Below is an abridged version from Kari Wells’ personal blog, cross-posted with her permission. Kari is a producer and former cast member on the Bravo show Married to Medicine, and we recently interviewed her on our podcast, Celiac Straight Talk. Learn more about our podcast.
I first fell in love with Colombia 13 years ago. Shortly after I met my now husband, he took me on an intensely romantic tour of Bogotá and Cartagena, introduced me to his family and friends and, most memorably, he took me on a private tour of cities from his childhood and their rich and complex history. I was wined, dined, and in general treated like a total princess. As I now reflect upon this, I like to think my trip to Colombia was, in large part, why I agreed to marry him so soon after we met.
I was born in northern England, the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants with a penchant for travel. My father was born in Egypt and moved around a great deal during his young adult life. As a result, he wanted to educate me and my siblings about the world outside of Great Britain. We had some wonderful European holidays and, as soon as I was able to, I left home and began to travel as much as possible. Consequently, I have lived in four countries, speak four languages (although not fluently), have visited over 26 countries and live by the motto “you can’t have a narrow mind with a thick passport.” But there is something unique about Colombia—the best way I can describe it is that Colombia speaks to my soul. So when I found myself in Bogotá again this summer, 13 years after my first trip, I wanted to figure out why this city moved me so much.
For me the most astounding part of my trip was the naturally-gluten free foods. I suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that prevents me from eating or digesting any gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, rye and barley. I was diagnosed as a child and have lived with it for most of my life, but recently I have found myself constantly getting glutened, due to cross-contact. I am super sensitive to gluten and have to watch everything that I eat like a hawk. I read all food labels and write to many manufacturers in order to make sure that the food I am eating is in fact gluten-free. Sadly, over time it has spoiled my love of eating out since I am basically at the mercy of the restaurant’s kitchen to make sure the meal they serve to me comes out actually gluten-free. It is a massive pain and a constant worry.
For someone with celiac disease or anyone who chooses to eat gluten-free, Colombia is food heaven. Most of the starches come from corn, yuca or potatoes and less from wheat. In addition, the food is grown naturally so it is fresh and without tons of additives, colors, fillers or preservatives, so it remains pure. If you have celiac disease take a pen, phone, voice recorder or memo book and write this down: pan de yuca. You will not be sorry, it is the best bread I have ever tasted. Pan de yuca is a delicious mound of fluffy dough, baked hot in mini ovens all over the city. You can buy it everywhere.
On our drive to Anapoima, we stopped by a roadside bakery to find this delicacy being served from a small, primitive oven. It was well worth burning my mouth on the hot pan de yuca, since I failed to understand the Spanish expression for “wait.” It had such taste and texture and was gluten-free!
Another one of my favorite finds was the cheese-filled bread pan de queso, which is also easily purchased at most food places. Buñuelos (which would be my lost-on-a-desert-island food item) are donut-like balls of fried corn dough, but, unlike donuts, are not too sweet. Then there are arepas, fluffy corn cakes covered with butter and cheese. And finally, empanadas, which are small meat-filled pies served with delicious aji, a salsa-like sauce. (Oh boy! I think I may need to avoid my bathroom scale for a while).
Colombia has multiple climatic zones, from tropical to temperate to mountain chill. As a result of this variety, fruits and vegetables of all kinds grow with reckless abandon. It’s like living in the garden of Eden! The entire country is basically farm-to-table so even I, with my bland British cooking, would find these God-given delicacies hard to mess up, in any recipe. But luckily, on this trip there was no cooking. (Well, at least not for me.)
I will be sad to say goodbye to Colombia and its 500-year-old heritage, but thanks to the generosity of my husband, I now have another beautiful memory to take with me.