Where Even the Food Is Magic: A Treasure Hunt for the Flavors of Caribbean Colombia

In a tiny Colombian beachfront town, a globally acclaimed chef was waxing poetic about a schmear.

Leonor Espinosa — who’d just been crowned the 2022 Best Female Chef by World’s 50 Best, an influential ranking group owned by a British media giant — suggested the sesame paste known locally as pasta de ajonjolí was one of many delicacies in the area that transcend mere taste, and soon I’d know why.

I’d gone to Rincón del Mar, a three-hour drive southwest of Cartagena, to meet Ms. Espinosa on her home turf. Granted, Ms. Espinosa now lives in Bogotá, where her restaurant, Leo, has drawn accolades. But her roots trace back to the country’s Caribbean region, where she spent most of her childhood.

Now, she returns regularly to lead laboratorios: workshops sponsored by her foundation, FUNLEO, that bring together cooks from often forgotten and underresourced communities to prepare local dishes while cataloging and preserving as many traditional ingredients, recipes and techniques as possible.

I wasn’t there to participate (the workshops are open only to the invited community chefs) but to ask Ms. Espinosa for some direction. Since her widely reported ascent to the gastronomic throne, I realized how little I knew about where she came from: part of the Caribbean tucked away from the well-trodden Cartagena-Barranquilla corridor. So I reached out to the foundation, and after chatting with its director, I hatched a plan: to meet up with the chef during a workshop in the area, get her local insights, then use them to spend a few days exploring and eating.

El Canto de la Caracola is one of a number of casual beachfront restaurants in Rincón del Mar offering rustic dishes made with local ingredients.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

I emerged from our talks with a culinary treasure map that would lead me on a quest from beachside grills to a palm-shaded islet to a green thatch-roofed house, the whole journey flavored with coconut, garlic, cassava, cheese and of course, sesame.

A sunset bird-watching tour on the Caribbean Sea near Rincón del Mar.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Respect the octopus

As the scent of grilling food and the distinctive rasp of Ms. Espinosa’s voice drifted from the beach, I knew I’d arrived at her workshop at the Hostal Arrecife in Rincón del Mar just in time.

“Note that the octopus looks complete,” she was saying in Spanish to several onlookers on a shaded patch of sand that had become her seaside demo kitchen. I recognized her voice from video footage, though I had never met her in person. A moment later, I was there next to her and the octopus. “If you remove the tentacles,” she went on, “you massacre it.”

Considering the animal was clearly deceased, I wondered what I was missing, but the mystery didn’t last. Bowing toward the octopus and preaching deep respect for one’s ingredients, she said, “We have to pay homage to them. We can’t massacre them by stripping away their flavor.” Her fervor bordered on the religious.

So during our first one-on-one conversation, when the group was on break, I wasn’t surprised to hear Ms. Espinosa recall the flavors of her youth with the sort of reverence and pacing typically reserved for mantras. “Ají dulce … yuca … ñame,” she intoned, conjuring visions of chiles, cassava and yams. She cut an almost monastic figure in her white-on-cream ensemble against the lime-green hammock that enveloped her.

I happened to have just tasted some local yuca in a coconut cheesecake — a salty-sweet revelation. Yet as Ms. Espinosa continued to tell me about her most beloved local foods, few others sounded familiar, and most sounded magical — none more so than ajonjolí. The name alone got me, but so did the idea of toasted sesame seeds imbued with an intoxicatingly rich tropical terroir and hand-ground into a paste in accordance with a “culinary tradition that’s being lost in cities, but that can still be felt in rural zones,” Ms. Espinosa said.

The beach at Dos Aguas, an eco-resort in Rincón del Mar. The house kitchen uses local staples to unorthodox effect in dishes like sesame ice cream and brownies, avoiding more classic preparations so as not to infringe on traditional community restaurants.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

I got an unexpected preview a few hours later at the Dos Aguas Lodge, the beachside eco-resort where I’d booked my stay and local excursions. After a hallucinatory double feature — sunset bird-watching alongside an island that was submerged save for a few protruding treetops, then a swim in a bioluminescent lagoon — I returned ravenous. And there on the kitchen’s chalkboard was the fabled ajonjolí, in the form of a housemade sesame-infused ice cream paired with a Colombian cacao brownie.

A stop on a sunset bird-watching tour near Rincón del Mar. The Dos Aguas resort also offers activities like mangrove canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and forest hiking.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Though this clearly wasn’t the pure, unadulterated sesame paste in my marching orders, it was bedtime snacking perfection, and an interesting conversation starter with the Dos Aguas co-founder Dania Bianuni, whom I’d asked about the dish. She explained that as relative newcomers to Rincón del Mar who hoped not to infringe on the community’s traditional restaurants, the hotel staff generally stuck to unorthodox preparations of the local staples.

