Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Calories, Calles and Carreras of Bogota

Written by Adam
One fascinating aspect of walking the streets of Bogota, Colombia is the incredible variety of snack foods and general merchandise that are easily available from earnest street vendors.  There are thousands of industrious people living in Bogota who have staked a claim to a busy street corner to park a pushcart on.  Others utilize the street-level alcoves of large buildings.  I have yet to see a single vending machine anywhere in the city.

These highly-entrepreneurial street vendors provide goods and services on the smallest scale, mainly marketing their wares and efforts to pedestrians just passing by.  Offerings include fresh fruit and drinks, cell phone chargers and cases, avocados, chewing gum, household tools, books, chocolates and candies of every conceivable variety - even small battery powered dogs that bark non-ferociously.  And, it must be noted, there are far more people who are out hustling to generate their own source of income by being street vendors in Bogota than there are panhandling on the sidewalk.

From the farm to the streets of Bogota - fresh tropical fruit comes direct to the consumer with minimal overhead and packaging.
Also readily available are plenty of traditional Colombian culinary favorites to eat - very small portions that are cooked on the tiniest of grills while you wait.  Chorizo and arepas are among the most popular fast food offerings, along with dessert items of endless varieties.  This is a country that seemingly values convenience and effortlessly provides tasty food for those on the go in the bustling city.
A young female entrepreneur in Bogota who sells traditional obleas - thin dessert wafers with your choice of several sweet fillings.  
I have also noticed that potato chips come in many unusual flavors here in Colombia; some of them border on the totally surprising.  I thought that it might be an interesting exercise to devise an informal taste test of some of the more unusual flavor combinations available on the street and then offer my amateur opinion as to their appeal to a North American.  The translations of the description of the contents of the bags are at best approximations - my apologies to all of the fine professors of linguistics teaching here in Bogota. The best candidates for this taste test were thus determined (very unscientifically) to be:
The contenders for the taste test, all purchased from street vendors.

All Rich Again Creole Potato Chicharron Ripe Banana Yucca Chips

Seems like the manufacturer got a great deal on all of these ingredients and thus decided to marry them all together at the processing plant!  Sure saves lots of money on all those different bags.  Especially good idea: using ripe bananas.


Big surprise waiting in the bag!  All those different flavors are encapsulated within individual chips - it’s an assortment!  Now the trick is to discern by taste which one is which.  Just had the chicharron flavored chip.  No discernible smell, but a strong “bacony” aftertaste is present, leading to an unmistakable conclusion and identification.  The ripe banana chip has the expected essence of a banana, but with a latent peachy undertone.  Reminder:  I just had a pork flavored chip followed by a banana chip - quite unnatural in nature, I am sure!  The yucca chip is inadvertently quite artistic: put it up to a bright light and you see the big bang theory of the creation of the universe illustrated by a sliced tuber!  The yucca chip is mild and unremarkable - no hand of God is present here.  I was at first eating the chips individually, but now the flavors are all coming together in a spectacular cavalcade and I can only think of one thing:  Where did I leave my toothbrush?  

Fries with Skins Featuring Pork Rib Flavor

Imagine a whole potato rubbed up against a slab of juicy pork ribs.  Just leave the skin on, slice thinly, and then make into a chip!  Pork chip, not pork chop - for the true gourmet!


I opened the bag and was immediately hit by a massive air blast of bacon that would easily show up on a weather map.  You can actually see a very thin band of potato skin on the edge of each thinly-sliced chip.  By far the saltiest chip, but in a good way.  Very deep and intense pork flavor, but accomplished without the smoke of a huge wood fire cooking massive chunks of pork impaled on thick metal rods typical of the South American meat grilling tradition.  The only question left unanswered is where’s the applesauce for dipping?  

Chicken Flavored Potato Chip

Maybe the most tame combination used to produce a chip: a tuber and a barnyard bird (having in common only their eyes).  But, the graphics on the bag prominently highlight the drumstick, probably an attempt to capture the marching band market.  The packaging appeals subliminally to amputees as well, I suppose.


