travelers-talesBy Darrin DuFord

For one well-traveled Colombian chef, the culinary intersection of country and city is served with a side of 80s arena rock and a phantom mouthful of water hyacinth.

The structure I’d just entered loosely counted as a building—part indoor, part outdoor, depending on how much light pierced the gaps in the zinc roofing. Several turns later, a concrete ceiling appeared with its jumble of electrical mains dangling from beams. The inner sanctum, perhaps. I was inside the bowels of Cartagena’s Bazurto Market, following the steps of Charlie Otero, co-owner and chef of the restaurant La Comunión.

He was searching for a couple kilograms of an ingredient unavailable anywhere else in the city, one known locally as ponche, or more formally as the capybara, the world’s largest rodent.

The capybaras that graze around the lowland rivers of northwestern Colombia can grow to the length of a German shepherd with the stocky build of a beaver. With a liberal amount of imagination, an observer may see how they resemble guinea pigs, their close cousins, in their similarly thick snouts.

Barbecued by South America’s First Nations since long before Europeans arrived, ponche is a traditional meat in Colombia’s coastal Caribbean departments of Bolívar, Sucre, and Cordoba. Colombian cuisine is often noted for such dishes as egg-filled arepas, parrilla-grilled steak, and carimañolas—fried ovals of cassava dough filled with beef, common in Cartagena’s active street food repertoire. But I wanted to experience one of the original flavors of South America in the context of present-day Colombia.

And I had found the right chef for the mission. When I’d contacted the cofounder of tour company Cartagena Connections, Kristy Ellis, who seemed to know every restaurant owner in the city, she immediately referred me to Otero. A native of Cartagena, Otero has been enjoying ponche and other wild meats since he was a child. I was curious as to how ponche, usually prepared in rural areas and never having appeared before on his menu, would stand next to Otero’s modern creations, such as butifarra sausage ceviche with green mango puree, and his pumpkin and chontaduro (peach palm) soup with toasted hazelnuts.

I had to keep up with Otero’s hurried pace, lest I lose him behind slabs of deboned meat draped over metal bars, separating stalls like privacy curtains. On a counter between a lineup of chicken carcasses and a pile of husky, dinosaur-esque bones guarded by a stray dog, Otero found his bounty. A butcher in a stylish polo shirt (the current fashion rage for retailers at the Bazurto) brought out a quarter carcass, from which he chopped off the leg, the part Otero had desired.

As Otero had predicted, the ponche had been lightly smoked to keep it from spoiling, as finding fresh ponche meat at the market is difficult. The butchers only sell ponche meat obtained from hunters. While capybaras are bred and raised on farms in neighboring countries such as Brazil, no such farms can legally exist yet in Colombia, despite the meat’s steady demand.

Having exited under the last overhang of zinc roofing, we looked for a taxi to head back to the walled city center, several miles to the west, where tourists gently jostle on horse carriages and street musicians provide rhythm for passing grocery shoppers. But the walled city is ostensibly ponche-free. You have to roll your own, which was what Otero was literally planning to do.

A few years before, in Guyana, where capybara goes by the festively percussive name watrash, I had failed to find the meat in open-air restaurants that advertised it on their menus, their wait staffs regretfully informing me that they were sold out. A Guyanese cabbie I had befriended further teased my curiosity by characterizing the animal with the riddle-like description “it lives on land, but also in water,” owing to the rodent’s black webbed feet it uses to paddle around marshes and walk on riverbanks.

As legend has it, during the 18th century, the meat’s popularity in neighboring Venezuela encouraged local power-brokers from the Catholic Church to trick the Vatican into classifying the rodent as fish—its part-time aquatic habitat apparently providing sufficient evidence that the animal was closer to a trout than a pig.

If you are surprised by the demand for capybara in South America, keep in mind that capybara is about as far from a garbage-grazing rat as a chicken is from a vulture. A healthier choice of protein than factory-farm meats, the capybara, a vegetarian, grazes on grass and aquatic plants, and since the only capybara meat sold at the market is brought in by hunters, the meat contains no antibiotics or growth hormones. There is no such thing as mad capybara disease.

The creeping destruction of the rodents’ habitat is the most noticeable impact humanity has had on capybara. Humans, however, are also responsible for another maneuver that disrespects the animal: nomenclature. Several scientists have recently decided that the population of capybara west of the Andes is a separate capybara species from the population on the other side, owing to the former’s smaller average size. Currently, not all scientists agree. But soon, if a consensus is reached, ponche may be officially demoted, losing its claim to the title of world’s largest rodent—the Pluto of the tropical animal world.

~ ~ ~

Otero grabbed my sombrero vueltiao—a striped, wide-brimmed hat popular in nearby coastal departments—and placed it upside down on the bar. We were sitting across from one another at La Comunión, on the first floor of a renovated building inside the city’s turreted wall. “Let’s suppose that this hat is a pot,” he began, endeavoring to explain where ponche fits into Colombian cuisine.

