Cuisine Spotlight – Ajiaco

 

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“Are you hungry yet?” “I am.”

A delicious yet underrated popular dish here in Colombia that is hearty, tasty, and has a lot of flavor to it is one you may not be familiar with unless you come to the country to experience it firsthand. You may be able to experience this food outside of Colombia but you have to go to the source of where it’s made to perfection in order to get the most out of the dish. While not as hyped up as ‘Bandeja Paisa’ or ‘Sancocho’, Aijaco is just as delicious if not more so and is pretty easy to make if you can collect all of the necessary ingredients.

Ajiaco is a popular food dish not only just in Colombia but different versions of it can also be found in the countries of Peru and Cuba. Ajiaco has been around since the 16th century but it is unsure as to which country the food originated in first as to whether it was Colombia, Peru, or Cuba.

When it comes to Colombia, Ajiaco is most popular in the capital city of Bogota where it is made mainly with big pieces of chicken breasts that have been sliced up, fresh corn ears that have been cut into smaller pieces, scallions, minced garlic, chopped cilantro, three different types of potatoes such as red potatoes, white potatoes, and Andean potatoes (papa criolla). In order to complete this recipe for ‘Ajiaco Bogatano’, you’re going to need to add some guasca, which are dehydrated herbs as well as capers and heavy milk cream to top it all off.

Some people also like to add white rice to their Ajiaco dish in Colombia as well as some avocado that you can mix in with the rest of the ingredients. In order to get some more flavors out of this dish, you may want to add some salt and pepper to add to the taste. With all of the necessary ingredients to this recipe being added and mixed together, you will need to use a big pot to cook it all in. Ajiaco, Colombian style, will take a couple of hours to prepare, cook, and serve to you and your guests but the end results are delicious. When it comes to Ajiaco, it could be the only meal you have in a day and still come away from eating it feeling full and satisfied.

There is so much to the Colombian version of Ajiaco that it easily one of my favorite dishes to have here. It’s got vegetables, meat, and grains all loaded into one big bowl of deliciousness and if you make enough of it, you’re likely to have seconds and even thirds if you’re lucky. Like many other popular dishes from Colombia, Ajiaco is a great food to share with your friends and your family. It’s the kind of dish that you can serve to five, ten or more people depending on how big of a pot you want to use and how many hours you have free to cook all of the ingredients together.

Ajiaco can be an ideal dish that you can serve at a wedding, a birthday party, a family gathering of some kind, or for celebrating a religious ceremony. Have patience though because Ajiaco takes a while to get ready and serve to your guests. Because it’s got chicken, corn, rice, avocado, potatoes, there’s not much that you won’t like in your Ajiaco serving when it’s finally ready to eat. If you’re feeling a little down in the dumps or are feeling sick, I believe that Ajiaco would be a good way to start to make you feel better and improve your mood.

‘Ajiaco bogotano’ is not the only version of Ajiaco out there in Latin America as there are variations on this popular dish that are available in Peru and in Cuba. When it comes to Peru, Ajiaco is a dish mainly of different kinds of potatoes along with garlic, a mix of yellow and red chilis, yerbabuena, huacatay, that is accompanied with rice on the side and a choice of meat that is either chicken or rabbit stew.

Similar to Ajiaco from Colombia, you can add and mix together as many of the ingredients as you want when it comes to Peruvian form of Ajiaco in order to get the most taste and flavor out of the dish. The Cuban Ajiaco is also distinctly unique from the Peruvian and Colombian versions in its’ own rights. In Cuba, Ajiaco is much more of a stew, which is made up of a lot of different meats such as chicken, beef, pork, rather than just one or two kinds and many vegetables like carrots, onions, scallions, rice, potatoes, tubers, and starchy roots. ‘Viandas’ are also a unique aspect of Cuban Ajiaco that adds a lot to the dish.

As to the origin of Ajiaco as mentioned earlier, it is still debated by different scholars on the subject. It is estimated that the food dish originated with the indigenous tribe of Taino who inhabited parts of the Caribbean including modern-day Cuba. The word ‘Aji’ in Ajiaco is said to have originated from the Taino tribe’s language and the meaning of ‘Aji’ in their language is ‘hot pepper.’

