A day in the Life

I've eaten at hundreds- maybe even thousands of food stands in Asia and beyond. I love the experience of walking right up to somebody, watching them prepare your food and enjoying their creation while engaging in friendly banter. During these moments, I'm in my element. While I'd become buddies with more than a handful of vendors in Vietnam, I never actually followed them to witness their daily preparation process from start to finish. A damn shame that is. I expect more from myself.

It was another quiet evening in Tolú, a small fishing town on the northern Colombian coast that attracts a decent amount of domestic tourists from Medellín and around. The beaches are unspectacular, and there's really not too much to see or do besides take a boat tour of the surrounding islands. Did that. Now I'm hungry again.

In the center of town I stumbled across a cart selling what looked like my beloved carimañolas; yucca root fritters stuffed with meat or cheese. They're a costeño specialty, meaning you see them a lot more in the northern coastal areas of Colombia. More importantly they're utterly spectacular once inside your mouth, so anytime I came across these little golden fried bundles of pleasure I made a point to sample.

Typical shredded carrot and beef mixture for empanadas & carimañolas.

In my rudimentary (yet emerging) Spanish I took a crack at asking this vendor how he prepared his carimañolas. After a puzzled look that read "Why are you so curious gringo?", the gentle vendor of few words could sense my interest in the operation at hand. I was winning him over.

He told me if I wanted to learn how to make them I should come to his house the next day. Easy enough. I had plans to continue north the following day, but my trip itinerary was flexible to say the least (read: nothing to do, nowhere to be for 25 days), so I weighed my options internally...

*Bus ride up north to a large city to hang out with whites oooorrr a day spent pushing yucca root though a meat grinder and slanging fritters streetside with my new costeño amigo? No contest! Sign me up!*

He penned his name & address down on the world's thinnest one ply napkin, normally used for absorbing excessive empanada grease.

Playa Hermosa'

Is this where you live?


Do you have an address or street for me?


How will I find you?

They know me.

Aight. Uno mas empanada for the road please.

- - -

Corner store, where children enjoy the expansive ice cream selection. I was sent here on assignment to purchase some queso costeño

- - -

The next morning I flip-flopped to the town's central square (a park with three old men sitting under a tree) and hailed down a motorbike taxi.

"Playa Hermosa, a la casa de Roque. Sabes?"

"Si Siiiiiii!"

I'm no stranger to the overeager mototaxi man. 'Nam cut my teeth in that respect.

Either Roque was right about everyone knowing him or this mototaxi driver just wanted my business or Roque was a gangster kingpin who secretly lured unsuspected Carimañola-curious whities to his house where he held them for ransom. Either way I was on my way out of town on this dinky dirt road, eagerly anticipating my upcoming deep fried cassava tot tutorial.

Ten minutes later we pull up to what looks like a tool shed with a corrugated aluminum roof. Is this a bathroom break?

Oh wait there's my main man Roque! He ain't lying! The kid's the king of Tolú!

I thanked the taxi driver for his services and made my way inside the house, where his wife was busy putting together Empanadas & Jugos Naturales for the afternoon.

Time to learn!

Making a Carimañolas is a bit time intensive but very straight forward, as with most Colombia dishes. Firstly, peeled yucca root is boiled until just tender- but not mushy. After that it's left to cool completely (Roque stressed this step repeatedly)...

...ground up through a molido (meat grinder also used to grind corn for Arepas)...

...The resulting 'dough' is kneaded together to form a lump free, homogenous mixture. A bit of agua may be added if the yucca is too dry. Grab a small piece off, flatten it your hands to about the thickness of a pupusa and stuff it with meat or cheese, then roll to seal. 

It's now ready for the deep fat treatment!

I had a swell ole' time playing sidekick to Roque that evening. We talked, drank ice cold carrot juice, gawked at the pretty girls in short shorts and ate some of the best empandas and carimañolas the coast had to offer. He even let me hold down the fort for a few minutes when he left to buy more cooking oil! By 7 P.M. or so Roque had completely sold out, so it was time for him to return home for dinner with his family. We parted ways and I wished him good luck. The next evening I found myself staying at a tourist hostel in Santa Marta surrounded by mammoth backpacks and conversations of travel conquests in languages I couldn't understand. I felt awkwardly out of place. In my mind, I was still in Tolú

Roque's wife and youngest child.

Roque suffers from "Medio Polio", which leaves one side of his body paralyzed. Loosing your ability to walk can't be easy for anyone, especially a street vendor with three mouths to feed. I admire and respect this guy's diligence and dedication to his family. He's the type of person you wish the best for. Days like the one I had with Roque are the reason I look forward to the next stamp in my passport.

Stay Genuine.

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