Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eating Caribbean - Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

If you read this blog regularly you know that I occasionally drift off subject to report on vacation food. This time it’s for the cuisine of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, where we spent a week this March.     

Cartagena de Indias, so named to avoid confusion with its Spanish namesake, is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where its tropical climate, Afro-Latino population and cuisine are similar to those of other Caribbean societies—but with some distinct local touches.  

 Where to begin?  With the characteristic dish of Cartagena, of course: fried fish, coconut rice, patacones and salad.  Every Cartagena Creole restaurant serves it, sometimes under the name Plato Costeño (Coastal Plate) or Bandeja Tipica Caribeña (Typical Caribbean Tray), and at lunch time throughout the old city street vendors are eating the same dish out of Styrofoam boxes.

Pargo (red snapper) with Creole sauce, coconut rice and patacone
 Trentis Restaurante, Calle Sargento Mayor

The fish, usually plate size or smaller, is slashed on each side, then deep fried with no breading or batter. Preferred fish are pargo (red snapper), robalo (snook) and mojarra, but any small white-flesh fish or filet of a larger fish seems acceptable. We even had one (forgettable) Bandeja Tipica on a tour where the fish was frozen merluza, hake.  

Mojarra frita, D’Alex Restaurante,
 Plaza Fernando de Madrid

And its a great spot for an evening beer.

Coconut rice, arroz con coco, is rice cooked in coconut milk; not the liquid from inside green coconuts, but the “milk” made by adding hot water to grated coconut meat and squeezing out the creamy liquid. Canned unsweetened coconut milk can also be used.

Recipes from The Cuisine of Cartagena de Indias[1]

And patacones?  Fried rounds of green plantains, called tostones in other parts of the Caribbean.

Shrimp, locally called langostinos or camarones, are also a favorite menu item.  At left are fried langostinos over a mound of mashed plantain (similar to Puerto Rican mofongo) with a sauce of sweet corzo, a palm fruit.

Left Langostinos from Cafe Krioyo

Sweet sauces are also prominent in Cartagena’s meat cuisine.  Posta Negra Cartagenera (Cartagena pot roast) is a classic:  rump roast braised in a dark sweet sauce which may (or may not) include tomatoes, red wine, Seville orange juice, red soda pop and/or soy sauce.

Posta Negra Cartagenera, Café Krioyo

A Google search finds a dozen or so recipes, all in colloquial Colombian Spanish… and all different.  I’ve translated a simple one below from Colombia en la mesa. (Note that tropical beef needs the moist intense heat of a pressure cooker, but you can also braise it for 3 ½ hours or so, or use a slow cooker.) 

Pork is also served with sweet fruit based sauces.  One evening I had pork ribs braised in beer and tamarind sauce, the headline dish on the menu of La Cocina de Carmela, a neighborhood one-waitress-one-cook, chalkboard-menu restaurant with an interesting blend of Caribbean and international dishes.   It’s not self service, in spite of the sign, and the food makes up for the décor.


La Cocina de Carmela, Calle de Badillo

And, of course, Cartegana fruit is always available from street vendors, with tomatoes, peppers, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, plums, passion fruit and even marañón or cashew apple, the yellow fruit at left with the cashew on the end.

But for the real Cartagena fruit experience, have a fruit salad from one of the handsome Palenqueras, among the most photographed women in the world.

Doña Angeilna

For more about Cartagena, see my travel blog.

[1] Román de Zurek, Teresita and Estella Arango de Morales Angel De M. 2001 The Cuisine of Cartagena de Indias: Legacy of the Spanish Cooking in Colombia. p.100 & 130. Ediciones Gama, S.A.  on line at


  1. Siempre he querido ir a Cartagena de Indias, y la cocina se ve muy buena, me encantan los patacones y no tenía idea del nombre en inglés del róbalo, es un pescado que solía comer cuando era chica, voy a ver si lo encuentro aunque creo que nunca lo he visto por acá.

  2. Bueno, hay róbalos… y róbalos. El róbalo chileno es el “Patagonian blennie” (foto en y no es el mismo que el róbalo del Caribe (ni el róbalo de España). Google “róbalo pez” para encontrar fotos. No vas a encontrar el róbalo Chileno afuera de Patagonia. Pero el róbalo snook es bastante rico en la mesa. Se come mucho en México.



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