Tintipán, an island about 40 minutes off the Colombian coast, offers turquoise water, palm-shaded beaches and exceptional arepas de huevo, sizzling egg-filled dough pouches.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

The island of sizzling arepas

The next day, my culinary map dispatched me to the palm-shaded shores of Isla Tintipán — about 40 minutes off the coast — in search of arepas de huevo, a deep-fried, egg-filled dough pouch that’s practically synonymous with Colombian Caribbean cuisine.

Every boat driver would know a restaurant called Rocio’s place, I was assured, even those who still referred to it by the owner’s ancestors’ names because it had been in the family for generations, albeit on the tiny neighboring island of Santa Cruz del Islote.

Tintipán is a place of mangroves, thatch roofs and white-sand beaches.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Though Tintipán was distractingly beautiful — with aquamarine waters lapping at white-sand beaches and lush, navigable mangroves cutting inland — I remained single-minded in my quest for the Platonic ideal of an arepa de huevo. Fresh from the sizzling oil, perfectly spongy and extra plump, my lunch boldly defied the waiter’s words as he placed it on the table: “Su arepita!” (Your little arepa!) I sprinkled on some sea salt and drizzled on some suero (a whey-based condiment along the lines of labneh, but thinner and generally tangier), then I ate like no one was watching, because no one was. There were far more interesting things to see on the beach, where crowds of Colombian day-trippers were dancing to competing rhythms that reverberated from portable speakers.

Finishing with a coconut caramel, a bite-size dessert that’s satisfyingly rich and chewy but not cloyingly sweet, I headed back to the mainland, where I suddenly wished I could book the arepa-making class that Dos Aguas offered at the home of a local expert. But the open road called, as did my driver to confirm an early pickup the next morning.

Sesame seeds being used to make hand-ground ajonjolí paste in the town of San Luis de Sincé. The delicacy is celebrated for its earthy, salty flavor.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

In search of a ‘good hand’

We zigzagged deep into the Caribbean savanna, about three hours southeast of Rincón del Mar, to San Luis de Sincé, a small town with at least four big loves: Ms. Espinosa, whose family hails from there; the author Gabriel García Márquez, who spent part of his childhood there; the clarinetist and composer Juan Madera Castro, who was born there;and ajonjolí — not necessarily in that order.

Ms. Espinosa’s family seat still holds pride of place on the central plaza, as does a childhood home of García Márquez, whose devotees sometimes claim San Luis de Sincé inspired the fictional town of Macondo in the novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The Casa de la Cultura de Sincé has a fascinating installation on the author, as well as on Mr. Madera, whose most famous composition, “La Pollera Colorá,” is basically the unofficial national anthem. But much as I enjoyed my immersion into local lore, I had some eating to do.

Ms. Espinosa had instructed me to scout out private homes for ajonjolí, an experience that reminded me of buying the fermented corn drink chicha in the Peruvian Andes at houses with telltale little flags. But in Sincé, the big, bright “Ajonjolí here!” signs along the roads made my quest even easier.

The thatch-roofed house I chose had parakeet green walls, inside and out. Maybe García Márquez had gotten to me, but the magic realism vibes were tough to ignore — especially when I remembered something I’d heard about ajonjolí vendors: Only those who had been blessed with a “good hand” could grind the local sesame into a proper paste. The woman at the front door assured me she descended from a long line of good hands, and the moment I scooped a sample out of a repurposed instant-coffee jar, I was a believer.

Magalis Rodríguez, the fourth-generation confectioner who owns Galletería la 12 in San Luis de Sincé, draws customers from hours away with her sweet-cheese-filled empanadas and other baked treats.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Earthier, darker and saltier than tahini, the sublime substance is generally paired with yuca, rice or bread, but I couldn’t hold out for the carbs and ate spoonful after unadulterated spoonful as I headed to a bakery, the next stop on Ms. Espinosa’s map. Galletería la 12, owned by the fourth-generation confectioner Magalis Rodríguez, produced Sincé’s most beloved traditional baked goods. And now that I had some ajonjolí of my own, I needed a vehicle for it.

A carful of fans from Barranquilla, five hours away, had just taken off with a fresh supply of the sweet-cheese-filled empanadas known as parpichuelas. “The people who come from Barranquilla almost always buy parpichuelas,” Ms. Rodríguez told me in Spanish. Then, when she lifted a simple-looking bun to show me what customers from Medellín prefer, I realized it was perfect for an ajonjolí schmear.

She led me around — stopping to show me the giant, wooden corn-mashing pole she’d inherited from her great-grandparents — and introduced me to ever more treats I couldn’t refuse between bites of my sesame-slathered bun. Then, loaded up with bolitas de leche (condensed milk boiled down to tiny, chewy, heavenly morsels) and some cornmeal rings subtly sweetened with pressed sugar cane, I headed to lunch.