“There were the indigenous people, then after, the colonial Spanish, and their ingredients are put into the pot.” He spoke with words and eyebrows and hands. Otero is a young 42 years old, chest buttons of his plaid shirt open, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had the day-old stubble and spellbinding stare of a telenovela charmer. “And after them, the Africans. Then the Arabs arrived, who brought their spices, their eggplant. They began to transform the food. That is Colombian cuisine.”

Over an electrified Colombian cumbia rhythm from a YouTube playlist churning from a laptop behind the bar, he continued. “Ponche is part of the first contribution to the pot.”

His taste for ponche began when his parents and grandparents brought him on an outing to a small town in the Cordoba department. Game meats—and especially edible rodents—were nothing new to his family. “My grandmother declared that guartinaja is the best,” he said. Guartinaja is the Colombian word for the spotted, cat-sized rodent of Central and South America, also known as paca, whose rich loins are so desirable that neighboring Panama has enacted laws forbidding the hunting of the species to maintain its population. “They were making ponche when I was eight years old. And I enjoyed it. It’s rare that kids like exotic meats.”

Such early experiences ignited his interest in cooking. Like Colombian cuisine itself, Otero’s creations reflect a mixture of influences. After he learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother, he worked in restaurants in Germany, and then traveled around Colombia to learn the country’s regional cuisines, eventually working at several restaurants in Bogota. “Traveling is the best way to learn,” he said slowly, as if to savor the words as they passed over his lips.

~ ~ ~

“Good vibrations!” crooned Otero as he grabbed a pair of tongs. We were in La Comunión’s tight-quarters kitchen. He had just rolled up the ponche leg, together with stalks of oregano and basil, inside a shawl of paddle-shaped bijao leaves, forming what looked like an enormous reefer. “I’m going to smoke the piece,” he stated.

That is to say, he was going to smoke it on a hot plancha. He began turning the bundle with the tongs, the leaves crisping and turning the beige shade of a cigar wrapper, spinning out aromas: wood, sweet smoke, ripe tropical foliage. He decided that this first step in the preparation was the most suitable because “this is as it is done in the countryside.”

After removing the leg and stewing it in a light broth of sweet peppers, garlic, and onions, he shredded the meat with a fork and returned the mixture to the pot. He began paying homage to Colombia’s two coastlines by creating two different preparations. He scooped out part of the mixture as the filling for carimañolas. Ponche atlantico.

Meanwhile, he added zinfandel, cumin, and culantro—a jagged-leafed spice, popular on the Pacific side, similar to cilantro but bolder and funkier —to the remainder in the pot. Ponche pacifico.

“It’s the final countdown!” Otero shouted, swapping out the bubbly 60s of the Beach Boys for the mulleted glam of 80s arena rock. As he revealed the mélange of his musical tastes, he also employed techniques reflecting the breadth of his culinary influences. He plated the ponche pacifico with a molded disk of cinnamon rice, drops of chontaduro puree in increasing size, and an elongated comma of deep ochre achiote sauce, incorporating the colorful, geometric sophistication his patrons expect.

Taking in the colors of the plate, I said, “That looks al pelo,” borrowing a phrase that means great or perfect in Colombia. Literally, it means “to the hair,” perhaps indicating, I imagined, that every part of someone is pleased, even out to his or her hair.

I wondered if his ponche creations would expose a clash of culture: traditional cooking in el campo versus urban, worldly complexity. I began with the ponche atlantico, which reinterpreted an inexpensive street snack as a glamorous appetizer. With a texture reminiscent of pulled pork, the stewed ponche revealed itself as a vibrant juice-bomb, the best kind of finger food, and one that was delightfully trouble-free to eat when I sat down over a plate instead of standing over my shoes. Yet I still could imagine these all-Colombian creations on the streets, wrapped in napkins, as long as customers remember to spread their legs while biting into them.

The oversized quenelle of the ponche pacifico provided a richness punctuated by the low, background ring of the cumin. The flavor of the ponche itself, while cleaner than pork, somehow simultaneously rippled with wild notes. A subtle, vegetal sweetness. Then, for a moment, I somehow imagined I was browsing the animal’s memories—a brief flash of savannah humidity at a river’s edge, a mouthful of water hyacinth. Then the flash was gone, and the drum machine-driven cumbia mix from the bar returned to my ears.

Several restaurants in other Colombian cities, such as Bogota, host barbecue joints and open-air restaurants that serve capybara. But I considered how Otero’s creation, bringing this meat into a fine dining environment, is rare. Few rodents star in such a highbrow setting, excepting a few headless, jointed guinea pigs in upscale restaurants in Cuzco, dormice goulash in Istria, and perhaps the on-the-loose Basil the rat from the 1970s British comedy series Fawlty Towers.

A clash of culture? An experiment gone too far? Is the world’s largest rodent ready for air-conditioned, linen napkin dining on a footsie-filled date night?

Chef Otero’s ponche had, in my mind, summoned many descriptions. Risky. Unexpected. But one description, perhaps settling all questions at once, rose above the others: al pelo.

Darrin DuFord is arguably the only connoisseur of both wine and jungle rodent. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. He has written for BBC Travel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vice, Roads & Kingdoms, and Tales To Go, among others. His work appears in the anthologies Stories of Music Volume 1, Adventures of a Lifetime: Travel Tales from Around the World, and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11.