Colombian food is as diverse as its flora and fauna. The country possesses a natural sophistication that is hard to describe in a few words, but will dawn on the discerning visitor just through being in the country. This is not the sort of sophistication epitomized by elegant, expensively dressed women and men who combine suave good manners with business acumen, although you will find people of that sort in the cities.
It’s the adjective “natural” that defines this brand of sophistication. It’s as if this is a quality that was here from the beginning, many centuries, even millennia, before people worked in skyscrapers and wore designer clothes. There’s a sort of innate intelligence and good taste in everything from the architecture to the food in Colombia. It has nothing to do with whether something is expensive or in some other way “fancy”.
A simple example is popping in for lunch at a small, down-to-earth restaurant. In many places around the world you might be thinking about a sandwich, or maybe a bowl of soup and some bread. With Colombian food you’re likely to find that the soup comes with rice – possibly more than one kind – plus some fried plantain and a segment of avocado. In other words, to use a concept that really only emerged in the 20th century, a balanced meal, as recommended by doctors and dieticians. But you get the impression the Colombians were doing this as a matter of course back in the days when they lived in small, dark houses made of mud bricks.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that this is a country where many things grow easily and are available locally. While denizens of countries from the US and Canada to the UK and Germany have to plan a menu at the last minute, having verified that the necessary fresh ingredients are in fact in the shops that day, in Colombia you can bet your special starter recipe there are some beautiful big avocados at the right stage of readiness, along with sheaves of vibrant, healthy cilantro and dense heads of dark, blue-green broccoli.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people in so many countries will go for a burger and fries, because they know that’s always in season.
Each region has its own character, born of a unique history, and with Colombian cuisine there is not so much a couple of national dishes as a range of regional specialities.
We’re going to attempt to sum up each area in terms of its natural attributes, its life story and its day-to-day culture. There is a certain amount of crossover between regions and even parts within them, but we’ll provide as much definition as possible.
Check out Anthony Bourdain No Reservations – Colombia.
Arepas – Colombian food wouldn’t be the same without them
But before we get to specific regions, there is one word that crops up in any discussion of Colombian food. And that word is arepa.
Arepas are a sort of flatbread but a little thicker than most, and, crucially, made with corn flour – not the very fine grade that is used to thicken sauces, but a slightly coarser one. The texture is different to wheat-based breads, too.
You don’t wrap arepas around food, though. You slice them open and put fillings inside. And because they are relatively moist, when you slice them open they steam, because boy, they’re hot.
Colombia without the arepa would be like France without the baguette, the US without the burger bun or the UK without the sliced white loaf – except that arepas are even more common in their country than those three are in theirs.
Arepas are everywhere in Colombia and the reason is because they are so versatile. What do we use bread for? To fill us up and give us a bit of carbohydrate-fuelled energy. Arepas supply that, along with a small amount of vitamin C and trace minerals including iron.
But it’s what arepas don’t do and don’t contain that is most important in the context of health. They don’t contain gluten and they don’t make you fat – unless you eat them by the truckload.
So far so good, but what you eat with the bread is equally important, and the simple answer with arepas is that they go perfectly with just about anything. That means that whatever the regional specialty is, you can probably serve arepas with it and the combination will work. Any fish or meat. Grated cheese. Tuna with coarsely chopped onions. Beans… you name it.
The arepa is not the sole preserve of Colombia, however. They are very proud of it in Venezuela too, for example. But in that country people tend to make their own. In Colombia you find them in packs of six or so, ready to be quickly readied in a pan or any really hot surface. So they’re Colombian convenience food, without the negative aspects that that term conjures up.
If you’re eating arepas in Colombia, chances are you’re eating out, so you don’t need to know how to make them. But it’s so easy and the recipe proves how harmless they are, so you might as well know anyway.
It all starts with that flour, and the most popular brand by an overwhelming majority is Harina PAN. The linguistically aware will suspect the second word has something to do with bread, but in fact it’s an acronym (that’s why it’s capital letters). It stands for Producto Alimenticio Nacional and it mean national food product. There are other brands, each with different characteristics, but if you’re going to find arepa flour in a supermarket outside Colombia, it’s that distinctive yellow pack you’re going to see.
And if you do have a go, to rekindle memories of Colombia back in your own home, it’s just flour and water, maybe a pinch of salt, but that’s it. Mix it up to a manageable consistency and shape it into a fat pancake about four to six inches in diameter. Then you don’t roll it, but sort of slap it from hand to hand so it gets flatter and wider.
