After spending several years in Colombia, Tracey Armitage moved to New Orleans and started the Colombian-inspired pop-up La Monita (www.facebook.com/lamonitapopup) this fall. She's been popping up at The Tchoup Yard, Aline Street Beer Garden and Hollygrove Market and plans to expand the operation next year. Armitage spoke with Gambit about the South American cuisine.
How did you get interested in Colombian food?
Armitage: I lived in Colombia for the past two years. From 2014 till this past Christmas I was living in Bogota, basically just living out the dream of living in Latin America. I've always worked in the food industry ... and I ended up at a fair-trade coffee company there. While I was there, I needed a little side hustle, because you don't really make a lot of money when you're making pesos. So I started doing some baking, making American-style pastries, which were kind of a novelty there. It got me thinking about making Colombian food when I got back to the states. I had never really had Colombian food before moving there, and I felt that it was a really underrepresented part of Latin cuisine and I was really impressed with the variety. There are a lot of different cuisines that vary by region. So now I try to share what I experienced there.
The name of the pop-up is La Monita, which is Colombian slang for a blonde person. I try to make as much as possible with local ingredients, but there are ingredients that are hard to get. I tend to think that Colombian food isn't really so crazy and gourmet but is more about fresh preparations and the combination of flavors and ingredients.
Who taught you how to cook the cuisine?
A: I'm pretty much self-taught and picked up things along the way working in different food industry jobs throughout the years. While I was in Colombia, I made it my mission to talk to as many people as I could, or I would try to find my way into a situation where I could jump into the kitchen with someone. I would try to talk to any grandma, any older woman really, because they were the ones that have all the secrets. I pretty much tried to be a sponge to listen and learn wherever I could.
What Colombian dishes do we need to know about?
A: There's a heavy use of corn there and the arepas, which are like corn cheese cakes, are like the tortilla of Colombia. It's the staple of Colombian food and it's the thing they have with every meal. It's kind of like cheese grits in a cake format. Every region has its own recipe for them. The ones from Medellin tend to be made with white corn and they don't have a lot of cheese in them, and they tend to be flatter.
On the coast, they have one called arepa con huevo that's fried with a whole egg on the inside. So there are a lot of variations, but the basis is the cornmeal for the batter and then different toppings (and fillings). I've been doing a lot of different toppings. I've been doing a pulled pork version which I make with a tomato and cumin sauce. I always try to do a vegetarian one and I did a pumpkin one with coconut — they use a lot of coconut there, too.
Another one of my favorite dishes is patacones, which are fried green plantains. Those are more typical of the coast, so I've been making those with a ceviche or shrimp using all local (seafood). Since it's a mountainous country, there are regions that aren't all tropical. There is a typical chicken stew that comes with yuca and plantains called sancocho, and there are a lot of dishes with beans as well. There's a dish called frijolada that's kind of like a red beans and rice dish.