It is believed that Ajiaco first originated in Cuba due to the fact that it is quite a diverse dish of different ingredients reflecting how Cuba was a melting pot of indigenous, African, and European cultures mixed together. Ajiaco has been served in Cuba since the 16th century, which is longer than the food’s origin in both Colombia and Peru. From the city of Havana to the village of Camaguey, the tradition of making Ajiaco was born and continues to thrive today. Farmers, slaves, traders, and regular people would exchange and buy ingredients from each other in order to put their own mark on this popular food dish over the centuries.

Regardless if its’ Cuban, Colombian, Peruvian or just homemade from scratch, Ajiaco is a delicious food dish that has a variety and a flavor that is hard to beat. It doesn’t matter what social status you have or what your cultural background is, Ajiaco is a dish that is deeply loved in Latin America and around the world. If you are curious about trying it out, there are many recipes available on the Internet depending on which kind of Ajiaco you would like to try out.

If you come to any of the countries where Ajiaco is popular and has a known history, I promise you won’t be disappointed when you eat it. Just remember to have an empty stomach when you dig in to eat because you’re going to need extra room for this plentiful and fulfilling dish of goodness. Buen Provecho!

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Machu Picchu, Peru

Cusco

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Cusco, Peru

Lima

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Lima, Peru

The Wonder of Machu Picchu

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“The hardest yet most rewarding part of my visit: Hiking to the top of Huayna Picchu mountain.” 

There are few places in the world, which you can truly regard as being special and awe-inspiring. We describe these places as being a ‘wonder’ of humanity and one that represents our brief yet influential time on this planet. Before I came to Machu Picchu, I believed that the only other place that would classify as a ‘wonder’ to me would be the archaeological site of Petra in southern Jordan. A ‘wonder’ both of history and of architecture that goes back thousands of years is what sets apart places like Machu Picchu in Peru and Petra in Jordan. These places that touch on the cultural and historical legacy of man are what drive us to be resolute in protecting these artifacts of mankind and making sure that they are around for future generations.

I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to have visited Machu Picchu just recently a couple of days ago. For those who don’t know, Machu Picchu is quite isolated from any major modern city or town but is possible to get to by train and bus due to the wonders of modern technology. Situated between towering mountains and located alongside the flowing Urubamba river, Machu Picchu is not only a wonder of Incan architecture and construction but is also a natural marvel due to the backdrop it has with the surrounding green mountains, wispy clouds, and the numerous kinds of plants that inhabit this part of Peru.

Among the things that stand out about Machu Picchu is that you feel isolated from the rest of the world. It may be the towering mountains that surround this archaeological site or it could be the fact that wispy clouds envelop your presence but you feel very that you’re secluded from other kinds of environment. The higher you climb in elevation, the world gets much quieter and you’re able to reflect more on not only the site of Machu Picchu that lays before you but also about life or whatever is on your mind in general.

I’m far from being an expert on ancient civilizations, especially the Incan civilization of which I know relatively little about but you have to give the people of this group considerable admiration and awe by the fact that they were able to build such a city in the most remote of places. The fact that it was possible for them to create an infrastructure out of rocks, stone, and wood in order to sustain themselves under ever-changing weather conditions is quite remarkable.

To be able to plant and harvest food, create a running water supply, and be able to construct encampments to house hundreds of Incans is very impressive to consider. Not only was there a high risk of death or injury to climb these mountains with heavy rocks or stones attached to your backs, it is likely that you would be on your own if you sustained serious injuries given that there were no modern medicines or hospitals or rely upon.

It is difficult for me to list a favorite thing about my trip to Machu Picchu. I really enjoyed climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu at 2,700 meters in total altitude despite my exasperated breath and tired knees. The views from this perching point above Machu Picchu are extraordinary and are something that I will never forget. Besides being able to take a bunch of pictures, it was great to sit and reflect on the wonder that lay before me. At a couple of thousand meters in the air, all your problems dissipate for a moment and you can truly hear the sound of the wind and the movements of the clouds. You can close your eyes and hear nothing but the sound of your own thoughts if you are so lucky.

Thanks to the efforts of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, Machu Picchu is amazingly well preserved and should be around for future generations to enjoy. A limited amount of tourists, a couple of hundred in total per day can visit Machu Picchu and is a good idea to make sure that none of these famous Incan ruins will be damaged, tampered with, or destroyed. To lose such a precious treasure such as Machu Picchu or any other wonder of the world would be a tragedy for humanity and its’ history on this planet. While it was not cheap to get to Machu Picchu, I can fully understand why we as tourists pay the costs of admissions to visit these beautiful sites.