Making parpichuelas, a sweet-cheese-filled empanada, at Galletería la 12. These pastries are favorites of customers who travel from Barranquilla, the bakery’s owner said.Credit…Abbie Kozolchyk

A bowl of pure bliss

Luckily, I had time to digest on the drive to Galeras, a leafy, livestock-breeding town only about 15 miles to the southeast, but still 45 minutes away on the muddy savanna roads. Next stop on the map was Restaurante Donde Mingo, where I was told not to miss the house mote, a yam-and-cheese soup that alone would have been worth the trip. Using a cream of various Caribbean yams for a base, the chef, Domingo “Mingo” Ramos, had added copious cheese, suero, local greens and a divinely inspired sauté of garlic and onion.

Taking a breather halfway through my bowl in hopes of being able to fit more in, I wandered to one end of the thatch-roofed, open-sided dining room, where a traditional piper, three drummers and a wild man on the maracones (picture XXL maracas) had whipped the lunch crowd into a singalong frenzy.

I danced until I felt I had made enough room to continue with the next courses: garlicky eggplant, coconut rice and herbaceous aguardiente (direct translation: firewater, but more like a rustic brandy). No room for dessert, alas, but I took solace in the knowledge that I’d be back someday for the city’s concurrent January festivals: one, a celebration of all treats carob-based, and the other, the UNESCO-listed Cuadros Vivos— or “living paintings — in which the locals themselves, elaborately costumed, made up and staged, become the open-air art installations.

As I contemplated my jar of ajonjolí and the rest of the Sincé sweets my driver and I would savor as our journey came to an end, my thoughts returned to that first encounter with Ms. Espinosa back in Rincón del Mar: You have to respect the ingredients, she had said. My short time in the place that had nurtured her renowned cooking had been packed with flavors, but to fully respect all those ingredients, I realized, I would need to return with far more time.

Sunset in San Luis de Sincé, an inland community where the author Gabriel García Márquez spent part of his childhood. Many García Márquez fans claim that Sincé is the inspiration for the fictional Macondo in the novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

If you go:

This region is off the standard tourist trail, so you should have plenty of Colombian pesos on hand ($1 is equal to about 4,800 pesos), as credit cards aren’t widely accepted. Also have a translator app or a pocket dictionary with you if you don’t speak Spanish, though most tourism operators have someone on staff who speaks some English. Public transit is available, but it’s not especially easy to use or efficient, and rental cars would be tricky on some of the roads. I went with Guillermo Lamadrid’s reasonably priced ($285 from Cartagena to Rincón del Mar, Sincé and Galeras; an additional $75 to extend to Santa Cruz de Mompox) and unfailingly reliable Mar de Leva Tour, best contacted via WhatsApp (+57 311-666-5933) or by email ([email protected]).

Lodging: In Rincón del Mar, I booked one of the double rooms with a balcony at the beachfront, rustic-chic eco-resort Dos Aguas Lodge, where rates start at $85 a night. I found the lodge to be an excellent home base during the coastal portion of my itinerary. The local experiences offered on a chalkboard in the reception area encompassed all manner of temptation (among them, mangrove canoeing, forest hiking and biking, drumming and dancing, and stand-up paddleboarding), but the call of the perfectly placed hammocks was persuasive, too.

Restaurants: Rocio’s Place on Isla Tintipán serves up an exquisite version of the arepa de huevo, in addition to local seafood- and coconut-forward specialties, at seaside tables. You’ll need to take a boat from the mainland to get there. (I arranged my ride, which cost $17 round-trip, through the hotel.) Then — while you wait for your order at Rocio’s Place — consider taking a second, smaller boat to the neighboring Santa Cruz del Islote, reportedly the world’s most densely populated island. It’s worth the 10 or so minutes you’ll need to walk the entire town.

Inland, Restaurante Donde Mingo in Galeras serves up specialties that include mote, a decadently creamy yam-based soup; coconut-stewed chicken; and smoked duck.

Places to see: To set up a visit to the Casa de la Cultura or anything else in Sincé, contact Kelly Aguas Aldana ([email protected]). Galeras typically welcomes thousands of visitors during the Cuadros Vivos and carob festival, and while the hotel scene is sparse, local homes become guesthouses for the occasion. Reach out to Ruth Sara López (+57 313-585-2090) for more information. On a side note, you’ll be so close to Mompox, a dreamy, centuries-old town on an island in the Magdalena River — and a UNESCO World Heritage site — that you should consider adding the approximately three hours to your drive (and a night or two to your trip) to explore its plazas, churches and riverbanks.

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