Ask any paisa (native of the Antioquia region) what food defines their region, and you’re more than likely to hear the word “chicharrón”. Unlike the French classic Crème brûlée whose name is naturally inviting, the sound of chicharrón seems to conjure up images of some obscure animal part that one would only eat as part of a challenge on Fear Factor. Well friends, this is not completely true. In Colombia, chicharrón is deep-fried pork belly. I like to think of it as the perfect union between protein and
fat flavour. The type of thing that would have difficulty passing health regulations in a first-world country because it clearly isn’t good for your arteries. In foodie terms, it’s fucking good shit.
My first encounter with chicharrónes wasn’t a good one. Let’s just say we had a misunderstanding. I was roaming around el centro on one of Bogota’s rare sunny afternoons when a nasty whiff of what seemed like a sweaty sock broth hit my nostrils. It didn’t take me long to track the hideous odour to a street cart with a gas cylinder parked on the corner of a busy intersection. The smell was so pungent that I couldn’t help but investigate. I walked over to confront the gentleman who appeared to be manning the cart and politely asked him what his business was. “Chicharróncitos con arepita” he replied. I looked down and found a big white chopping board half covering a gigantic pot of boiling oil. As the man reached into the pot with his greasy tongs, he pulled out a piece of what appeared to be a crumpled cardboard box, drenched in old oil. I quickly said thank you to the señor, turned around, ran as fast as I could in the other direction and vowed never to have anything to do with chicharrónes ever again.
Fast forward 4 years and I cannot get enough of these bloody things. So what changed? My soft heart decided to give chicharrónes and Colombian food a second chance and I learnt that like many other things in life, there are good and bad versions. What I saw and smelt that afternoon was the worst of the worst. It wasn’t until I tried the famous Bandeja Paisa did my love affair begin with the chicharrón. Finding a good chicharrón can be quite a long search as they vary quite significantly in quality as I have experienced. Some like them meatier, some like them fattier and others like them greasier. At its best, it is a generous hunk of meat with just enough fat to cause a flavour explosion in your mouth without going overboard on the level of porkiness. Unless you’re a seasoned pork eater, I recommend taking your time and taking these bad boys down one at a time as it can be quite a heavy meal in itself. In Antioquia, it’s a custom to cleanse your pork palette with a shot of guaro (short for Aguardiente, a national anise-based liquor) as it helps cut the fat.
While they’re certainly not good for your caloric intake, chicharrónes are an essential part of the Colombian experience. I’ll repeat again, DEEP FRIED MEATY PORK BELLY.
Until next time, buen provecho!