Vittles 3.5 - Latin American Supermarkets

Elephant and La Chatica: The Promised Land of Empanadas

At the end of 2018 I simultaneously moved to south London and pitched a long-term project to Eater London on the community of restaurants, cafes and street vendors in and around Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. I figured it might take me around a month or two to write. In actual fact, it took around five. There were two main barriers to writing it which slowed me down: the first was my obsessive, completionist methodology which meant eating at every single restaurant multiple times, until I couldn’t look a plantain in the face again; the second, and more significant, was my relative ignorance of Latin American cuisine. Elephant and Castle is still the largest hub for the Latinx community in the UK: around the centre you can find Colombian bakeries and canteen-like workers cafes, Ecuadorean, Bolivian and Peruvian restaurants, Dominican fried chicken shops and hairdressers, as well as everything else a community needs to function. Given the lack of visibility of this sort of cuisine has in the British media, to do the topic justice meant learning everything from scratch.

Ultimately I was proud of what came out of that project and it taught me a huge amount about my new community, how to write, and - more crucially - why I wanted to write. But I had the nagging feeling, and I still do, that I wasn’t the best person to write it, that it wasn’t my story. When we look to people who write about restaurants we are fans of the authoritative voice. But no one can be an authority on everything. I tried to do everything myself, but how much more interesting and richer it would have been if it had been done by someone who knew those restaurants inside out? Certainly it would have been finished quicker. For years I’ve complained that all food writing is done by the same type of person, but after two years I’m very much in danger of becoming one of those omnipresent voices, chatting nonsense about things I know nothing about. The only solution is more writers, more voices from more backgrounds, and platforming those who will do a better job.

Today’s newsletter, by Marie Anne Benavente, a Venezuelan chef living in London. Marie Anne has written about La Chatica, a Colombian tienda underneath the arches in Elephant which I called ‘the single most vital business in the area’ and the ‘heart of Elephant and Castle’. Its importance is paramount: not only does it supply every restaurant in the area with produce, it is also the place for Latin Americans to find all the groceries they need, from the maize flour to make arepas, to frozen fruit, to Proustian snacks. I went up to Elephant last week to stock up on dried chillis and it is a ghost town, but both Chatica and the butcher La Fama are still operating with one-in one-out policies. If you live in the area and you’re interested in cooking something new then this is the time to shop there, using the following guide by Marie Anne which is more evocative and authoritatively written than anything I could have said myself.

Elephant and La Chatica: The Promised Land of Empanadas

No one prepares you for one of the hardest parts of becoming an immigrant, which is not, as you might think, adapting to a new culture or learning a new language, but rather leaving behind your native food and ingredients. Food is the one thing that can provide you with a stronger sense of identity than a passport or a birth certificate.

Arriving in a foreign land far from the tropical coast of Venezuela, the flavours and aromas so deeply rooted in my brain and once taken for granted had become a distant memory. Being stripped of these, I suddenly felt that I didn't belong anywhere anymore. I had lost my anchor. Visiting the Elephant and Castle area in south London for the first time a few years ago changed it all. The quest for Latin groceries had always produced the same result: a whisper of the word “Elephant” as some sort of password shared among a selected few. So, without any proper directions, I took a chance and headed there, lured by the promise of freshly fried empanadas and a bottle of iced malta, my childhood drink of choice.

Stepping out of the tube station felt like a revelation as I came face to face with the facade of the run down yet charming shopping centre. I had the uncanny feeling of having been here before. After stumbling across an array of voluptuous mannequins wearing the tightest of spandex garments, carefully choreographed to the loud Cumbia in the background, and overhearing the loud chatter of ladies over cafecito, I felt instantly transported to the streets of Caracas. The sound of men slurping giant bowls of steaming sancocho at lunchtime gave me hope. Food has that wonderful ability to provide us with a sense of belonging; complex matters like migration and politics can be briefly overcome when it transports us, evoking the strongest of emotions.