Like a lot of cooking, it’s trial and error as regards quantities, but it’s absurdly easy – and the beauty of it is that it doesn’t stick to your hands like wheat dough does. Then put it in a hot pan on the hob and cook it quite slowly until it gets brown singe spots and looks, as it were, good enough to eat.
Most of us will never be as good at making an arepa as a woman whose mother taught her when she was small and who can make them in her sleep, perfectly shaped and full flavoured, but any fool can become fairly proficient and once you’ve got the knack it’s just a fantastic way to put a meal together when you haven’t got much in, or much time to spare.There are variations on the recipe. In certain regions they include eggs, and some people like to shallow-fry them, but corn flour and water is basically it.
Anyway, back to Colombian food and letting someone else do the work for you.
One bosom buddy of the arepa is chicharron – fried pork belly, which of course is going to send the meal way down the league as regards healthy food, but, like many things, if it’s only once in a while, that’s okay. And if you’re on vacation in Colombia, eating chicharron certainly qualifies as permissible.
While pork belly has only become fashionable relatively recently in many countries, Colombians have always just seen it as a logical thing to eat. It’s there, it’s edible and you’re eating almost every other part of the animal, so why not?
Chicharron is succulent, seductive, decadent and many other three-syllable words. Delicious, for example.
And now for the regional specialities.
Amazon & Llanos
As if to illustrate the crossover between regions, as mentioned above, we start with a combination of water and land that takes in a significant chunk of the country. One of the world’s most famous rivers – an integral part of several South American countries – and a huge expanse of tropical grassland.
Ecotourism is the new way, some might say the thinking man’s tourism, and without wishing to denigrate the old religion of lazing on a beach with a paperback book, the senses are more fully engaged on a trip to an area such as this.
The region shares much with neighbouring Peru and Brazil, and the three have influenced each other’s history and culture. The wildlife is fabulous and if the area is short on manmade evidence of the human race’s pioneering spirit and eagerness to impose itself on nature, that is a trait to be admired. The most important contribution man can make to an area such as this is to leave it alone.
But of course people have lived here since fire was the very latest in technology, and fortunately much of their legacy is on the cultural side.
Our first sample of Colombian food features a fish that is as impressive as it is abundant. Before the days of mass exports and imports, our ancestors ate what was to hand, and around here that meant fish. Pirarucu is a large fish, growing up to three meters long, and that can feed several families, so there must have been a strong social element to meal times in those early days. Some recipes today are pretty faithful to those of past times, although creative cooks will always come up with their own ideas.
Not only is the pirarucu big, but it is also armoured with tough scales, so preparation involves a fair degree of physical exertion, including pounding the flesh before simply frying it and serving with lemon juice and sides of sweet plantain and vegetables.
Of all the Colombian regional dishes, pirarucu embodies a sense of history that goes back far beyond the time when recipe books were printed, to an age when hunter-gatherers brought home the goods, maybe after an exhausting and even dangerous day out in the wilds. “Honey, I’m home – and I’ve been carrying a fish the size of a pig all the way from the river, so I hope you’ve got something on the stove because I’m starving.”
An echo of the no-nonsense outdoor lifestyle of farmhands and particularly cowboys is found in Mamona (Ternera a la Llanera).This was barbecue before the word was coined, and the sort of thing that now enrages vegetarians, but will have received no such opposition back in the day. This traditional Colombian dish involves a calf about six months old, which is eaten in its entirety, with the offal roasted separately.
If you see this being cooked in the countryside or somebody’s garden, it will probably be a tent-like structure, with the meat skewered on poles arranged around the fire. But no wigwam or tepee ever tasted this good.
Cundinamarca – The Colombian Food Capital
Cundinamarca is a large department that includes the country’s capital, Bogota, and as such has an inordinately high profile in the eyes of visitors and distant observers. There is much more to the region than the relatively slick city, but it is a fine place that combines everything you would expect of a modern metropolis with a fashionable greenness which owes much to both nature (the Andes are not far away and you can see and feel their presence) and thoughtful development, with parks studding the urban sprawl like lush, oxygen-rich emerald oases. The cultured nature of the country is highlighted by the Colombian trick of putting parks and libraries close together, simultaneously encouraging the exercising of brain and body.
