A Taste of Cartagena

A Colombian journey brings culinary inspiration

Story and photos by J.C. Phelps


That is  unequivocally and incontestably  the word that describes my life.

Maybe it was the summer I spent in France and Spain before high school. Maybe it was the internship that I completed with a part of the Mexican government when I was an undergraduate at Centre College. Maybe it’s genetic. Pinpointing the catalyst aside, one thing is clear: my love of travel runs deep within my veins.

Originally a small town boy from Southern Kentucky, wandering the globe illuminates the importance of cultural relativity. It proves to me, over and over again, that we are all one – our societies, no matter how different, boast more commonalities than we presume. Dissimilarly, the cultural aspects and phenomena that make populations unique are to be celebrated.

That’s how I discovered the intersection of being a traveler and a gastronome.

What this has caused is a perpetual, insatiable hunger for foreign culinary experiences. Having crossed over the 20-country mark in my 24 years, I’m not planning to stop anytime soon.

My most recent trip took me to a bucket-list location: Cartagena, Colombia. A gem of the Caribbean, Cartagena is a preserved oasis of culture, food and the good life. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most lively, charming places that I have visited. What I love about traveling in el mundo hispanohablante (the Spanish-speaking world) is the palpable sense of vibrancy. Colorful buildings, energetic plazas and a devotion to flavorful, fresh food – it doesn’t get much better in my book.

 I had high expectations for Cartagena, but the city surpassed them with ease. The colonial stone walls, cobbled streets, bougainvillea and the water were visual highlights for me. Even more than that, however, I loved exploring the boundless food.

Arepas (made from cornmeal) are quite common, as is the bandeja paisa (a platter with a variety of meats and accompaniments). Above all else, I found myself loving the empanadas.

Popular across Hispanic cultures, each region boasts different varieties of the dish. Empanada comes from the verb empanar, which means to cover in pastry, bread, breadcrumbs or dough. Commonly, meat is found inside the dough, which can be either baked or fried; additionally, one might find cheese and vegetables inside. My favorite version is chorizo-filled – which, luckily for me, is easily found in Colombia.

When I got back to Louisville, I had to recreate them. The part that took the longest to execute perfectly was the seasoning of the chorizo. From there, I wanted to develop an easy, light dipping sauce to offset the heaviness of the empanada. Lastly, the dough. While it is feasible to make your own, I do believe in cutting corners for the sake of efficiency when quality is not comprised. I found that a great substitute for empanada dough is refrigerated pie crust. When baked, it proves to be perfect – easy to use and the correct thickness.

Baking these in my kitchen, though located in the Highlands, took me back to the streets of Cartagena. For that, I am thankful.

Food can transport us anywhere in the world, and that is, without doubt, one of the most magical parts of the experience.

As always, happy eating, happy traveling, happy living. V

Chorizo-Filled Empanadas + Avocado Cream Dipping Sauce


Makes 8-10 small empanadas. Recipe can easily be multiplied.


1 pack (9 oz.) Cacique Pork Chorizo

1 pack Pillsbury Pie Crusts

1 egg

2 tbsp. chili powder

¾ tsp. cumin

½ tsp. ground cloves

1 tbsp. paprika

½ tsp. garlic powder

Avocado Cream Dipping Sauce

1 ripe avocado

½ c. sour cream

1 lime, juiced

6-8 dashes of hot sauce

½ tsp. garlic powder

Cilantro, to taste


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a bowl, mix chorizo, chili powder, cumin, ground clove, paprika and garlic powder together.

Over medium heat, transfer the chorizo into a skillet. Stir until thoroughly cooked.

Roll out the pie crusts. Using a circular object (rim of a glass, two-inch cookie cutter), cut out even circles from the dough.

With the dough in hand, spoon a small amount of chorizo into each circle. Fold the ends together, press firmly (it should resemble a half moon).

In a small bowl, whisk the egg with a splash of water and brush it over each empanada.

Lightly spray a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray and place the empanadas equidistant apart. Bake for about 10-15 minutes until golden brown.

Allow to cool and enjoy with the Avocado Cream Dipping Sauce.

Avocado Cream Dipping Sauce

Mash the ripe avocado well and thoroughly mix with the sour cream.

Add in the lime juice, hot sauce, garlic powder and cilantro. Stir well.

Refrigerate until serving with the empanadas.

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