Part of the joy of travel is trying the local foods, even if some of it looks questionable or gross. In Bogota I was offered fried hormigas culonas – those are ants with large derrieres – and although I was really tempted to try the delicacy – if you can call it a delicacy – in
the end (no pun intended) I flatly refused.
The day after I thought what a wasted opportunity. When again, if ever, will I ever get a chance to eat fried ants that locals say are delicious. The delicacy, there’s that word again, is from Bucaramanga, Colombia, and when in Bucaramanga, why not do as Bucaramangans, right?
“Porque no?” – “Why not?” is the philosophy Kahyda Rivera adheres to. I met Kahyda in Barranquilla in northern Colombia. She’s from Machala, Ecuador, and was on vacation. Kahyda had me swear that if ever such a food opportunity presented itself my response should simply be two little words: “Why not?”
And so there have been a lot of “why not” moments since Kahyda turned up. I have since given another try to bandeja paisa and ate the chicharrón – fried pork rinds – that comes with the dish. But these don’t look like the pork rinds you get at your local supermarket in the United States. They look like the spine of a small mammal. Or perhaps the tail bone of the pig. When I first laid eyes on the thing I wasn’t crazy about it, and when I took my first bite I almost spit it out. One bite was enough for me. But then I was chastised by Colombians who hail from the region where the dish was invented for having tried it in Bogota “where they don’t know how to cook it”. If you are going to eat a bandeja paisa, you must try it in Paisa country – that is Medellin and the region that surrounds it. And so I did. And guess what? I liked it. I’m not going to say loved it, but I liked it. It was tasty and edible, not burned to crisp or requiring you to chew and chew to get the thing down. So learn this lesson: Stay as local as possible with the foods – or at least find the places with locals who know how to cook the thing. I tried foods from the Choco region on the Pacific Coast, for instance, without setting foot in Choco. But the food was made by people who are from the Choco, even if they were now operating a restaurant in Medellin.
Here I must say asking “why not?” has been a fantastic way of trying foods I otherwise would not try. One of the best meals I had in Colombia was from a food cart parked on the street in Barranquilla. It was arepas rellenos con queso y pollo – a sort of bread made of ground corn dough or precooked corn flour – and it was so good I went back for more.
Still asking “why not?”, I discovered my favorite snack, buñuelos, a round mass of flour and cheese fried in lots of oil. Now, truth be told, when I took a look at the oil it was fried in I for a moment wondered if I was putting my health at risk. How long had they been using that oil to fry just about everything they served in the kitchen? But the thing was so good that I merrily ate and figured I would deal with any consequences later.
A note about consequences: You have to take responsibility for your own health and safety. I ask “why not” but I proceed with caution, meaning a tiny bite to taste and if I like I go further. You will get sick if you throw caution to the wind and eat anything someone sticks in front of you. If that’s a risk you are willing to take, as one English woman I met, go for it. Her thinking was that you’d only be sick for a day or two, if at all. True, but those can be two days of hell – two of your precious vacation days you will never get back. When I first arrived in Colombia I was super careful, very picky about what I ate. And it didn’t do me much good because I still got sick. After being in the country for a longer period of time, I became less choosy and more adventurous and I have enjoyed some great meals. But one time, in Supia, I ate a chorizo that gave me stomach pain and cramps the next morning. It didn’t help my condition having to travel three hours back to Medellin on a winding road that made me even queasier. I was so sick, it sidelined me for two days. That was Tuesday and I’m still recovering from.
So my point is, try the foods, but as you ask “why not” be honest with yourself and say “because it just doesn’t taste right”. After all, would you eat foods at home that were not well-prepared or had gone bad?
Don’t be foolish, yes, but don’t outright deny yourself the local culinary pleasures.