We do it to make sure that other people have the chance to experience these places firsthand and are able to share it with their children and grandchildren. I am quite lucky to have been able to visit such a wondrous place and I will remember my day at Machu Picchu quite fondly. If you’re reading this blog post and desire now to visit Machu Picchu, I would recommend that you do it with the knowledge that you do some research about the place, respect it during your visit, and do your best to take the experience in not just through your camera lens or smartphone but through your own eyes and ears.

To me, Machu Picchu is more than a lost Incan city of hundreds of years ago; it is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place of natural scenery. With its’ many mountains, huge river, and hundreds of diverse plants, this place can help you reflect not only about the past but on the present and future of yourself, humanity, and the planet itself. With any tourist site that’s located in a unique location, precautions and steps must be undertaken to make sure you have an enjoyable visit. Please make sure you bring some sunscreen, an umbrella, appropriate clothing and a lot of water. The weather can be quite unpredictable at Machu Picchu and it would be good of you to prepare to experience all four seasons in just one day at the site. Best of luck to you reading this post if you decide to take the journey to Machu Picchu. I promise that you won’t regret it.

 

 

A Chance Encounter

When it comes to traveling, most people often remember the places they’ve been, the food they ate, and the fun activities they did during their trips. However, what often gets lost in the shuffle is the ability to appreciate and remember the interesting people you meet during your travels, usually at the most random of times and in the most random of places. The best part of traveling can often be those chance encounters on the road that lead to you gaining a new friend, who might be a local from the country you’re visiting or another fellow foreigner who’s exploring the same places as you by coincidence.

One such encounter happened to me very recently during my first trip to Peru. I got up very early at around four in the morning to catch the train from the Peruvian village of Ollantaytambo to the town of Machu Picchu, which is located a couple of hundred feet below the famous ruins of the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. Running on just five hours of sleep and anxious to make sure that I had all my paperwork in store for the visit to Machu Picchu, I was not in a talkative mood and feeling pretty lethargic.

I boarded the train at around 5 am and was even more dismayed by the fact that I was assigned an ‘aisle’ seat instead of my usual preference for a ‘window’ seat. Rather than being able to view the beautiful, cascading Andean mountains and the river running through them beneath the train tracks, I would only be able to glance a peak of the scenery by arching my head over, behind, or in front of the person next to me who would soon be occupying my prized window seat.

Still though, I reminded myself internally to not be such a downer and to be grateful that I would soon be departing for one of the wonders of the modern world, which very few people get to visit during their lifetimes. I am also a big fan of train travel, and Peru Rail provided quite a comfortable ride to and from the town of Machu Picchu. Eventually, a man carrying two big toys in his hands asked in Spanish, “Con permiso” politely as he motioned that he was coming through to sit down in the open window seat next to me. I obliged politely and looked on with curiosity at he placed these large two toys on the tray table in front of him nonchalantly.

I thought to myself at the time that it was a curious sight to see a grown man holding two toys that a child would play with, and to especially be sitting by himself with them and not with a son or daughter nearby. The toys themselves captured my attention because they were two of my favorite toys that I owned when I was a child myself. If you have ever seen the ‘Toy Story’ movies, you’ll know that those characters were popular when I was growing up in the 1990’s and even until today due to the series’ recent surge in popularity.

I loved ‘Toy Story’ as a kid and I still do especially given the fact that I saw the movie ‘Toy Story 4’ a couple of years ago and that was just before I graduated from college. The two toys themselves were replicas of the two main characters, Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody, who I had owned in my younger days. I spent many afternoons watching Buzz lift off and having Woody swing his plastic lasso around like a real cowboy would do. Some toys, even when you’re an adult, hold a deep connection for you and bring back a lot of memories that have since receded a long time ago.

Now, suddenly, my interest had been peaked in the man sitting next to me due to the toys that he was bringing with him to Machu Picchu. I started by telling him in Spanish how I used to love playing with those same toys of Buzz and Woody when I was a child. He was very friendly in responding to my curiosity and stated that; yes, he likes the toys a lot too and bought them for his two-year old son recently for his birthday. That put in place another piece of the puzzle for me as I realized that this man was not traveling to Machu Picchu by himself but was sharing this unique experience with his wife and his children.

