Comida

 

 

Latin America is not generally renowned for its great cuisine. There are exceptions: fantastic steaks in Argentina for example, and the excellent chilli dishes that make travel in Mexico such a pleasure. But, throughout much of Latin American, people eat because it is necessary. Only the privileged can afford to eat for enjoyment. There are a few famous Latin specialities that demand to be tried…if only once. In the deserts of northern Peru, for example, they make up for a lack of fresh fish with lizard ceviche and in Colombia the giant fried ants are surprisingly tasty: a bit like beef flavoured planters peanuts (except you have to pick the legs out from between your teeth).


In poorer countries like Bolivia and Ecuador the food is basic in the extreme. The famous guinea pig is a delicacy that is saved only for special occasions but the layer of elasticated fat that you have to chew through to get at the few shreds of meat make it hardly worth it. Seco de chivo (‘dry’ goat with rice) is a slight improvement on caldos de chivo (goat soup or stew) since it is often the unrecognisable parts of the goat that end up in the stew. A last resort is caldos de patas – literally ‘hoof soup’ – in which an entire cow hoof is served up in what usually amounts to nothing more than greasy water.


Plantains are a good bulk staple in much of Latin America. Often they are served pounded flat and fried as ‘patacones’ but they are delicious when they are left to ripen and sweeten, then fried as platanos maduros fritos (mature, fried bananas). In Costa Rica it is hard to avoid gallo pinto. ‘Speckled cock’ is more appealing than it sounds but is actually just rice mixed with refried beans. It is hard to find a really enticing local delicacy in Costa Rica. Occasionally poached (no pun intended) protected marine turtle eggs are found for sale in local markets – an aphrodisiac apparently when drunk raw with rum – but thankfully bush meat is not often available. 

 

In Panama though hunting is pretty much ubiquitous in rural areas and almost everything is considered edible. I once made a three-week trek through mostly uncharted rainforest it was pretty much crucial that we shoot meat for the pot. On various days paca (like a giant jungle rat) and armadillo were on the menu but we had to work hard to convince our guides that, under no circumstances, were they ever to shoot a jaguar. They worked almost as hard to convince us that jaguar meat is delicious. They were from the Kuna indigenous group – the only people I have ever heard of anywhere in the world who regularly eat the meat of big cats.


In the big cities you will never come across bush meat and there are international restaurants of even the highest standard (for a price). Fast-food places are popular among young ‘Americanised’ Latinos. Dominoes Pizzas are a favourite in Nicaragua where word has it they even funded the construction of the national cathedral! And in Guatemala teenagers would rather blow a relative fortune in McDonalds or Taco Bell than to be seen eating relatively succulent local meat at the local comedores.


There is much that I miss when I cross the border from Latin America to Mexico…but, after three months on the road from Panama, it is good to be in the land of chilli con carne, fajitas and tequila!