Within the mountains of Colombia lies Ubaté. Depending on who you ask, it's either an unmissable roadside food stop or an unsavoury detour. Colombians are excellent at saving and rarely waste any part of a cow, chicken, or pig carcass. We'll fry, stuff, or boil it all—and nowhere is a better example of this than Ubaté.
When you hit the main street, lovely ladies greet you and drag you into their restaurants or food stalls. The stalls are simple and the food is cooked right in front of you, filling the whole place with charcoal smoke from the stoves.
To a non-Colombian, it can be hard to figure out what part of the animal you're eating and things can get explicit. Highlights include hen necks stuffed with rice, blood, potato, and peas; cow feet; and the famous hen cooked with its unlaid eggs still inside. These embryos of chickens-never-meant-to-be are bright yellow and taste like a normal eggs that have been seasoned with chicken stock. Eating them is a juicy experience that leaves your brain grossed out and your taste buds strangely satisfied.
To prepare the dish, the hens are raised in completely natural conditions: eating corn and worms, and roaming in the countryside of Colombia. Until it comes to being eaten, it's a pretty nice life. Once the eggs inside the chicken reach embryo stage the animal is killed. The traditional way is to break the hen's neck.
When I was a kid growing up in Colombia and regularly eating at these food stands, I always wondered about the difference between a chicken and a hen. I figured the females possessed some extra magic in their lady skin to make them yellow and extra tasty. They call them "radioactive hens" because of their yellowness, and they seem unreal. That is, until you order a piece and the lady behind the counter opens it, unlaid eggs and all, and it gets extremely real. They have a tough skin, but the flesh melts in your mouth. They're served with soft potatoes—usually yuca or cassava— that have been cooked in the chicken's own stock.
The secret of the hens' tenderness is in the cooking. They're slowly braised on charcoal stoves with onions, coriander, thyme, and bay—but every store has their own recipe. Once the bird is cooked, it goes straight into a glass display. These are homemade ovens that keep the food warm while the stuffed hen necks stare out alongside the cow's feet. The food used to be warmed with normal light bulbs, but more often they're being replaced by the modern heat lights you'll find in any supermarket deli.
The cow feet are less charming and taste how I imagine a human foot would: thick and slimy, smelling like old socks—not recommended if you have a two-hour drive ahead of you. Judging by the people who sit around eating them at every stall, they're an acquired taste.
The stuffed hen necks are a whole other science. The head is cut off at the base of the neck and all the bones except the skull are removed. A mushy mix of potatoes, peas, rice, and blood are cooked and stuffed into the sausage-like neck, which is then sewed and roasted. The cooked blood gives it a unique flavour and dark colour. It's like a chicken version of the Colombia's famous blood sausage, morcilla.
The hens are the stars of these restaurants, and people from all over Colombia stop by for a piece. Recently they've become popular with food tourists, but the much-loved fluoro-meat also provides employment and an income for generations of families. Countless children were raised with the profits of the unlaid eggs, hens, and cows' feet.
My family always goes to the same spot, La Chata. The owner, Elvira, greets us and asks what we feel like. She tells me how she grew up under those tables and has managed to send her son and daughter to university thanks to the business. She's proud of her food, her soups, and all the specials she offers. A meal with soup and a main costs between $3 and $5. Elvira works from 3 AM to 7 PM, cooking and serving. She works longer and harder than I do, but happily takes the time to talk to me about her food. When we finish and go to pay, she only charges us $5 for two meals, and returns to her 16-hour-day.