What role do embassies play in the lives of foreign nationals abroad? Many of us living in a country for which we do not possess a passport are likely to associate our local embassy with administrative assistance, i.e. replacing documents needed to prove our identity and belonging in the international system. In many public discussions of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, the nation-state can take on an equally administrative face. It’s all about technology, no longer about borders or space; the world is post-modern, and so is identity.
As the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai preached in the 1990s, human societies are experiencing a ‘deterritorialization’, making the nation-state less and less relevant for our real lives, its relevance relegated to the small tasks we rely on for bureaucratic systems to function properly.
But it is not this black and white. For those of us who have lived apart from all that was once familiar and full of memory for a period longer than the term ‘abroad’ can afford, the food – most importantly – of the former territory of ‘home’ becomes something we long for.
And so this rave asks a simple question: What if (nation-)states and their representative institutions abroad played both a symbolic and tangible role in the lives of immigrants holding passports from these places?
There happens to be an example for such, namely the Embassy of Colombia in Germany and its recent culinary festival:
A few weeks ago, Sophia and I were invited to this special event, meant to recreate the flavors of many a Colombian childhood in a chic Neukölln space for foodies – Manufaktur Feinschlicht – complete with a charming Ambassador and homesick interns. The event was the backdrop to the presentation of a cook book straight out of the homeland, entitled Colombia, Cooking by Regions by Maria Lía Neira Restrepo. With a full culinary program, using ingredients one can find here in Germany, two worlds were forged on a brisk Berlin evening. This union meant homecoming for some and travel for others.
Renowned chef Diana Garcia, featured in Colombia, Cooking by Regions, was flown out to Berlin for the event, along with pal, chef Magda Hamon. The two women brought decades of experience, a power house of flavor, and the openness and friendly encounter akin to a family Sunday dinner (for those of us that remember those).
The women were paired with two German chefs – both looking a bit like they should be flinging fish at Pike Place Market, rather than managing finger foods. In minutes the kitchen and serving foyer were a buzz with the good vibes of cross-cultural collaboration. The Germans, Kai and Robert, filleted brined salmon with rough hands, delicately arranging plates of plantain-based crostini, while the two Colombian ladies tended large cuts of pork belly and whisked various sauces to life in the kitchen.
Photo Source: Colombian Embassy
The chefs delivered the beautifully-presented treats to the guests themselves, wandering through the room in white coats, making eye contact with eager mouths, answering questions about ingredients and origin, making all feel welcome to partake in something, well, just great and gluttonous.
Glorifying both the Berlin environs and Colombian roots, it was easy to relate to the enthusiasm and personal connection to the dishes that seemed obvious through taste and composition.
10 waves of savory bites passed through the intimate space where we all gathered around the bar, which never failed to serve up rows of guava-rum puree, delicate glasses of Prosecco, and bottles of rich Colombian wine (both red and white, and both delicious). Surrounded by the chutneys and other jarred creations of Manufaktur Feinschlicht, the ever-increasing guests eyed the prep table and the hall to the kitchen, anxiously awaiting the rolling arrival of new platters and, above all, the kind-eyed and wide-smiled chefs.
Colombia is a country of flowers and fruits – we hope you will taste that! We also love meat, Diana Garcia told the crowd, beaming and laughing a bit in the face of so many cameras.
Pork belly in a muddy water sauce with Berlin’s (happy) Schwein; fried plantain with a cheese crust; lox on potato-pillows with a healthy dollop of guacamole; breaded and seared scallops on coconut rice (the coconut hailing from the coastal region of Colombia, according to the chefs); creme de leche in pieces big enough to give the teeth something to work on; a creamy pudding enveloping local fruits and Colombian flowers; Currywurst with a bit of guava in the sauce; duck rice with a Berlin-grown bird: all with both decadence and simplicity.
The young Colombians around me, most of them with positions at the embassy or friends with such coveted diplomatic jobs, celebrated every dish, every reference to summers on the coast, to lunches with grandma, to the country’s everyday bounty becoming so special through distance.
Guava, milk pudding: my favorite things! Hector Sanchez, one of the embassy interns told me, after I openly praised the addition of guava to everything forever and ever. He has been away from Colombia for longer than ever, was studying in Geneva before coming to Berlin, and will be in Berlin for at least one year. I enjoy Berlin because here, everyone fits, even the Colombians. Here I can relax and feel at home, he said, eyeing the second round of Chicharrones and speaking a few adoring words to the room and the chef, the crunchy skin sliding into his mouth.
