Restaurateur Narada Kudinar remembers his first bite of Colombian food. Patacones — crunchy, fritter-style plantains — were his introduction to the cuisine. "It tastes so different to bananas, even though it looked like bananas," he says. "It was a delicious snack."
He recalls the patacones being topped with a tomato sauce flavoured with basil and chilli, or served with a bracing hit of ceviche.
This culinary lesson took place at his south Sydney restaurant, Yan, during a staff meal. His chefs, Juan Camilo Hurtado and Santiago Sabogal, are from Bogotá and wanted to offer a taste of their homeland.
"They thought I was joking when I said: 'We should open a Colombian restaurant'.
Hurtado exclaims, "When someone says you can have your own restaurant, with your own menu, you're like, 'what, just like that?'"
Kudinar hadn't actually planned to open a Colombian eatery so quickly. It was something he had originally filed away as a distant future plan — something that could've happened in three years' time.
"Like with everything else, the COVID pandemic just accelerates things," Kudinar says. "It was like: 'Let's just do this now'."
With the pandemic shutting down Sydney restaurants last March, Kudinar wanted to help staff keep their jobs — particularly his Colombian-born ones. As international workers, they weren't eligible for JobKeeper and other welfare benefits. So initially, they kept working at Yan in Wolli Creek, which was operating in a takeaway-only capacity. As dining restrictions lifted, he moved them to his John Montago cafe in Woolloomooloo, an inner suburb. By day, it served sandwiches, salads and coffee, but at night, it would become Juan Montago — a Colombian-inspired diner they launched in September.
Of course, translating the cuisine for a Sydney setting hasn't always been easy.
"We don't have seasons in Colombia. So for the whole year, we have the ingredients that we want," says Hurtado. Sydney, however, doesn't have the same endlessly tropical climate — so getting produce has been tricky.
"I wanted to put green mango salad [on the menu], because it's something that I remember from when I was a child — you eat it everywhere on the streets," he says. But the fruit is currently out of season, so it's a hefty $20 a kilo and out of their budget. Ditto limes.
"Limes are so expensive. It's $30 a kilo and we use lime in all the dishes." Lemons are their wallet-friendly substitute at the moment.
Then there are plantains they need to make patacones, which aren't currently on suppliers' lists. But they're scattered in small fruit shops around Sydney, so they've had to hit the suburbs and individually stockpile all the plantains they can.
At Juan Montago, the recipes have been much easier to source: the sobrebarriga en salsa de Cerveza (beer-braised beef flank) is inherited from Hurtado's father. The family version involves stuffing everything in a pressure cooker with a boozy hit of Club Colombia beer and forgetting it for two hours. Juan Montago's recipe is more labour-intensive: it's slow-cooked all night, with a local beer, then the leftover liquid is reduced into a rich sauce that accompanies the meat.
It's a similar deal with the bandeja paisa (beans and pork belly), which his family would also set and forget in a pressure cooker for two hours. At Juan Montago, it's roasted in the oven for double that time. The beans are served with smoky guacamole and pork belly that's turned crisp after eight hours of cooking.
"The beans, it's my childhood," says Sabogal. It was a school-time staple and regular dinner. "If you have some extra beans, you keep [them] for the next day." That's when you transform them into calentado, a hearty breakfast dish of beans, rice, plantains and fried egg.
Then there's the tres leches dessert, which evokes Sabogal's memories of the three-milk cake in his homeland: "It's so common in every neighbourhood, every corner."
"This is my favourite dessert in Colombia. My mum knows when it's my birthday that I have to have that cake. Every birthday," says Hurtado.
At Juan Montago, you can also order ice-cream sandwiches, which get their flavour hit from dulce de leche.
"It's common in South America, but it comes from Argentina," says Sabogal. The restaurant doesn't restrict itself to Colombian cuisine and also recognises influences from beyond its borders, with food featured from other Latin-American countries and Asian ingredients flavouring dishes, too.
But empanadas are definitely Colombian and quite different from the Argentinian kind — not just because they're made from corn flour instead of wheat, and fried instead of baked.
"Our fillings are completely different," Hurtado says. He draws on his time at Yan (which is Mandarin for "smoke" and specialises in charred meats) to create a smoky beef filling with potatoes and tomato. The vegetarian version is made with corn, tofu and fermented black beans, "which is very Asian".
It's similar to Juan Montago's grilled octopus, which has smoked ponzu dressing — also inspired by his time at Yan.
"You're always going to borrow off your previous experience. That's just the story of Sydney cuisine," says Kudinar. It's very Australian to draw on your culinary heritage as well as the multicultural influences around you, he believes.
It's why the restaurateur connects so much to Juan Montago's encocado, even though the prawn stew is from the Pacific coast of Colombia and associated with the chefs' family beach holidays.
Encocado is typically a seafood soup, but at the restaurant, it's been reinvented as a thick and creamy tomato sauce that's served with sautéed prawns and showered with plenty of fried plantain chips.
Kudinar remembers his earliest experiences of the encocado, which were more traditional and served during Yan's staff meals. "It was heartwarming for me," he says. "When I eat Colombian food, it makes me feel really comfortable, like we're eating Asian cuisine."
The coconut milk in the encocado evokes Thai curries to him — not so much the flavour profile, but the act of eating it. "You share it, you have it with rice," he says. It's passed around the table, between family members. "It's quite Southeast Asian to me." Colombia might be thousands of kilometres from Vanuatu or Hong Kong (where his mother is from), or Myanmar and Thailand (where his wife's family called home) or Indonesia (where his father grew up), but the cuisine still triggers so many connections with comfort food. There are many shared tropical flavours across these cuisines, and the Colombian coconut rice on Juan Montago's menu reminds him of the nasi lemak he grew up with and the coconut rice he'd have with Indonesian fried chicken.
"When I eat Colombian food, it makes me feel really comfortable."
But Colombian food can also be hard to directly translate, which is why Kudinar lists the original Spanish names of dishes on the menu, alongside his English descriptions of them.
"Growing up Asian in Australia…I don't want to bastardise anything," he says. "But I also don't want to be stuck during service explaining everything! Because a fried plantain fritter is not a patacone. But it was the closest thing I could get. I struggled a lot."
He points to a line on the menu that plainly describes a roasted tomato, onion and grilled mozzarella condiment.
"That in itself doesn't sound that interesting," he says. But it has an actual word — hogao — that fully represents what it is in Colombian cuisine. In the same way that congee being described as wet rice or rice soup "doesn't give it the justice it deserves", he lets the Spanish names mirror the English description on the menu, so people can cross-reference them but also learn what they should be.
"Some people try to order off the Spanish menu sometimes, which is cool. Don't be afraid!" he says.
It can be the start of a rewarding Colombian education.
144 Cathedral Street, Woolloomooloo
Tuesday (tacos only) to Saturday: 6pm–late