The most overlooked aspect of these shops is that their purpose extends way beyond just selling groceries. They are at the core of an entire ecosystem built around them to function in a self-sufficient way. From the MoneyGram to the hair salons, they are all intertwined like pieces of a big chaotic jigsaw puzzle that somehow fits together. My pilgrimage for nostalgia has since expanded to Latin Village in Seven Sisters, Nag’s Head on Holloway Road and even Brixton, but my most frequented shop remains 'La Chatica', hidden under the Elephant railway arches. 

One step inside and big smiles greet you into the chorus of “buenas”, “hola mi cielo”, “my darling”, “my love”, all uttered from the lips of a stranger who no longer feels so unfamiliar. Is this home now? The sweet smell of bread coming out of the oven hits you first. Then the golden shades of goods in all shapes and sizes, from the crispy empanadas filled with beef mince to the sweet breads destined to be dipped in cafe con leche on a rainy afternoon. Chewy, silky cassava pandebonos oozing cheese from the inside, or papas rellenas, tennis sized ball croquettes made out of mashed potato and stuffed with meat ragu, with the ability to put you to sleep in a second. The tamales are so heavily encased in banana leaves that unwrapping its layers recalls the joy of furiously ripping wrapping paper off a present as a child. At La Chatica, you are assured not to leave as light as you arrived.

Following the narrow corridor leading to the back, you will find elaborately built towers plantain or cassava chips. On another pyramid lies Chocolisto, an instant chocolate powder that when added to hot milk and grated cheese (yes, you read that right), will instantly consume you with an “everything is going to be alright” feeling. Then there’s bocadillo - these little chewy and soft guava paste bites stick to your teeth and can trigger an immediate insulin spike, yet somehow are still deemed as fruit by our mothers. A humble-looking brown disc reads Panela; raw sugar cane which once dissolved into water and a squeeze of lime will make aguapanela, a refreshing drink that can ease down the hottest summer blaze.

A quick glimpse into the freezer and you will find fruit pulps like luscious soursop, guava, or lulo - a magic concoction of flavours somewhere between mango, passion fruit and lime into one. Just sampling one and feel its tartness slowly compress your cheeks. The bags containing what at first sight resembles yellow gummies, are actually dried potatoes or chuño as commonly known across the Andean region. Despite being neglected and deemed unworthy by the upper classes, these are diamonds in the rough. An ancient method of naturally freeze-drying them in the high mountains allows slow dehydration and eliminates their natural bitterness, resulting in a chewy texture and slight sweetness, with deep earthy tones, transforming stews like carapulcra or olluquito with charqui (dried meat) into an umami feast.

Then there is the humble bean: there can not be a Latin America without them. Frijoles, pinto, black, kidney, black-eyed and fava. In this region, the union of beans and rice is a holy one and transcending beyond religion or race is Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), where the mix of stewed black beans and white rice references the battles held throughout Spain during the Middle Ages. It results in a simple, unpretentious, yet incredibly delicious dish that encapsulates the essence of our culture in one bite. This dish masks a troubling legacy. It is the contribution of Africa that makes this union possible: its profound influence on the gastronomy of the region dates back to the slave trade during colonial times, evident in dishes like congri in Cuba or gallopinto in Costa Rica. Their introduction of plantain, okra and yam has also shaped the ubiquitous sancocho, a Latin institution, a hearty soup capable of bringing back the dead, making it the central point of most social gatherings. 

Dig into the dried goods and you will encounter a colorful palette of corn products. Deep dark purple cobs which, when boiled along with cinnamon, clove and pineapple peel create chicha morada, a delicious yet, utterly sweet drink from Peru. Or huitlacoche, the so-called Mexican truffle, with its pungent earthy, woody notes and velvety texture. The bright orange kernels give us our beloved popcorn, whose origins date back to the Mayan empire times. The faintest yellow, almost white is used for atoles or champurrado, a thick, porridge-like beverage with chocolate and cinnamon, so rich and full of flavor that it will make your morning oats feel dull in comparison.

