama. Chile, which had by the time the strongest fleet in the Americas, sent the cruiser Esmeralda to occupy Panama City in response. Esmeralda‍ ’​s captain was ordered to stop by any means an eventual annexation of Panama by the United States.


The Thousand Days’ War (1899–1902) was one of the many armed struggles between the Liberal and Conservative Parties which devastated Colombia, including Panama, during the 19th century. This last civil war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Wisconsin. However, the Liberal leader Victoriano Lorenzo refused to accept the terms of the agreement and was executed on May 15, 1903. On July 25, 1903, the headquarters of the Panamanian newspaper El Lápiz were assaulted by orders of the military commander for Panama, General José Vásquez Cobo, brother of the then Colombian Minister of War, as a retaliation for the publication of a detailed article narrating the execution and protests in Panama. This event damaged the trust of Panamanian liberals in the Conservative government based in Bogotá, and they later joined the separatist movement.


In 1903, the United States and Colombia signed the Hay–Herrán Treaty to finalize the construction of the Panama Canal but the process was not achieved because the Congress of Colombia rejected the measure (which the Colombian government had proposed) on August 12, 1903. The United States then moved to support the separatist movement in Panama to gain control over the remnants of the French attempt at building a canal. Panamanian politician José Domingo De Obaldía was selected to become the Governor of the Isthmus of Panama office that he had previously held and was supported by the separatist movements. Another Panamanian politician named José Agustín Arango began to plan the revolution and separation. The separatists wanted to negotiate the construction of the Panama canal directly with the United States due to the negativity of the Colombian government.

The separatist network was formed by Arango, Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, General Nicanor de Obarrio, Ricardo Arias, Federico Boyd, Carlos Constantino Arosemena, Tomás Arias, Manuel Espinosa Batista and others. Manuel Amador Guerrero was in charge of traveling to the United States to get support for the separatist plan; he also gained the support of important Panamanian liberal leaders and the support of another military commander, Esteban Huertas.

With a strong support the separatist movement set November 1903 as the time for the separation. However, rumors in Colombia spread but the information managed by the government of Colombia indicated that Nicaragua was planning to invade a region of northern Panama known as the Calovébora. The Government deployed troops from the Tiradores Battalion from Barranquilla, and instructed the commander to take over the functions of the Governor of Panama José Domingo de Obaldía and General Esteban Huertas, who were not trusted by the government.

The Tiradores Battalion was led by Generals Juan Tovar and Ramón Amaya and arrived in the Panamanian city of Colón on the morning of November 3, 1903. The battalion suffered delays on its way to Panama City caused by the complicity of the Panama Railway authorities who sympathized with the separatist movement. Upon arrival in Panama City, the troops were put under the command of Col. Eliseo Torres. General Esteban Huertas commander of the Colombia Battalion in Panama ordered the arrest of Tovar and his other officials.

The Colombian gunboat Bogotá fired shells upon Panama City the night of November 3 causing injuries and mortally wounding Wong Kong Yee of Hong Sang, China. A United States Navy gunboat, USS Nashville, commanded by Commander John Hubbard, who had also helped to delay the disembarkation of the Colombian troops in Colón, continued to interfere with their mission by alleging that the “neutrality” of the railway had to be respected.


With the suppression of the Colombian troops, the Revolutionary Junta proceeded to declare the separation of the Isthmus and later the independence with the declaration of the Republic of Panama. A naval squadron in the Bay of Panama was captured without resistance. Demetrio H. Brid the president of the Municipal Council of Panama became the de facto President of Panama appointing on November 4, 1903 a Provisional Government Junta that governed the country until February 1904 when the Constituent National Convention was established and elected Manuel Amador Guerrero as first constitutional president. News of the separation of Panama from Colombia reached Bogotá on November 6, 1903 due to a problem with the submarine cables.


On November 13, 1903 the United States formally recognized the Republic of Panama (after recognizing it unofficially on November 6 and 7). France did the same on November 14, 1903 followed by other 15 countries. On November 18, 1903 the United States Secretary of State John Hay and Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla signed the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. No Panamanians signed the treaty although Bunau-Varilla was present as the diplomatic representative of Panama (a role he had purchased through financial assistance to the rebels), despite the fact he had not lived in Panama for seventeen years before the incident, and he never returned. The treaty was later approved by the Panamanian government and the Senate of the United States. Colombia recognized the sovereignty of Panama in 1921, only after the United States compensated Colombia with US$25 million for its intervention in the Panama – Colombia conflict.


Panamanian cooking has some important differences from other Latin American cuisines. For example, they make corn masa from freshly boiled corn rather than from cornmeal and water. So dishes made with masa are quite different in taste in Panama. But there’s a lot that is familiar too. You can get ox tongue in tomato sauce or soft tacos throughout Latin America. Like most organ meats, ox tongue’s not popular in the U.S., although you can often find it sliced in Jewish delis. Cooking a whole tongue is a bit of a rigmarole, but not terribly complicated. You need a pot big enough to hold the whole tongue which you then cover in water and simmer for about 2 hours. Then let it cool and peel off the skin. For this dish you should cut it in thick slices like cutlets. The indigenous hot pepper in Panama is the chombo. Use it if you can find it; otherwise use any hot red chile you like.

©Lengua Guisada


1 cooked ox tongue, sliced
2 cups red wine
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 can of tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, washed and chopped
1 chombo (or other hot) pepper, minced
salt and pepper
bay leaf
olive oil


Sauté the onions, carrots, leek, peppers, garlic, and celery in a heavy-bottomed sauce with a little olive oil until they are soft. Do not brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and wine, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add a bay leaf, plus thyme, salt, and pepper to taste. Let simmer uncovered for about 1 hour, letting the sauce reduce and thicken. Check for seasoning and then add the tongue slices to warm through. Serve the tongue on a warmed platter with the sauce, accompanied by corn tortillas, or crusty bread.