At first, the chip tastes just like the broth of a stewed chicken, but of course missing the liquid aspect.  The flavor is somewhat exaggerated, truth be told.  No distinct scent of chicken was detected emanating from the open bag, though.  The flavor tends to get muddier as you consume more chips.  After the bag is empty you get an annoying salty-sour aftertaste in your mouth and sinuses.  Detection of chicken essence in your sinuses is going a wee bit too far for my taste.  Later on, there is a strangely onion-like flavor sensation right above the palate!  Next stop: the brain!         

Tomato Flavored Wavy Potato Chip

Wavy obviously describes the shape of the chip; thus it could have easily been named “Ondulado y Jugosa” - Wavy and Juicy!  Finally, the cure for scurvy comes in a bag!  For the sailors in the Colombian Navy, it appears that their chip has finally come in!


Just last week, it was announced by the H.J. Heinz Company that a limited edition variety condiment, "Heinz Tomato Ketchup blended with Real Jalapenos", will soon be available during the Christmas holidays.  With that drib and drab of breaking food news, now let’s try this bag of tomato flavored potato chips and see what transpires.  First thought: green tomatoes.  Second thought - for our North American blog readers - Spaghetti-o's!  Uh, not a good thing.  A sugary flavor efficiently dominates the expected tomato flavor note.  Funny phenomenon:  when consumed and chewed quickly there is no discernible flavor at all, but why would this chip ever want to be savored slowly?  But, perhaps if you dipped them in a little ketchup blended with real jalapenos...be sure to have plenty of napkins on hand - you’re gonna need them.

Grilled Chicken Flavored Potato Chip That Seems Red

Perhaps best appeals to the market demographic that includes the color-blind, the somewhat unsure, and those still fearful of possible Communists being among them.


Okay, we are soon going to find out if this chip can penetrate the cranium and thus become fully integrated into the central nervous system.  First surprise upon opening the bag:  the chips are not the slightest bit red.  The chicken flavor is much more fatty, and the chip is pretty salty combined with a slight taste of vinegar.  A benign flavor is your reward, and it is certainly not overpowering.   

Taste Test - The Final Verdict:  

Not all the chips were competitive.  The weakest of the five was easily the tomato flavored chip.  It was not very good - sour, and obviously processed.  The food chemists failed to produce a flavor profile that was subtle enough to fool the consumer into thinking that yes, maybe this flavor originated in a verdant field somewhere.  It was just test-tube gardening all the way - rows of white coats and a presumably incompetent taste panel - resulting in a mediocre potato chip devised by a committee.  Simply - the worst.

Maybe it was the idea of creating a vegetarian chip that made all the difference, in this example highly negative.  Can a more genuine flavor and momentary taste pleasure come from another engineered source?  In the case of this taste test, I think that it can.

Grilled meat still has a firm hold on humanity, and to transfer that essence to a fragile potato chip stands among mankind’s greatest culinary achievements.  In our modern age we do not have to organize the hunt and then proceed to the messy butchering process to experience the genesis of a truly primal taste profile that includes the lowly potato.  

In our contemporary world, spears and firearms utilized by a hungry mob during the hunt are somehow seen as barbaric, and at best a catalyst to fuel our most ancient predatory urges.  Conversely, by simply opening a bag we can at least subliminally harken back to the idea of tracking down (and cooking) that elusive wild boar, whose tusks were fully capable of uprooting the very tomato plants that we somehow don’t need to make our very best flavored potato chip.

The eventual winner.

In this taste test, we can thus confidently declare that the immutable laws of nature suggest that the best potato chip was flavored with the essence of a pig roasting on an open spit.  Fries with Skins Featuring Pork Rib Flavor makes the hunt (conducted entirely without any of the risk) seem all the more worthwhile, and is hereby declared the winner by a very wide margin.   The only squeal that you hear should be rooted in taste pleasure - your own.  The wild pig should thus be at all times a little bit nervous about being bagged from this taste test forward.    


David in SF said...

I looked at Google maps and wasn't able to located that blast of aroma mentioned, but I did find myself chuckling at the image, so that's a fair trade!
Beware The Chip- if they are anything near as addicting as Doritos, flee while you may...

Observers of Life said...

Doritos, burritos...they're all pretty good! Thanks for the comments! Score some asap!