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MARKETS : Ay Curuba! Good Morning, Colombia

February 27, 1992|LINDA BURUM

La Sultana del Valle Colombian Bakery and Deli, 14909 Vanowen St., Van Nuys, (818) 781-9056. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Breakfast at La Sultana Del Valle is unlike any other meal in L.A--or for that matter, probably anywhere west of Miami.

The centerpiece of "El Sultan," as this extravagant $4.99 spread is called, is arepa Antioquena --a Colombian corn cake topped with lean Polish ham, a slice of Muenster cheese and two eggs sunny side up--but there's a lot more to breakfast. You can also select as many of the shop's Colombian-style buns as you like from the display case, including pandebono , pandequeso , bunuelos and other items still unfamiliar to most Californians, but all well worth discovering.

And while you're feasting, you sit at the tiny coffee bar with a Miami-inspired color scheme of fuchsia and black and sip a tumbler of creamy South American-style hot chocolate or a mellow cappuccino made from freshly ground Colombian beans.

"New York City and Miami have quite a few Colombian food shops," owner Armando Barrios tells me as I polish off my second bun, "but I think we're the only one on the West Coast."

Barrios is only half kidding when he says he opened the business because he got tired of lugging boxes and bags of baked goods home to L.A. every time he went to Miami. When he did decide to open La Sultana, after years of this sort of informal import business, he found that the challenge was to get an experienced Colombian baker willing to work here. It took Barrios' father, who lives in Colombia, several more years to locate one. He came to Los Angeles just long enough to develop the recipes and train an assistant--Elias Navarro, an experienced Mexican baker who now prepares all the Colombian specialties.

Every morning Yolanda Barrios and her sister, Estella Burgos, ready the deli foods for the day. Many hot items, such as the baked sweet plantains stuffed with guava and cheese, the chorizo and the Valluno-style tamales (made with three kinds of meat and wrapped in banana leaves), typify the distinctive cuisine of Valle de Cauca, Barrios' home in western Colombia. This particular region has a reputation for home cooks who are proud of their handiwork. However, the deli also carries other regional specialties: black sausage and chicharron from Bogota, arequipe typical of Antioquia and the tamales characteristic of Tolima to the east.

La Sultana makes delicious jugos or batidos de leche by blending milk and ice with such exotic fruits as curuba , lulo and passion fruit. "Of course we serve the usual banana, pineapple or papaya too," says Barrios, "but the Colombian fruits are what everyone misses from home." La Sultana also stocks a tiny grocery section with imported Colombian chocolate, cargamento beans and other hard-to-find Colombian necessities.

SHOPPING LIST

The cuisine of Colombia, unlike that of Mexico, wasn't heavily influenced by its Indian cultures, but that doesn't mean it's just transplanted Spanish cookery. The Spaniards who settled the country's isolated valleys learned to make do with the local ingredients--such things as yuca root and yuca flour, tropical fruits, and, of course, corn. La Sultana's foods illustrate the delicious results of these culinary adaptations.

BAKERY GOODS

The various buns based on yuca flour and cheese-- pandebono , pandequeso, pandeyuca, almojabana and bunuelos --are differentiated from one another by ingredients or cooking techniques. They're the counterparts of doughnuts in this country, typically eaten either at breakfast or as snacks at any time of day. Although they're best fresh from the oven, I've found that by wrapping the buns individually in foil I can keep them for a day or two. Warm them in their foil wrappers to about 110 degrees before serving.

Bunuelos: It's been said that enough different bunuelo recipes could be assembled between the Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego to fill a small cookbook. In some parts of Mexico, bunuelos, resemble flour tortillas sprinkled with sugar. In other areas of Latin America they can be vegetable fritters or rice cakes. La Sultana's Colombian version is a deep-fried bun shaped like a tennis ball, made with cornstarch and leavening added to the base of yuca and cheese. As if propelled by some magical magnetic force, the bunuelos spin spontaneously in the hot oil while they cook. They emerge a perfect golden brown sphere with a meltingly soft crumb that has no trace of oil.

Almojabana: This is my favorite bun. Although light and slightly chewy, it is quite rich because of the addition of soft aged cheese as well as the more mature cotija . A little sugar in the batter gives almojabana its irresistible savory-sweet flavor.

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