Where there is exercise there must be fuel for the body, and one claimant for the title of Colombia’s national dish, bolstered by its being a common sight in the capital city, is Ajiaco. This is a soup containing chicken, two or three different types of potato, corn, capers, avocado and sour cream. Note that: not just potato but two or three kinds, and after the obvious soup ingredients, the avocado to add a touch of freshness – not in the soup, but served with it. And there’s the sour cream to impart a bit of zing. Man may not live by ajiaco alone, but he could do a lot worse.
The people who populated the Andes long before concrete and glass were invented to tempt them down into the valleys had another distinctive Colombian dish up their poncho: changua. Not quite as substantial as ajiaco, this is also a soup and as such supplies much-needed hydration as well as nourishment. It’s basically water, milk and eggs, the latter being cracked into the liquid without breaking the yolk. Changua is livened up with spring onions and cilantro and traditionally served with stale bread, although the contemporary restaurateur might see fit to use something fresh and delicious instead.
Not too many countries have the luxury of two coasts featuring different oceans, but Colombia does. In the south lies the Pacific and to the north the legendary Atlantic, which the Caribbean sea makes a part of. The region’s most celebrated city is the elegant, charming Cartagena, a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. There is also the Tayrona National Park, which features both rainforest and beaches, as well as the fabled Lost City in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is the ghost of a town built by the Tayrona people between the 11th and the 14th centuries and stands as a thought-provoking reminder of the impermanence of human habitation.
Arroz Con Coco
As regards this region’s contribution to Colombian food, if there’s the Caribbean there must be seafood, and one of the ubiquitous dishes around here is simple fried fish – often red snapper – with coconut rice, which uses local resources to add flavour to the staple carbohydrate. It is supplemented by something you will find all over the country: fried green plantain known as patacones. Those unfamiliar with plantain should know (certainly before they go food shopping) that this big brother of the banana has two distinct culinary guises – and they both crop up regularly on Colombian menus. When the skin is green and the flesh is hard, it does a job more often done in other countries by potatoes. Having broken off the skin (which is hard and doesn’t peel like a banana), you slice it crosswise, fry it and press it, then fry it again. Or, of course, you go to a restaurant and let someone else do it. When plantains ripen and you fry them they are sweet, with a nice touch of tartness. But for patacones it’s the green ones you need, the ones that don’t even look ready.
Like arepas, patacones are the kind of thing you can easily rustle up back home to broaden your culinary repertoire. Plantains are easy to find in the shops in many areas, and once you’ve cooked them, you’ll be amazed that everyone doesn’t have this simple string to their bow.
Another delicacy of the Caribbean coast is suero, which is not a dish in itself but an accompaniment best described as a kind of cream cheese. The sauce is delicate and soft. It provides a subtle cheesy flavor to their plantains, Cassava, or any other starchy food that needs a little flavor to it.
If ever a region was self-explanatory it’s this one and the simplicity of its English language title tells you all you need to know about the country’s importance to the world’s breakfast tables. An area that includes cities such as Manizales, Armenia and Pereira, it has provided the bedrock of the country’s economy since the 19th century and which is still its proudest export.
The dish we’ve chosen to represent this region is one that has kin in other parts of the world, but none regarded with as much affection as this iconic Colombian dish. Mondongo is a soup, but such a substantial one that it almost needs its own classification. It’s made from tripe, onions, potatoes, garlic, cilantro, and tomatoes, with variations at the discretion of the cook, perhaps including pork and/or pork sausage. If that doesn’t sound like a bowlful on its own, it usually comes with white rice and a slice of avocado, which if you’re not expecting it can seem a bit out of place, but, like a wedge of lime, can just add a welcome touch of freshness to the hearty savoriness of the soup. But then, that’s only to be expected in a tropical country where not only is hot chocolate a popular choice in cafes, but it often comes with a slice of cheese. That’s right, a slice of cheese. And guess what – when you taste it, it makes sense. The presence of tripe gives it a “personality” that other dishes don’t possess. To many people that’s a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, and in Colombia it is loved.
In addition to the hundreds of small restaurants across the country that serve mondongo, there is a chain called simply Mondongo, and with the addition of a possessive apostrophe (Mondongo’s) there are a few in the US too. If you happen to be in Santa Elena any time, up in the hills of Antioquia, there’s a little restaurant next to the church at the top of the hill where they do a very good mondongo. But beware: you may get more than I bargained for in terms of quantity.
