Cooking Coconut Rice in Cartagena (and what we learned)

I’m on a trip away from New York, as many are this week. We come from a fast culture. I shove breakfast down my gullet as I run for the bus and apply mascara at the same time. But here in sleepy Cartagena, nestled on the northernmost coast of South America, the heat forces everyone to slow down. I’m here with two members from my women’s initiative, one of whom picked a cooking class for the group to do. What we learned from cooking coconut rice in Cartagena.

The weather in Cartagena is a scorching 90 degrees daily. It’s merciless and unrelenting in the mid-day sun. Shadows from the low buildings provide little respite. We watched the sun set over the Caribbean from the rooftop of our villa and then ambled down the rambly sidewalks, barely big enough for one person’s passage, to a restaurant called Oriegenes.  Assistant Chef Jose was all smiles. We were self conscious, as we were a few minutes late and sweating already. He welcomed us with a “Cordilleras Mestiza,” a beer sold in an ectoplasm green glass bottle and typical to the Cartagena suburbs. It was bitter to the taste. Each of us got an apron and a hair net for good measure.

The first thing we set about making was the coconut rice. I volunteered to strike the hairy brown shell of the coconut with a sturdy bar of oak to crack the nut. I struck it firmly until a white seam appeared. The kids squeezed the coconut pieces until the milk screamed out into a steel bowl. Cesar deposited it in a pan on the stove to coagulate. Then we began peeling the skins off the plantains to make “Patacones.” We each had flat 9-inch boards to squish each plantain into pancake-sized circles. We dropped the cakes into sunflower oil, which cooks the banana insides slower, dipping each into a water of salt and fragrant garlic just before.

The most exciting part of the evening was smearing the garlic, salt, oregano, olive oil, and white wine on the red snapper, freshly caught from the day. This created a dish enjoyed by Cesar and Jose’s ancestors called “Mojarra Roja Al Papillon.”

We come from a fast culture in New York. I shove breakfast down my gullet as I run for the bus and apply mascara at the same time. But here in sleepy Cartagena, the heat forces everyone to slow down. The sun bakes the cement streets scalding. Cesar and Jose, generous with their patience and their smiles, taught us how to be deliberate and joyful when creating something to eat. The two chefs encouraged us to smell and taste everything. Spanish music played in the background, and members of the group broke into spontaneous Spanish salsa from time to time. I’ve been known to always be so serious. This evening in the kitchen reminded us that it’s also important to have fun. Take your time. It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s also important to work together. Not everything is going to work out the way you want with food, but prepare a plan of attack before starting.

As the third hour approached and sleep was calling, we stayed past our tired. The kids were giddy and chirpy from all their cooking exploits. We started eating at 10:30pm, 11:30pm New York time. The fish was fresh and sumptuous from the juices, baked in tin foil. The coconut rice was brown and sweet from boiling in the sugar cane. Worth every bite.

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