Cooking With Colombian Beans

There are endless variations on frijoles, and each family has its own distinctive recipe

Visitors and artists interact under the guadua (bamboo) tents in the Colombia program area.
Visitors and artists interact under the guadua (bamboo) tents in the Colombia program area. Photo by Francisco Guerra/Smithsonian Institution

A woman named Yolanda, who lives in Retiro, Colombia, a small town outside of Medellín, runs a roadside restaurant called “Mi Jardín,” or “My Garden,” that caters to local workers, tourists and anybody else who happens to be passing by. She learned what she knows from her mother and has been cooking for more than 30 years.

Yesterday, Yolanda was standing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., teaching Americans how to make frijoles.

Colombia is one of three featured themes at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival (the others are the Peace Corps and rhythm and blues music), and volunteers are offering cooking demonstrations every day from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (See our Around the Mall blog for full coverage of the festival and daily schedules.) I headed out in the blazing hot July sun yesterday to learn a little bit about traditional Colombian cuisine.

Frijoles, or red beans, are one of the most common foods in Colombia, and especially Antioquia, the department (the Colombian equivalent of a U.S. state) where Yolanda lives, in the coffee-growing region in the northwest of the country. People from this area eat frijoles nearly every day, she said, either blended into a soup, as a side dish, or as part of a larger main dish.

Antioquia used to be populated mainly by laborers who spent their days in the fields. They needed something cheap, filling and full of energy and protein to keep them going throughout the day. Hence, frijoles.

Today, there are endless variations on the dish, and each family has its own distinctive frijoles recipe. Yolanda’s mother made them with carrots and potatoes, so that’s what she does, too. Other ingredients include yucca and plantains, and most variations contain an adobo-like mixture composed of tomato, onion, garlic, pepper and oil. On a holiday, Yolanda said, she goes through about nine pounds of beans at her restaurant.

Speaking in Spanish, Yolanda also told me a little about other traditional dishes, including bandeja paisa, a large plate filled with a variety of foods, often including frijoles. At her restaurant, Yolanda adds rice, avocado, egg, sausage, salad, plantain and fried pork skin to the plate. Empanadas and arepas, a kind of cornmeal cake, are also popular.

Another traditional option is sancocho, a soup made with varying ingredients, but that Yolanda makes with broth, chicken, yucca and potatoes. It’s typical for Colombian families to make sancocho during a “paseo de olla”—literally, a walk with a pot. A paseo de olla is kind of a like an extended picnic, where a group of family and friends takes everything they need to make sancocho, from a hen to the pot itself, to a river. There, they spend the day swimming, cooking and enjoying one another’s company.

“You go with all your family and all your friends, you’re drinking all day, and at the end of the day you have the sancocho,” Yolanda said. “It’s beautiful.”

I’ll say so.

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