A Colombian Meal in London
Finding ourselves in the Brixton Market, my wife and I decided to have lunch. This was the one afternoon we had to ourselves, two and a half weeks into our yearly three-week summer trip to visit the in-laws in London. We walked around a bit, not able to make up our minds. We had difficulty deciding between one of the overcrowded Jamaican establishments or an emptier and therefore more relaxed British or European food place. When you have kids, considerations about the general atmosphere of a restaurant are as important as considerations about the food. It matters how spacious the place is, how crowded it is, whether said crowd is family friendly or made up of dreary hipsters. It also matters how large and separated the tables are. You want enough space for your toddler to do containable and hopefully unnoticed damage with the salt and pepper shakers and the utensils he will not use. On this sunny Tuesday afternoon in late August, we were trekking lighter than usual. We had left our two year old back in Wimbledon with his Grand Ma’ “Gaggie.” Still, my wife was carrying the weight of our two month old in a papoose. We could be a bit pickier in terms of the food, but we still had to be cautious about our surroundings.
Instead of using this rare opportunity for some compromise and team work, we each went our own way, pretending to be open to each other’s culinary desires, while passive-aggressively trying to steer the other where each of us truly wanted to go. Or maybe I was the only one doing that. You can never be sure if the other is being truly kind or is operating on the same wave length of polite self-interest, even when that other is your wife and the mother of your two children. Then again, I am usually not completely sure on what levels I am operating myself. I could have sworn I wanted Jamaican jerked chicken. But then, all the places seemed too crowded, and throughout our walk even the places that didn’t seem crowded on the first pass, completely disappeared once we tried to relocate them. I promise, there were no Jamaican places to be had in Brixton after a while.
However, there were plenty of Latin restaurants. We saw two Mexican establishments, a crowded Peruvian joint, a mostly empty Colombian restaurant, and a couple of places that we couldn’t tell whether they were French or Latin American. I couldn’t face the prospect of finding out how Mexican food, one of my favorite cuisines, would fare when transplanted into the British culinary landscape. Throughout our winding, twisting, but ultimately circular walk, my eyes kept coming back to the Colombian restaurant, Restaurante Santafereña. How difficult could it be to keep Colombian food tasting good even in England?, I thought. Also, as a Dominican-American this is the closest I could come to having my parents’ food with my wife in the UK. I suggested the restaurant to my wife, but as a polite Brit she said, with her wonderful smile in full flash, that she would love to eat Colombian food, and kept us walking.
So in the sporting spirit of a good defense being the best offense or some such cliché, I accused my wife of secretly wanting to steer us to Thai food. Having what we consider the best Thai restaurant in the world not far from our neighborhood in Queens, New York, this accusation implies much more than may be evident to someone outside our marriage. She was not only discounting my desires as a guest in her country, but she was also betraying a large touchstone of our marital routine by daring to eat in a Thai restaurant other than Sri Pra Phai. “No,” she said innocently shaking her head, her short dark hair floating nicely from side to side, and her big green eyes opened in astonishment, “I love Colombian food.” She had spent a considerable amount of time in that country. I was not only questioning her honesty but impugning her self-image as an international traveler.
And that was it. We sat down outside the restaurant at a long table that comfortably accommodated four. A young waiter with general white Latin looks came over to us with menus. My wife straddled her chair as she does when she’s papooses a sleeping Conrad and we talked enthusiastically about the bi-lingual menu that featured a large selection of typical Colombian plates. Our pleasure at finding ourselves finally seated after about a forty-five minute walk allowed us not to notice that it took about half as long for the waiter to finally come back from the inside and take our orders. First, he asked us for our drinks. As a Latino, I am aware that sometimes Latinos in New York City get offended when people assume they can’t speak English. Then again, I am also aware that sometimes Latinos in New York City come up to random strangers who may or may not speak Spanish and start asking for directions and all kinds of information in Spanish. So I played it safe. While my wife ordered a Cerveza San Miguel in her perfect Edinburgh University Spanish, I ordered a Colombian soda unimaginatively called Colombiana in my new yawk English. Next, I ordered my rice with chicken while my wife ordered her bandeja paisa, a platter of rural Colombian dishes. Towards the end, when my wife remembered to order an arepa con queso, the waiter suddenly seemed not to understand her. He told her with what looked like a smile or a smirk, “Sorry, it’s easier if you talk to me in English. That way I can understand you better.” I looked back to my menu with surprise. My first reaction was that he didn’t know Spanish, that he wasn’t Latin American. He certainly spoke English with a foreign accent, but that accent was certainly not Colombian. When he left, I told my wife, “He’s not Colombian.” She agreed, pointing out that when she asked him in English what meats the bandeja paisa contained, he seemed baffled.
