Munchies

Colombia’s Pacific Cuisine Is the Best Latin Food You've Never Tried

Colombia’s vast Pacific coastline, known as the Pacifico, is one of the purest expressions of Afro-Latin culture in the Americas, and its cuisine merges richly spiced seafood dishes with the bounty of the rainforest.

by Ocean Malandra
May 16 2016, 4:00pm

All photos by the author.

Colombia's vast Pacific coastline, known as the Pacifico, is not only one of the rainiest places in the world, but its largest metropolis, Buenaventura, claims the dubious honor of being the most dangerous city in the country. Unsurprisingly, the Pacifico also happens to be Colombia's least visited region.

But ask Colombians of any walk of life where the best food in the land is and you are going to get "Pacifico" for an answer every time.

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Fisherman plying the waters of Colombia's Pacifico. All photos by the author.
Pacifico - musicians1 Pacifico musicians playing the streets of Bogotá.

Just as African as many parts of Africa, the Pacifico saw massive numbers of slaves brought to work raw metals out of its mines in the 17th and 18th centuries. As the poorest area of Colombia, isolated from the rest of the county by the thick jungle that covers the region, most of the Pacifico is still only reachable by boat.

Left to its own since slavery was abolished in 1851, the Pacifico is now one of the purest expressions of Afro-Latin culture in the Americas. Life here revolves around two things: tambora (drum) and marimba-driven musical ensembles, and food. Specifically, the Pacifico specializes in richly spiced seafood dishes based on the incredible bounty of the ocean fused with exotic flavors from the Pacific rainforest—a natural wonderland second only in biodiversity to the mighty Amazon itself.

Like many African diaspora hotspots—think New Orleans and Northeastern Brazil—what the region lacks in wealth it makes up for in pure sabor.

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One of the Pacifico restaurants on Carrera 4 in Bogotá.
Pacifico Image 4 - avocado A creamy butter avocado from the street.

You don't have to brave the humid jungles of the Pacifico to sample its exquisite fare, though. Pacifico restaurants are found in every town of decent size in Colombia, especially in the capital city of Bogotá—a 9-million-person microcosm of the entire country, located almost 3,000 meters high up in the rugged Andes.

In fact, a good cluster of about seven or eight authentic Pacifico joints is located around Calle 20 and Carrera 4, just a five-minute walk from the hip, hostel-packed and graffiti-covered historic city center of La Candelaria. I head that way almost every day for lunch.

To do the Pacifico culinary adventure properly, grab an avocado from one of the many independent vendors on the street on the way in. Make sure the perfect specimen is soft to the touch, and have the vendor cut it open for you on the spot to make sure it's ripe and creamy.

Avocados come in two varieties here in Colombia: the smaller black Hass style that we have in abundance back in states like California, and the larger tropical variety that sports a smooth skin and is known here as the mantequilla aguacate—the butter avocado. In the Pacifico, avocado is butter and you put it on everything.

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Sancocho de pescado with a cup of borojo juice.
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For those going Pacifico for the first timethe almuerzo del dia, or set lunch special, is the place to start. First up is a hearty portion of sancocho de pescado, a coconut milk curry fish soup that is perfected by squeezing in a bit of lime, dashing on a couple drops of aji (chile pepper sauce) and scooping an avocado into it.

Almuerzo also comes with a choice of house-made lemonade or borojo juice. While Colombian lemonade, made from raw cane sugar and sweet ripe limes, is nothing to be scoffed at, for the real Pacifico experience the tangy dark purple fruit juice is the way to go. Rumored to be a potent aphrodisiac, borojo only grows in the Pacific rainforest of Colombia, and the few studies done on it have show it to be so high in antioxidants that companies are now making supplements out of it.

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Azulejo en salsa.
azulejo en salsa,

For the main course, the set lunch almuerzo comes with a variety of fish choices, flown in fresh that morning from the Pacific coast and served either fried or in sauce. I always go with the a tender and slightly oily fish served with patacón (a flattened plantain), white or coconut rice, and a carrot salad that resembles coleslaw. The salsa is a thick, curry-like reduction that perks up the whole plate quite nicely.

The complete set lunch, including soup, juice and fish plate runs under $5 US at any of these Bogota Pacifico restaurants. It's delicious, healthy, and one of the best deals I've had in all of Latin America.

Pacifico Image 7 - Prepping

A peek into the kitchen.
aji

The secret to Pacifico cuisine's rich flavor lies in the herbs and spices that are used in the soup broths and in the salsas that adorn the main plates. Turmeric is used liberally in the Pacifico, which is what gives so many dishes their bright yellow color, while garlic, onions, cilantro, and of various types and heat all play central roles as well. Exotic jungle ingredients, like the chontoduro, a palm fruit with a hearty, yam-like flavor, also often find their way into the sauces and salads.

A peek into the kitchen reveals big pots of seafood stewing in thick, spiced sauces, but when I ask for a complete ingredient list I am told that every dish is a family secret guarded by the mothers and grandmothers and passed down kitchen to kitchen.

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Paella Pacifico with langostino.
Cazuela de mariscos

When it's time to move beyond the set lunch, the Pacifico has a wide variety of incredibly rich and flavorful specialties to seek your teeth into, most based on the same winning combo of coconut milk and turmeric plus fresh seafood. Avocado, the butter that grows on trees, is also omnipresent.

is an extremely popular coconut cream-based stew bubbling with clams, calamari, and mussels that comes in a hot iron pot; the giant paella Pacifico is a heaping helping of rice tossed with shrimp, calamari, and langostinos—a sort of crawfish that thrives in the clear jungle rivers of the Pacific Coast.

Pacifico Image 9- Cazuela

A hot pot of cazuela de mariscos.
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Many Pacifico specialties, including both the paella and the cazuela, come in different sizes and are meant to feed two to four people. Entire families come out on the weekend to gobble up these dishes in order to fuel their famous festive lifestyle.

In fact, Colombia consistently places on the happiest country on Earth annual polls. The rich flavorful cuisine of the Pacifico is definitely one of the major secret ingredients in that equation.