For being such an early time in the morning to have a conversation, the man whose name I learned was Jorge (first name changed for privacy reasons) was polite, friendly, and patient with my imperfect Spanish. It’s one thing to speak in a foreign language when you’re fully awake in the middle of the afternoon and it’s a much more challenging task to be coherent in a foreign language at 5:30 in the morning when you are lethargic and groggy. However, I was able to communicate with Jorge pretty easily and he was able to practice some of his English as well. Like myself, Jorge also works in the education sector. He is a secretary at a primary / secondary school in Peru, and has been doing this job for over ten years. He is passionate about education and was curious about my experiences as an English teaching fellow in Medellin, Colombia.

From what I could tell about Jorge, he was a caring husband and father. He showed me pictures of his two young children on his iPhone with the traditional ceremonies that they would go through at their primary school. It was pretty interesting to see how they would dress up these little kids in traditional Peruvian clothing for these school events. Jorge must have taken a liking to me because even when one of the cabin crew for the Peru Rail train asked Jorge if he would like someone to move from the other row so he could sit with his wife and his children, he politely declined as I think he was really enjoying the conversation we were having. It also didn’t hurt that his family members were only sitting a row behind him so he could easily reach them if there was anything they needed, including if his little boy happened to want to play with Buzz and Woody again.

It was extremely interesting for me to hear from Jorge as a local and native citizen of Peru about his experiences visiting different parts of his country. He gave a lot of interesting insights about the regional differences between food, people, and the culture depending on where in Peru you were visiting. On this recent trip, I was only able to explore Lima and Cusco, but due to Jorge’s recommendations, I have a pretty good idea of where I would go in Peru for my next visit. I was happy to chat with Jorge about what it was like to grow up and live in New York, as well as talking about popular American music and movies that we both have a mutual fondness for. Despite having been born thousands of miles from each other on different continents and with different cultural backgrounds, we were able to bond as human beings because our similarities in terms of personality and interests were greater than our inherent differences of culture and country of birth.

Perhaps most notable for me about getting to know Jorge was how mature he was for his age. Jorge is only six years older than me but has a steady job, a wife and two young children. A lot of people my age and older are forgoing those traditional responsibilities of life but it says a lot about a man who provides for his family and is able to do things for them like take them on a trip to Machu Picchu. Men like Jorge are admirable in that they are responsible, mature, and do not shy away from their commitments. While all men carve their own path in life, they should try to exemplify the same traits as my new Peruvian friend Jorge has done. Maturity, responsibility, and a kindness to strangers like myself; these are the best traits to emulate when you witness them in another person. That’s how you become a true adult and someone who can be the leader of a family. It’s easy to say that my hour and a half spent talking to Jorge taught me more than just about old toys, it taught me a lot about adulthood and what it means to be a good man.

As we pulled into the Machu Picchu station, Jorge was very gracious and said that if I ever wanted to experience the best of Peruvian cuisine in Lima, where he and his family live, I was more than welcome to join them in the future. I told them that I would be happy to extend the same offer to them if they were ever in Medellin or even in New York if I was back there again. We exchanged our Facebook information, said our goodbyes, and parted ways as we both left the train to our final destinations. I continued on to my full-day visit to Huayna Picchu / Machu Picchu (which was amazing by the way, but that’s for another blog post).

You may ask by now if you’ve read this whole post: Ben, why did you decide to tell me about a chance encounter with a Peruvian guy on a train to Machu Picchu? The answer to your question is quite simple: It’s because traveling isn’t just about eating new foods, seeing cool places, or doing awesome activities. I enjoy all of the above and then some but traveling is also about getting to know the locals like Jorge and learning more about their country and their culture from their perspective.

Traveling is and always has been about broadening one’s horizons and getting outside of your comfort zone. For me, I’ve always been on the shy side personally but by traveling especially by myself, I’m forced to meet new people and start a conversation. I can only say that it’s done wonders for me in terms of building my confidence, improving my self-reliance, and lowering my anxiety when it comes to meeting new people. Traveling is more than just the experiences you’ve had and the places you’ve seen but it’s also about the new people you meet. Your memories will include the people you meet and you’ll look back on those same memories very fondly one day. You may never see that person again but at least you’ll know that they made your trip a little bit more special and rewarding because you met them in the first place.

I hope that as a reader of my blog that you’ll take this story to heart and remember to not be shy when it comes to meeting new people, regardless of whether you’re traveling or are at a party where you don’t know anybody there. The best stories come out of those experiences where you can met someone cool or unique and have a good time getting to know them. You may even be able to make a lifelong friend just by being willing to open your mouth and make the words come out.

