The Traditional Cook’s Tale
In one of Colombia’s most notorious cities we meet one of the traditional market cooks preserving the city's Afro-Colombian culinary culture and serving food that’s shining a bright spot on a troubled city.
A woman in an apron stands in a market kitchen.

t’s 8am and at stall number 7 in Buenaventura’s Galeria de Pueblo Nuevo market Jenny Moreno tends to a mishmash of pans, the contents bubbling away on glowing coal embers. Her tiny kitchen is stacked with silver pots of seafood, plastic basins of vegetables, chopping boards of alliums and bundles of fresh herbs. There is a sink, but the tap is for decoration only. A large plastic barrel and two smaller bins serve as the water supply. Now and again the strip light on the wall musters enough energy to bathe the room in stark light for a second or two. “The space is small but I make it work.” Jenny says, before launching back into her morning prep, unfazed by trivialities like electricity or running water. As a 34 year veteran of the market kitchen she knows her work.

A man in a white vest walks through a market in Buenaventura, Colombia
Buenaventura's Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market is a chaotic and disorganised place.
A woman works in a market kitchen in the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market, Buenaventura, Colombia
Jenny standing in her kitchen at the market.
In 2017 Buenaventura became part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network for Gastronomy, drawing attention to the city’s rich culinary heritage and the need to promote and preserve it.
Colombia's cuisine is rarely talked about in glowing terms, many who visit the country seem to come way with an impression of a starch-filled, meat-heavy offering. The food in Buenaventura is a little different and simmering away in the market's cooking pots is generations of knowledge and tradition.
Do you want to help out?” Jenny asks. “Sure.” I reply. She places a bowl of shrimps in front of me, demonstrating how I should devein them. Jenny is very direct and confident, probably because she's been cooking these dishes since she was a teenager. “I used to help out when I was even younger, around eight, but I started working here full-time from 14.” Jenny's mother, Maria, passed the stall onto her and now its Jenny’s daughter and son who help out before and after school. We met Jenny a couple of days ago, she was the most persuasive cook in the market and convinced us to eat at her stall. We didn't regret it, in fact we kept coming back.
A young girls skates on rollerblades at the seafront in Buenaventura, Colombia
Children skate and play in rented electric toy cars at the city's malecón.

Having entrusted me with the shrimps, Jenny moves on to the Sancocho, one of Colombia’s most beloved soups. She’s making Sancocho de Ñata, which has a base of fish. She grabs cilantro, cilantro cimarrón and basil, chops onion and chunks of potato, cassava and plantain and drops them all into a pot of water. In the blink of an eye she’s already onto the next task: rinsing a silver-grey pompano fish and cleaving it into pieces to pre-cook in lemon and water. “I need to make sure it’s properly cleaned out before I add it into the Sancocho.” She explains.

Cooking pots on a coal burning stove in Buenaventura's Galeria Pueblo Nuevo Market
Jenny adds cilantro cimarrón to one of the pots on the stove.
A pompano fish sits in a pan of water at the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market in Buenaventura
A pompano fish waits to be prepped and cooked.

Tinto, tinto, tinto” the coffee vendor calls out as he passes the kitchens and stalls. His metal cart, the frame of a baby buggy in its previous life, is filled with mismatched flasks of tinto (black coffee) ready to decant into disposable plastic cups. Crude and unsophisticated the coffee serves its purpose as a sharpener for the day ahead.

In front of the wooden-framed kitchens a row of plastic chairs and tables wait for customers to fill them later. Opposite, a gaggle of boisterous young men jostle customers leaving a grocery store, pestering them to let them carry their bags for tips. Everyone seems completely oblivious to the armed soldier standing a few metres away, sucking on a lolly and looking bored. “They’re here everyday.” Jenny tells me, not looking up from the onions she’s dicing. It’s an unsurprising sight in a city like Buenaventura. A city with a reputation.

Setting sun behind a house on stilts at the Pacific Ocean in Buenaventura, Colombia.
The sun setting across the Pacific Ocean.


of residents are Afro-Colombians


of Colombia’s sea imports and exports pass through the city's port

Buenaventura is home to the country’s busiest port, responsible for around 60% of Colombia’s sea imports and exports, a fact that should make it a wealthier place than it is. However, it also makes it a strategic location for drug trafficking, a problem that continues to plague Colombia. The area suffered badly during the country’s long-running armed conflict with guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Many people living in the countryside around Buenaventura were displaced and ended up in the city, where the population has grown from 50,000 to 400,000 in just 30 years. In 2016 a peace agreement was signed between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, but armed groups continue to operate in and around Buenaventura. A few years ago the city earned the unfortunate title of ‘Colombia’s deadliest city’ and reading about the violence visited upon this city and its residents makes your blood run cold, it’s what keeps visitors away and makes many feel that it’s a lost cause. The decades of gang violence, deep-rooted corruption and a lack of investment have scarred the society. Yet, the city’s cuisine and food culture is one of the few bright sparks here.

As well as the traditional cooks in the market serving up local dishes, there is an appetite amongst other residents to learn about their culinary heritage too. The city's Fundación Escuela Taller runs workshops and courses aimed at locals affected by the conflict and from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their popular culinary course focuses on local cuisine and helps preserve local food traditions and knowledge, while strengthening the students' cultural identity and connection to their region.
A soldier stands amongst customers at the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market in Buenaventura, Colombia.
Amongst the shoppers at the market an armed soldier is on patrol.
Rubbish bags piled up at the side of the road in Buenaventura, Colombia.
Services such as garbage collection are often neglected in Buenaventura.
Children play on the beach at low tide
The shore at the edge of the city at low tide.