Almost hidden and tucked away lies cornmeal, which harbours almost endless possibilities. First there is nixtamalized flour - like maseca or masarina - that has undergone the process of soaking in an alkaline solution where it is softened and hulled, resulting in a silky flour which provides a slight elasticity and gives the glorious tortilla its distinctive flavour, a key element of quesadillas, tostadas, and tacos. Hinted in the name it's also the tamal, born from the mix of indigenous corn paste stuffed with the leftovers from Spanish conquerors and wrapped in vegetable leaves by African slaves. Varieties include the likes of hallacas, costeño, humitas, bollos, or pamonha.

On the other hand, precooked cornmeal, like Harina PAN or masarepa, has a slightly coarser texture and a less accentuated corn flavour. It is used in dishes like Salvadorean pupusas; flat corn patties stuffed with refried beans, cheese and sometimes chicharron similar to Mexican gorditas, as well as arepas from Colombia or Venezuela, which are fried or grilled first then filled with combinations like beef, fried plantain, avocado and cheese, a whole meal in the palm of your hand.

One day, after succeeding in my quest for groceries, I walked past a group of men playing dominoes over beer. I heard the chips being loudly smashed against the table and a small tiff that as quickly as it rises, dies down by the prompt arrival of another round of beer. I smiled: this scene reminded me that even though home may be five thousand miles away, here it doesn't feel quite as far. Even without the pandemic, these may too become distant memories. With the announcement of the shopping centre’s imminent demolition, this entire ecosystem now faces destruction, having its pieces scattered around neighboring areas or most disappearing for good, stripping us from it’s familiar faces and flavours and leaving us again yearning for a home away from home. 

Recipe: Domino arepa

Domino arepa gets its name from the resemblance of black beans and cheese to the color of domino chips.

Ingredients

Arepas:

1 cup Precooked cornmeal - (Harina PAN, Maseca)

1 ½ cups water

1 tbsp salt

Filling:

1 tin black beans (if using dried ones, leave to soak overnight and boil on fresh water until soft.)

1 Onion

2 Cloves garlic

1 Bell pepper

½ Bunch coriander

1 Chilli

1tbsp Cumin

100g Queso campesino (feta works great instead)

Directions:

In a bowl, mix the water, salt and cornmeal until it binds together, avoid adding extra flour until it has properly hydrated otherwise it will be too dry and crumbly.

Knead until obtaining a smooth ball.

Divide into tennis sized balls and form 1cm thick round patties. 

Place on a hot pan or griddle. Cook for about 5 minutes on each side or until golden brown, when tapping they must sound hollow.

For the filling:

Finely dice the onion, garlic, pepper, chilli and coriander keeping the stalks and leaves separate.

Heat a pan on medium heat and add a splash of oil, add spices and onions first, then garlic, chilli, pepper and coriander stalks and fry for a few minutes until soft and slightly caramelised.

Drain the beans and rinse off under the sink, add to the pan and cook for a few minutes. If too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water or stock.

Adjust seasoning and with a fork, crush a few beans to thicken the mix up. 

Fill the arepas with the black beans and crumble or grate some cheese on top and sprinkle a few coriander leaves. If you have any avocado at hand, add a few slices as well.

All the products mentioned in this piece can be found in store or online at Chatica https://chatica.co/

Marie Anne Benavente is the head chef at L'atelier des Chefs cooking school. She is currently on furlough. This is her first piece of food writing. Marie Anne waived payment and her fee for this article was donated to Latin Elephant, an activist group that covers the issue of displacement in Elephant and Castle.

The illustration was done by Javie Huxley, a British-Chilean illustrator and activist who has been at the forefront of the Save Latin Village campaign in Seven Sisters, the other main hub for the Latinx community in London. Javie was paid for her work for this article.

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