Cuisine Spotlight – Cazuela

This second post in the new ‘Cuisine Spotlight’ series will focus on another favorite dish of mine here in Colombia, which is known simply as ‘Cazuela.’ Despite the unassuming name, this popular South American dish is quite diverse in what it can offer you when it comes to mealtime. Depending upon what you’re craving, a good cazuela can be made up of seafood, beef, chicken, etc. as its main base food. ‘Cazuela’ is a Spanish word, which roughly translates into ‘Casserole’ in English.

Similar to a casserole, a cazuela dish is a mix and match of different kinds of foods with tasty results. Usually, cazuela is considered to be a soup made up of different vegetables and meats mixed together. You can’t have cazuela without some flavored cooking stock put in there to form the soup-like appearance. Depending upon which South American country you’re visiting or living in, there will be a different spin on what cazuela looks, smells, and tastes like.

In Chile, cazuela comes with a piece of meat, which can either be turkey, pork, chicken, or beef. Specifically, a leg of chicken or some beef ribs will be the meat in the cazuela dish. Underneath the meat would be a piece of pumpkin and individual pieces of potato with a base of white rice doused in the flavored cooking stock. For the vegetables, it varies depending upon the cook’s preference but there’s usually celery, carrots, green beans, cabbage, etc. that are sliced and diced up to be soaked in the cooking stock and added to the rice and meat. In the summer time, some Chileans will add some sweet corn to the vegetable mix. The Chilean version of cazuela is known as being very similar to the ‘Olla podrida’, which is a colonial dish from Spain that has gained in popularity in Chile and other South American nations.

Cazuela is also quite popular in Peru, the southern neighbor of Colombia. Cazuela is often prepared in the Amazonas region of Peru and is made in different ways depending on which area of the department you’re in. For the meat, there are often more creative choices like hen and sheep that are added to cabbage, rice, carrots, and the broth juice. Usually, this kind of cazuela is cooked over a flame in a sauce pot as its mixed together and served to a large group of people.

Beyond just being a soup or a casserole, Cazuela can also be made into a traditional kind of pie as it is in Puerto Rico. During Christmas season, the Cazuela pie is made up of sweet potato, pumpkin, and coconut milk. It’s quite a popular desert that is easy to make and is popular for its’ sweet flavor and light texture.

Multiple countries in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia have embraced the ‘Cazuela de Mariscos’, which is made up of a number of different kinds of seafood. The Colombian version is easy to make and is known for being a thick kind of soup and also is rumored to be an ‘aphrodisiac.’ The seafood that comes in the soup includes calamari squid, prawns, clams, shrimp, and small pieces of fish.

The kind of ingredients you want to add are olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, coconut milk, white wine, some seasoning, heavy cream and minced garlic. To top it off, you need some vegetables including carrots, celery, red pepper, tomatoes, and bouillons. You got to mix up everything together, serve it in a clay pot or bowl, and enjoy the delicious broth and food. Sometimes, you can find that there are cazuelas for shrimp or prawns separately which can come with rice and a heavy broth mixed together with the seafood.

The type of cazuela that I have become most familiar with over the past couple of months is the ‘cazuela antioquena.’ You can find it throughout the department of Antioquia and most commonly in the city of Medellin. I find it to be unique compared to other kinds of cazuelas given the emphasis on ingredients that are known well to Paisas making it a local favorite.

You start with a base of Antioquian brown beans mixed in with some white rice. On top of that is the meat, which are usually ‘chicharron’ or fried pork belly and some cooked chorizo. Instead of more common vegetables like celery and carrot, this favorite dish of Antioquia comes with pieces of avocado and some cut-up sweet plantains. To add some flavor, the Colombian creole sauce known as ‘Hogao’ is mixed among the meat, plantains, avocado, rice, and beans.

Like many other local dishes here, a small arepa is added to the mix, and placed at the top of the ‘cazuela antioquena’ to be eaten with the rice, beans, chorizo and whatever else would go along well with the arepa. Second only to the ‘Bandeja Paisa’, the ‘cazuela antioquena’ is likely to be a fulfilling dish for lunch that can satisfy your cravings for some local cuisine.

It’s likely that you’ll run into some kind of ‘cazuela’ if you’re traveling or living in South America. The various kinds of cazuela unique to a certain country or region makes it an exciting dish due to its diversity. Whether it’s meat, seafood, vegetables, rice, and beans in the cazuela, it’s important to bring a big appetite to the table because it’s likely to fill you up and leave you satisfied.