Menu Mix: Discovering South American staples Roberto_Knapp/iStock/Thinkstock

Menu Mix: Discovering South American staples

Open the door to a world of flavor with Colombian ceviches, Peruvian meat and potato stir-fries and other secretly amazing South American dishes. Plus, guess which American dish Colombian chefs are craving right now.

Come to Colombia

Joaquin Suarez is in charge of Sodexo’s culinary team in Colombia, overseeing the healthcare, education and B&I markets there, where he’s involved in the research and implementation of new food concepts for guests. He’s also an ambassador of Sodexo’s Global Chef program, in which he shares Colombian food all around the world as a visiting chef.

When introducing people to Colombian food, Suarez, who was born and raised in Bogota, talks first about geography.

“I need to put this into perspective,” he begins. “We’re in the middle of the equator. This means we don’t have seasons like you do. We have dry and rainy seasons, but not summer, spring, fall and winter.”

Food in the middle of Colombia is mountain food, and food on the coast is very different from that, Suarez explains. “The way we eat in Bogota is totally different than how we eat in Cartagena [a port city]. You can find shellfish in Bogota, but we need to fly it in every day. There’s more beef, pork and chicken in Bogota. When we’re on the coast, we eat more fish.”

Other staples found in the mountainous interior of Colombia include potatoes (in many varieties), yucca corn and meat (chicken, pork and beef). Soups and stews use the whole animal, and blood sausage is very popular, Suarez says, as is intestino (you can guess what that means), deep fried with a squeeze of lemon, a presentation similar to chicharrones.

On the coast, ceviches are an important culinary fixture.

“We have many varieties of ceviche and you can find different types in different countries,” Suarez says. “We have fish, shellfish, shrimp, langostino ‘cooked’ in lemon, orange or tangerine juice…and we add different colors of bell pepper julienned with red onion, a little Thousand Island dressing, a little Tabasco sauce, some fire water [alcoholic beverage] and cilantro.”

Cilantro is, Suarez says, “one of those ingredients we use in everything.”

Cuts of meat are often marinated in beer, since Colombia is a big beer producer. If you didn’t know that, Suarez is hoping to change the country’s perception.  

“Colombia used to be a place where no one could come, but right now with the peace treaty, you see more people coming here and it’s great,” Suarez says. “You hear a lot of different languages now—French, Arabic, English, Italian. We’re opening up our borders and our business and we also have a need to learn about food trends alive in other parts of the world.”

The way Colombians eat is definitely changing, something Suarez has noticed in his work with Sodexo. At a school for children of people working in the British Embassy, Suarez has encountered vegetarians, not yet a common thing in meat-and-potatoes-and-ceviche Colombia.

“You don’t see a lot of vegetarians here,” Suarez says. To gain a better understanding of his guests, Suarez spent six months as a vegan. “I had to understand what it was like to be in a hostile environment,” he half-jokes. “My mother used to tell me, I’ll invite you to dinner, but you bring your own dinner. She wasn’t OK with it.”

Traditionally, Colombians just don’t see the value of American fast food, either (for the same price you can get South American street food that includes soup, a roll, dessert and generally more for your money, Suarez says).

“The generation of my mother and my grandparents…they aren’t used to fast food and they don’t like it,” Suarez says. “We’re more of a culture of slow food.”

But that’s changing, thanks to the better burger trend.

“The hamburger is an incredible item,” Suarez says. “It’s become one of those foods that well-known South American chefs are working with; we have gourmet food trucks and we’re putting blue cheese, shiitakes and caramelized red onions on burgers now.”

Edgar D Pons/iStock/Thinkstock

What is lomo saltado and why do you need it on your action station?

Lomo saltado is a dish that comes up a lot when Americans attempt to get acquainted with South American food. But what is it, anyway? It’s basically the best of both worlds between a stir-fry and meat and potatoes. Marinated beef, onions, tomatoes and potatoes make up the core of the dish. Sometimes french fries are even used.

“Lomo saltado is one of my favorite things to do at an action station,” says Matt Quist, corporate chef with Taher. “It’s potatoes or fries or rice, a little soy sauce and beef…it tells the story of Japanese influence in Peru. It’s a little history on a plate. I think it’s important to make sure the chef at the action station is telling a story.” 

Duke’s powerful Peruvian pop-up

Students at Duke University in Durham, N.C., have been craving Peruvian food lately, their adventurous palates leading them straight to authentic dishes like pollo a la brasa (Peruvian charcoal chicken) and even street snacks (anticuchos) like marinated beef heart skewers.

“We felt very comfortable experimenting with the Peruvian pop-up, largely because of the high demand for Latin American food in general on campus and the willingness to try new things,” says Executive Chef Coleman Norris of The Chef’s Kitchen, where several pop-ups are taking place this semester. “It was fun because we were able to do some really authentic dishes.” Here are some of the dishes from the Peruvian pop-up: 

Clockwise from top left: pollo saltado (chicken stir-fry), pollo a la brasa (charcoal grilled chicken), beef heart skewer anticuchos (snacks), Peruvian shrimp chowder

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