Beautiful Soup

By: Jonathan Milder

Returned from two weeks in Bogota, Colombia, with mind boggled by a country at once richer (culturally, agriculturally, ecologically) and more immiserated (4.3 million internally displaced persons, approx 10% of the population) than anything I had imagined.

As home to 10% of the world's biodiversity and encompassing nearly every imaginable ecosystem--from the tropical rainforests, grasslands, alpine forests, deserts, temperate zones and on and on--Colombian cooking draws from a vast larder, and has evolved a fascinating array of distinct regional variations.

During my two weeks I was only able to sample the tiniest fraction of the country's culinary riches, but I did bring back an insatiable craving for ajiaco santafereño, a soup of which Bogotanos are justly proud, and which must rival the hat and the scarf in providing warmth to the residents of chilly, drizzly Bogota.

Of course, to call ajiaco santafereño a soup is a bit misleading. And to call it a potato soup seems almost disrespectful. Ajiaco comes to the table as a soup, a yellow broth, full of shredded chicken, chunks of potato and corn. But it leaves as the meal itself. Served in black clay bowls, the soup is accompanied by separate bowls of heavy cream, capers and avocado, which are added according to the eater's preference and which soon bind the soup into a sludgy, filling, and delicious mass.

I imagine it's well worth attempting at home, but authentic ajiaco santafereño is near impossible to find outside of Colombia, depending as it does on 3 native potato varieties--good luck finding them--and, crucially, the herb guasca--good luck finding that too--which gives the soup its unique flavor, one that reminds me strongly of artichokes. I imagine one could substitute cilantro for guasca and produce a perfectly delicious soup, but it would be hard to mistake for the real thing.

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