Mariana Velásquez was just 17 when she first came to the United States. An aspiring chef, her intent was to stay for a week or so to observe the American restaurant scene, then return to Bogotá for university. But, as the saying goes, plans change. “My dream took me to the kitchen of the Sierra Mar Restaurant in Big Sur, California where I was supposed to stay for three days, and ended up staying a year,” she says.
She learned a lot at Sierra Mar—how to cook at an award-winning restaurant, for starters. But, after one evening where she cooked eggs and potatoes at the same time in one pot (a common technique in Colombia, yet rarely done for fine-dining) Velásquez also realized something else: her home-country’s untapped culinary prowess. “Never stop doing it this way,” she recalls Sierra Mar’s head chef telling her.
Over 20 years later, she’s decided to share some of those recipes and techniques with her new cookbook, Colombiana. “My intent is to celebrate our food and share a bit of the traditions that make my country unique,” Velasquez says. Although Colombian cuisine is by no means monolithic—in fact, “one could say there are many Colombian cuisines due to the magnificent biodiversity of our country,” she explains—Colombiana does pay homage and educate its readers about the country’s delicious and wide-ranging cuisine that’s too often reduced to rice and beans. “Colombian food ranges from humble stews to elaborate soups, to candied tropical fruits and fermented drinks. One could write an entire book solely on traditional desserts or on foods that are wrapped in leaves (tamales, bollos and pasteles) and their preparations,” says Velasquez. A small sampling of recipes? Piña asada con almíbar de sauco (charred pineapple with elderberry syrup) mogollas chicharrónas (pork, orange, and coriander buns), espondjado de limón (lime mousse), and arroz atollado de pato (sticky duck rice with sausage and eggs). And it’s not just food: Velasquez shares a slew of hosting tips—like playlist suggestions, and how to stock an aperitivo bar—within its pages. The photography is meant to highlight Colombian artisans, from ceramicists to textile makers to fashion and jewelry designers. (Keen-eyed fashionistas may be able to spot a flowing Johanna Ortiz gown or two.)
“I hope this book serves as an introduction to not only Colombian food but to our warm and generous hosting style,” Velasquez says. As Colombiana is published, the country it honors faces a period of civil unrest—a fact not lost on Velásquez. “It’s even more important for us to find ways to connect on common ground—I really believe that food and culture has the power to do that.”
Below, a recipe for patillazo, a watermelon and lime punch inspired by Velásquez’s visit to the city of Barranquilla. There’s only four ingredients—one of which is ice—but its simplicity is part of its charm. “The flavors come together so seamlessly, making for a delightful midsummer drink,” Velásquez says.
24 cups watermelon chunks (1 medium watermelon)
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
6 cups ice
8 cups ice cold club soda
Place the watermelon, lime juice, and ice in a large pitcher. Using a wooden spoon, stir and partially muddle the watermelon. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Right before serving, top with the club soda and serve in ball glasses with a spoon.
From the book Colombiana by Mariana Velásquez Villegas. Copyright © 2021 by Mariana Velásquez Villegas. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.