When I asked if it is easy to recreate these Colombian flavors in Berlin – I have heard that there is a Colombian food store in Mehringdamm, but I’ve never been there. I couldn’t seem to find it either. Jaggery, fresh sugar cane, or guava punch are ever elusive, it seems. We talked about the role of the embassy, how such institutions are charged with many often symbolic tasks, such as this one. But it isn’t symbolic, it reminds me of home, he added.
And so, What do you want Germans to know about Colombia, about Colombians?, I asked, really having no anticipated answer to this question, which is rare, when I choose to ask one. I want them to know that Colombia is changing. It used to be dangerous, but things are getting better. Change, Change! I mentioned that many associate Colombia with films about drug cartels trucking cocaine across the desert in military fatigues. In Bogota it is cold, like 18 degrees all the time and is at a high elevation! And the coastal region is beautiful and where many of these foods come from. You don’t see that in the movies, he added, a bit flustered.
Something about this event – its emphasis on the cuisine from both the mountainous and the coastal regions – calls such stereotypes into question.
The Ambassador, dressed in a casual sweater and wearing an academic’s spectacles, sought eye contact with all in attendance, his wife bejeweled and well-outfitted taking the lead to greet familiar faces. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, indulging and delighting in each and every symbol and real taste of home. The diplomats, other women and men in suits, began to undo ties and remove jackets, as the evening progressed. The room warmed and filled with chatter – Spanish the dominant language; a few bloggers and friends with mustaches speaking a mix of English and German made the room feel even smaller, though softly lit.
After the first two courses had made their rounds, a petite, young woman with a long-lensed camera and a wide grin marched confidently up to our group of wine-drinking Germans and expats, introducing herself with the line: Hi, I’m from the Philippines! Her husband, standing next to her in somber blacks, works for the Embassy of the Philippines in Berlin. He was raised in Chicago, Seattle, and Russia by a diplomatic father from the Philippines and a Spanish mother. Quite the childhood. Previously, the two had lived in Jakarta, having first met in Manila. Now, she runs a blog on her everyday life as a Diplomatic Wife, with the tagline “livin’ life DiploStyle”.
DiploWife seemed to know many faces at the event. She was invited by the Ambassador’s wife herself after meeting through the organization Willkommen in Berlin, she told me – a club for diplomats and their spouses, sponsored by the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The “Diplo-life” may be full of constant change and adaptation, but Berlin provides a community just for her type, as I somehow expected it would. Everyone fits, as Hector Sanchez said (or at least many).
As I turned to leave, I made sure to tell Hector that Colombia was no longer just cartels, cocaine, and Hollywood desert in my mind: the food was delicious and exciting – I love guava! He seemed pleased, his eyes lightening with pride and appreciation. Delighting in a fresh avocado, picking up grains of pork-soaked rice with finger tips, sipping on guava juice, as if it were the elixir of home: this is how I left Hector Sanchez, culinary talent, and the rest of the Colombian Embassy. I knew, however, that I was not the only one to have fallen in love with Colombian food and two of its best chefs.
Photo Source: Colombian Embassy
Now, don’t we just wish more embassies would take it upon themselves to allow us momentary homecoming, recreating childhood favorites and bringing people together over a symbolic table, reminiscent of a modern, finger-food Sunday dinner?
Part educational institution, part diplomatic agency, and most importantly, part expat/transnational hub of programming: this should be the new role of embassies, particularly in a city as diverse and adventurous as Berlin. It might just bring more of the locals together with some of its newcomers, uniting over the genius of duck woven into starch, particularly if this duck just happens to be a Berliner.
– By Kelly Miller
The Colombian community in Berlin is certainly not all food and drink – there are organizations which lobby for the kind of ‘change’ Hector mentioned, encouraging enhanced human rights and an end to instability and insecurity. More information can be found with Kolko e.V., based in Berlin. To find out more about events of the Colombian embassy in Berlin, as well as consulates around Germany, visit their German website and Berlin homepage. And lastly, check out Diplomatic Wife’s numerous posts on the Colombian Food Festival.