The incident kept gnawing at me. Was he a European student looking to earn money as a waiter in a Colombian restaurant, facing the challenge of often being spoken to in a third language he could hardly be expected to need in England, or was he some kind of a jerk, correcting my wife’s attempt to speak to him in Spanish? As our infrequent dealings with him accrued when he brought first the drinks, then the contentious appetizer, and finally the main course, I began to suspect he was a Spaniard. Who else a la French, I thought, would be so pretentious as to correct a non-native speaker for attempting to speak his language? While Spaniards in the United States usually speak to me and other Latinos in English as a way of deflecting any kinship, Spaniards I have met in the Dominican Republic have not been shy about correcting the way the natives of the country of which they are guests speak the language. This generalized view of Spaniards that they speak the real Spanish and the rampant racial complex of inferiority of mostly miscegenated Latin Americans explains why Latino groups tend to engage in tedious arguments about who speaks the next “purest Spanish,” as if a language was not meant to evolve since 1492, especially considering all the far flung places it has been transplanted to from its origins in the tiny kingdom of Castille. I wavered between thinking I should have said something to our waiter for his rude attitude towards my wife and convincing myself that caution was the better part of valor. The alternative could have been that instead of defending my wife’s linguistic honor and walking away with a heroic flare after a few choice words in Spanglish I maligned a powerless French or Italian student in the service industry. So I sat there sulking.
When I finally looked at my plate of rice and chicken, the promised red beans mentioned in the menu had turned into green peas, and the plural plantains had become one mildly tasty strip of sweet plantain. However, the promised chips where there a-plenty. Mock if you will the rut of stereotypical Latino eating, but marrying rice to beans is the most sensible thing to do with the Asian grain. I have never understood the starch overload of some Latin American cuisines, like that of Brazil, which combine rice with French fries. This is something always avoided in Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican plates, and usually kept to a minimum in Colombian food, but of course not in the land of fish and chips. Things turned from bad to worse, when I got my first spoonful of this arroz con pollo. It tasted nothing like the rice and chicken I am used to in New York City and in the Dominican Republic. The strangeness of the taste had nothing to do with the peas mixed into the rice and chicken, something I had never seen before, but something my palate was prepared for, thanks to my shocked eyes having forewarned my mouth. What nothing could prepare me for until the fully-loaded fork met my tongue was the seasoning. The chicken tasted of paprika. The plate had an overall Indian or Pakistani flavor to it.
I looked around in astonishment. I asked my wife to taste my meal. My wife, who has spent a lot of time in Latin America, having lived for stints in Colombia, Chile, and Peru, said it tasted like curry. She gave me some rice, beans, and a piece of steak from her bandeja, which she said tasted “alright.” The spoonful tasted inoffensively bland to me, like English pub food at its best. When I leaned a little bit back and to the right, I could see right into the kitchen of the small restaurant. The cooks, who I could slightly overhear, looked Latin American, which is normally a tricky guess to make in a city with a large Middle Eastern population, and seemed to be speaking in Spanish to our peculiar waiter. To be fair, he didn’t seem to be talking back much to them. Again, this could be attributed to his lack of knowledge of the language or his sense of superiority as a Spaniard.
By the end of our quick and mostly silent meal, our waiter had all but disappeared. Having waited what we considered an appropriate amount of time, I stood in front of the door and when I caught the eye of our attendant temporarily raised from the utensils he was organizing, I made the international sign for “check please” by pantomiming scribbles on my open left palm. He put his hand up in what I understood as a pantomime of “I’ll be there in a minute,” but might have easily meant “I never want to see you again.” After about twenty minutes, a diminutive, elderly brown lady who we had seen before coming in and out of the restaurant and had assumed to be the owner of the establishment came up to our table with our bill. “Do you take credit cards?,” I asked. “No, mi amor,” she replied in Spanish. “Cash, solamente.” So my wife paid the bill of ₤22.50.
One of the more interesting and more commented features of Globalism is how it promotes mass-migration and mass-contact between divergent groups while ironically leading to greater provincialism. Here were Peruvians, Mexicans, Colombians, and other South Americans I had seen and overheard while walking through Brixton ferociously attempting to establish and hold on to a niche space for their culture while failing miserably at it. You can have the knowledge and will to make Latin American food in a far off country, but if there aren’t enough Latinos for a wholesale market of Latin American ingredients and spices to thrive, you will end up with what we got, an Indo-Anglicized Colombian lunch. When I complain about anything related to her country, my mother-in-law usually sighs and says in her Oxford-Don accent, “When in England.” This is her way to steer me away from what she sees as my own American provincialism and into a greater acceptance of English ways. Well, that afternoon she would have been proud of how easily I could maneuver in and out of British ways three years into my marriage. Walking slightly behind my wife, I picked up the two pounds she had left for a tip and handed it back to her.
Carlos Hiraldo was born and raised in New York City. He is the author of the books Segregated Miscegenation and Machu Picchu Me along with several articles and poems. He is currently a professor of English at CUNY, living in Astoria, New York with his family.