Even on holiday, when it comes to eating, Tramshed’s chef director Kevin Gratton can’t resist searching out the richest culinary pickings available.  On a recent visit to South America he ended up ditching formal restaurants entirely in favour of street food and home cooking.
My third trip to South America consisted mostly of family stuff, in not the most exciting of towns, Cúcuta, Colombia. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising; it’s a small municipality nudging the Venezuelan border in the north east of the country. For those with no Geography A-level, please note, that means it’s located towards the Atlantic, not Pacific seaboard (Colombia has coasts on both oceans).
There wasn’t a great deal to do, so I filled my time with a bit of golf, the odd game of tennis, a bit more golf… But scrap that, it’s the foodie stuff I’m here to share with you. I was reading a feature in the supplement section of the Telegraph recently about a famous UK chef and food writer who, after two weeks in Colombia, had stopped going out to restaurants, as the home-cooked fare was so much better. How true this is. I’d wake up each morning and the family cook would ask what we wanted for lunch. It was nothing flashy, all very simple fare like tamale and arepa (a maize-based flatbread), but every time it knocked the socks off any restaurant down town (and was only bettered by some street food, which I’ll come back to).
A two-minute walk around the corner from the house would find me buying creamy avocados the size of your head. I’d do this almost daily – like buying bread in France. The ‘try before you buy’ always pulls you in.  Another place I’d end up with the mother-in-law was the Chicharrón house, where a family open their back kitchen once a week, then proceed to cook and sell deep-fried pork skin. This ain’t no snack, it’s a main course in itself.
Up at the other end of Cúcuta, on a Thursday, the streets were taken over by a bunch of youths with big stockpots, alongside open coals. Each pot sat boiling away with chorizos and morcillas (black pudding), which they would throw on the coals to order before you took it home. One of these lads was grilling something lighter looking that I’d never seen before – turns out it was cow’s udder… nice!  The last lunch I had before moving onto Panama was a delivery service of big bowls of mute, or chopped tripe with chick peas and cumin, with, no doubt, a few other offaly bits thrown in for good measure.
A 90-minute flight later and I was in Panama City, staying in the old town, which is a bit of an up-and-coming Cartegna [the historically rich, increasingly hip Colombian city]. First thing to note, the Tantalo Hotel: it wasn’t flash but it was cool – I’d call it ‘arty’. In fact, a different artist had designed each room. As far as food is concerned, no kidding, in the old town I had some of the best street food I’ve tasted anywhere, ever.
From a trendy truck that would sit easily alongside any of the trucks and stalls at one of London’s street fairs, we had some kind of pulled pork taco number, similar to a juicy, dripping-down-your-chin burger, as well as a tasty chicken pancake type thing, the name of which evades me. Both were equally delicious, and somewhat refreshing after the generally heavy food of Columbia.
It turns out the number one place in the city to check out, according to TripAdvisor, was an uber-cool street food spot called Fishmarket that’s only open three nights a week and owned and run by a cheeky Mancunian, believe it or not. Naturally, we had to meet, and a few local beverages were sunk, accompanied by delicious food, while market, van and culinary stories from both sides of the pond were exchanged. You travel 3,000 miles to taste something different and end up eating delicacies cooked by a lad from Didsbury. Funny old world ain’t it?
(reproduced courtesy of HIX magazine) www.hixrestaurants.co.uk
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