A very different but similarly cherished Colombian dish is mazamorra, a cold, creamy milk confection containing corn kernels and small lumps of panela (an unrefined cane sugar that you find in the shops in cake-like shapes six inches or more in diameter and an inch or two thick). Mazamorra is unlike anything most of us have ever come across elsewhere and may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you want to hit a new arrival with a Colombian food experience that sorts out the metaphorical men from the boys, this is a great one to use.
In the state that boasts the city of Medellin and some fabulously verdant farmland, old Colombia coexists staunchly with the new wave in which technology is king. While the electronic equipment that serves the new entrepreneurs doesn’t mind too much what the altitude is and the air is like, the flowers and foods grown in the hills outside the city benefit from a pristine quality that no urban environment can get anywhere near. Such an area is Santa Elena, a collection of villages some 8,000 ft above sea level and tucked away up country lanes where the sun is much stronger than the temperature would have you believe.
Here you can tuck into the sort of Colombian food that used to sustain the silleteros, flower growers who would make big, heavy displays of their blooms and walk miles to market with them on their back.
It is also home to Antioquia beans, or frijoles Antioqueños, which are plump, tasty and nutritious and can be used in soups, stews and even chilli con carne as a substitute for red kidney beans. But what they really star in is a local rice dish featuring beans, chorizo, corn, avocado and plantains.
A serious rival to mondongo as a Colombian food legend is the feast that is Bandeja Paisa. Often served for breakfast, this is ground beef, fried pork rind, blood sausage, chorizo, a slice of sweet fried plantain and saucy, savoury cooked beans, all backed up by white rice and a slice of avocado. No one stays hungry after that lot.
You would never see this kind of dish invented nowadays, when most of us lead sedentary lifestyles, but back in the days when life was physically tough for many people, food was fuel as much as being for enjoyment.
If the Bandeja sounds a little daunting, you might go for the similarly famous Sancocho Antioqueño, a hearty soup made with pork, beef, potato, cassava, cilantro, onion, garlic, green plantain, sweet plantain, corn, carrot, cabbage, salt, and cumin. And let’s not forget the slice of avocado and portion of white rice.
Like most traditional dishes, Sancocho can’t be attributed to one specific chef or a particular housewife who knocked up a big pan of soup containing everything she had in the cupboard in preparation from her husband’s return from a hunting trip, but rather to villages and generations of home cooks, each adding an idea or a refinement until the dish reached its legendary status.
To demonstrate that Colombian food is not all bulk, we head to the Pacific coast. This is a spectacular region of forest and beach, rivers and waterfalls, its relative inaccessibility helping it remain as it has been for thousands of years. But that is not to say that civilization has not touched it, as the decidedly 21st century dish of ceviche shows.
Many an otherwise skilled cook has reservations about trying this method of preparing seafood, notably shrimps, by curing them with lemon or lime juice In North America and Europe this is regarded by many as fancy food, best left to expert chefs, but in Colombia, particularly the Pacific Coast, they have no such reservations and any half-decent cook will confidently prepare this. But Colombian cuisine’s take on it. But Colombian cuisines take on this rounds out the citrus flavour with ketchup and it tends to be served with salt crackers. Never let it be said the country fails to move with the times – and it is somehow refreshing to see that communities outside metropolitan areas can do routinely what many a culture buff would hesitate to.
That’s a fitting way to return to the original notion of natural sophistication, a trait that is perhaps Colombia’s best kept secret. There is a lot more to do here than eat, but it is one of the joys of life, after all, and with so much wonderful Colombian food on offer, the visitor would be foolish not to take advantage of that aspect of the culture while trekking around, taking in all the rest.
Have you tried any of the Colombian Food listed in this post? If so, which is your favourite and do you remember the restaurant where you ate it? If there is something that we missed that should be added to this food guide, please let us know in a comment below.
Before we go there is time to mention bunuelos, smallish fried sweet dumpling-type treats, sometimes flavoured with anise and popular at celebrations and particularly Christmas. They are often served with natilla, a kind of custard. .
You may also enjoy the guilty secret of empanadas, half-moon-shaped fritters filled with pork, chicken etc, and a very popular street food as well as appearing on menus in every town and village. Health food they ain’t, but the how many lovely, tasty dishes are?
Colombian food is so varied and so accomplished that it attracts fan groups, and one such is medellinfoodies.com, based in that wonderful city which somehow manages to combine the traditional and the contemporary and which has an almost Parisian feel, with a cafe on every corner and an outdoor culture that owes much to the consistently warm climate.