A young woman wearing a tabard apron comes rushing into the kitchen with a metal serving spoon in one hand and a lump of coal in the other. With the spoon she scoops up a couple of the glowing coal embers from the stove and drops the fresh piece of coal in as a replacement. “That’s my niece.” Jenny explains “She runs the stall next door.” Do all the women help each other out, I ask? “No!” Laughs Jenny. “In fact it’s usually the opposite, but between family things are different.”

A woman cooking in a market kitchen in the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market in Buenaventura, Colombia.
Jenny at work in her small market kitchen.

Jenny pours some water into a large plastic tub of freshly grated coconut, mixing it through to turn the water milky, before sieving the liquid into the Sancocho and leaving it to bubble away. Next she rummages in the sink and grabs a large, smooth stone, that looks like it could have been plucked from someone’s garden, and begins pounding some peeled garlic cloves on the chopping board. A makeshift pestle in a makeshift kitchen.

The hands of a woman sieving coconut milk into a bowl
Jenny adds water to fresh coconut to create coconut milk for cooking.
Ingredients in a stainless steel sink in the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market, Buenaventura, Colombia.
Vegetables in the sink waiting to be prepped.
The Galeria was first constructed in 1954, adjacent to the Muro Yusti Canal, along which local people used to transport their goods by canoe to sell in the city. Last refurbished in the 1980s, the market, like many of the buildings in the city, has fallen into disrepair. It’s currently being upgraded and remodelled with funding from the Ministry of Culture and when finished promises to give Jenny and the other cooks a space worthy of their food.

In another small pan piangua bivalves are doused in a coconut-based sauce. These tiny black, clam-like creatures are harvested from the mangrove forests along the Pacific coast. Here they form part of El Triple. The piangua are one of the ingredients specific to this coastline, showing off the earthy flavours of the mangroves in a spoonful.

A small pan of fried achiote seeds on a sideboard in the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market, Buenaventura, Colombia.
Fried achiote seeds.
A woman's spoons a crab out of a saucepan in the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market in Buenaventura, Colombia.
Jenny lifts a crab out of the pot of Encocao de Jaiba

Jenny buys the ingredients she cooks directly from the vendors in the market, where they sell all manner of produce. Basins stacked with shrimps of different shapes and sizes, piles of smoked and dried fish and some of the largest fish eggs I’ve ever seen: great, yellow marbles enrobed in creamy white sacks. Other stalls specialise in fresh herbs and dried flowers, some are integral to the traditional dishes and some used to fashion remedies and infusions. In other parts of the market, vibrant cacao pods and cows’ feet sit across the aisle from one another. It’s not a conventionally beautiful market but it’s no less fascinating for the fact.

Basins of fish eggs and seafood in the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market in Buenaventura, Colombia.
Bowls of fish eggs, shrimps and seafood at the market.
Cilantro Cimarrón is like cilantro but different.”
Stalls at the Galeria Pueblo Nuevo market in Buenaventura, Colombia.
Stalls at the market.

Cilantro cimarrón is a fresh herb that’s new to me, Jenny explains, that it’s a vital component of the dishes she makes. “Cilantro cimarrón is like cilantro but different.” She suggests. The cilantro cimarrón leaves are long and lettuce-like, with serrated edges, Jenny adds some to the soup while it’s cooking, rather than at the end like you might with regular cilantro, it’s less delicate. “And this is the achiote.” Jenny pulls a mini-skillet filled with ruby-red annatto seeds from the embers, their colour bleeding into the frying oil. She pours some of the liquid into one of the pans, creating a pool of orangey-yellow that with a quick flick of her spoon, blends to turn the contents of the pot a rich ochre.

When we arrived to Buenaventura our host John met us at the bus terminal. A few days before he'd messaged to explain there might be a problem with the water supply at the apartment “I got a letter from the city administration saying that works are due to start when you're here.” The short walk to our accommodation took us past derelict buildings, crumbling pavements and lots of rubbish bags. “We have a rubbish problem too, the city hasn’t been collecting them.” John said, perhaps having noticed me glaring at all the bags. For years the city has been neglected thanks to corrupt officials and misappropriated funds. The fact that 89% of residents in this area are Afro-Colombians has also not gone unnoticed. The only part of the city that's been shown some love of late is the Bahía de la Cruz malecón (boardwalk).

The malecón redevelopment was finished at the end of 2017 and features basketball and football courts, playgrounds, a growing number of restaurants and mango sellers galore. The atmosphere here is relaxed and jovial; people out enjoying the amusements on offer and basking in the ocean breeze. It’s an area that feels safe and gives a taster of what the rest of the city could become if money and attention is spent on it.

Men play football at on a pitch at the malecon in Buenaventura, Colombia
The malecón in Buenaventura is one of the few places that's been upgraded in the city.

It’s 10am and the first customers arrive at the stall, a young couple and their son, who Jenny serves bowls of fish broth. The market is getting more chaotic and the women in the kitchens call out to customers as they pass, trying to entice them to eat at their stall and not their neighbours’. I hope that the next time I’m here they’re closer to getting the space they deserve, one with running water and electricity. A place that will showcase the rich culinary traditions embedded in these small kitchens and the women, like Jenny, who hold that knowledge to share.

Stilt houses on the coast of Buenaventura, Colombia
A community of stilt houses at the shore in Buenaventura.
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