Taste of Colombia
Colombia Food 101
Top things to try:
- Bandeja Paisa
- Limonada de coco
Tales of a ChronicFoodie
Hola! It was back in 2005 that I found myself on the coastal city of Cartagena and without fail, visiting Colombia assisted me in shaping my view of this country that no textbook, television show or internet site could do. I had one mission when I got there… Where can I find the best empanadas?
I can still feel the intense heat of the sun beating on my brow as I explored this often misunderstood country. Having been born in the 70s, I clearly remember two things that stuck out regarding what I knew about Colombia: Juan Valdez’s coffee and how Colombia was the bain of America’s existence in the declared war against drugs. As the use of cocaine gained significantly in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, there was a lot of attention paid to Colombia and they still continue to be the largest producer and supplier of cocaine.
Let’s be very clear… what we see in the news and media often paints a picture that sells and often doesn’t reveal what lies beneath the noise. My personal experience in any country I’ve visited over my life: it is seldom as you assume.
That is clearly the case when it comes to Colombia and what I discovered and tasted during my visit. Colombians are deeply spiritual and have a strong sense of family that is quite foreign to Canadians like me. And of course, when there are people, there are foods that become the anchor of the culture and heritage. I’ve been fortunate to have Colombian friends who continue to educate me on the food and I have to confess, it has been amazing!
Tour guides are your best resource to guide you off the beaten path and in my case, I take advantage of this by finding the path less “eaten” by visitors and tourists. After a standard bus tour of Cartagena, I took it upon myself, as I always do, built a rapport with our tour guide. This helps a lot in general as they share things that are often off script and you get them to then feel comfortable with you. After the tour was over, I felt more than comfortable enough to ask him if he had some extra time where he could take us to a place to buy emeralds (note: Colombian Emeralds are prized) and to take me to his favourite place to have an empanada. For the cost of $20USD and a free lunch, our guide showed us a side of Cartagena that no preset tour could ever provide.
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Taste of Colombia
If Colombian food is new to you, here are a few things that you should try:
Empanadas can be found all over South America, but each country and even regions within each country has their own version of this savoury treat. The origin of this dish lies back in Spain and Portugal. Basically, the empanada is like a small pasty which is baked or fried that is stuffed with various meats and or vegetables. The casing is made from cornmeal flour which has a wonderful grainy texture.
In Colombia, they are usually fried and more specifically, “deep fried”. These treats contain many different fillings that vary according to the region. For example, in the city of Medellin chorizo-filled empanadas are extremely popular, while in poorer areas they can be filled with cheese and spinach. The variations are endless and all can be sampled on any street corner.
For a beginner to anything South American, then this is a great place to start your exploration. I personally can eat these every day and if you like a little kick, then you have to have your empanadas complimented with “Aji” which is a jalapeno picante which is the most popular “condiment” that is used for empanadas, soups and pretty much anything that needs a nice citrus kick. Oh, and don’t forget to squeeze a little lime juice too!
If you are going to learn anything about Colombian food, you really do need to start with Arepa. Just like how East Asians eat rice at every meal or many Europeans eat bread, Colombians eat arepa daily and it is not unusual for them to eat it at every meal. This flat corn flour bread is traditionally round but there are so many variations it is impossible to count but however it is made, this staple is not only a near necessity at every meal, it has become a national treasure where some have described the arepa as “a part of their cultural heritage“. By itself, like many staple foods like bread and rice, it is bland but like the other staples, it is meant to be eaten to complement the other foods during any given meal. Don’t skip out on this and have it with all the other yummy goodness at your Colombian meal.
If there is something I can knaw on for an entire day, Chicharrón would be it. This delicious deep-fried pork belly is what delicious dreams are made of. Popular in a whole lot of countries but definitely a staple in Latin America, this pork happiness can be found anywhere there was any Spanish influence, including Guam and the Philippines. Not a complicated dish but it is best when the skin and the layer of fat are all there and it is something special to have it with a good portion of arepa.
Bandeja Paisa: The National Dish of Colombia
Bandeja Paisa is the national dish of Colombia and pretty much covers all the top hits of everything Colombian in one plate. There are various versions of Bandeja (the Spanish word for “platter” and Paisa is a region found in Northwest Colombia. The platter is something I would describe as a “bit of everything” kind of meal. The calorie count is high and it is a just delightful savoury goodness. The platter will include bacon, red beans, white rice, ground meat, Chicharrón, fried plantain, chorizo, hogao sauce (a tomato and onion based sauce), morcilla (blood sausage), avocado and lemon which is all complimented with arepa.
Other Stuff To Try
Sancocho: This hearty soup is actually more like a stew with the packed nature of the dish. A favourite in Colombia, there are variations of this throughout South America. Colombians will have one or a combo of chicken, hen, pork ribs, cow ribs, fish, and oxtail along with plantain, potato, cassava, various veggies and corn.
Morcilla: There are places all over the world that have a form of “blood” sausage and in Colombia, morcilla is a common part of the Bandeja Paisa. If blood sausage is something new to you, then perhaps this will be high on the scale of “unusual” tastes for the foodie explorer.
Limonada de coco: A popular drink in Northern Colombia but when you taste it, you will be hooked. This frozen smoothy mixed with coconut milk or coconut creme and lime juice. Blend with ice and your sweetener of choice, and you’ve got yourself a tasty Limonada de coco! Try it with maple syrup as the sweetener… That’s what I did and it came out pretty awesome!
Colombiana: The most popular soda pop in Colombia. It’s kinda reddish pink and has similarities to cream soda but I feel that it has a bit more punch. A refreshing drink to have on a hot day and compliments the savour foods of Colombia really well. You can often find this in places like Walmart but for sure if you’re visiting any Latin supermarket.
Refajo: A popular drink to have when enjoying a barbeque or sitting out on a Sunday afternoon, Refajo is a combination of equal parts Colombiana and beer. To kick it up a notch, Colombians will throw in a couple of shots of Aguardiente which is a strong alcoholic drink made from anise and cane sugar. A dear friend of mine has a brother-in-law who’s Colombian who introduced me to another concoction where they mix coca-cola with beer. Different and quite enjoyable.
Colombia is the furthest south I’ve ever been on the South American continent (as of 2017) but hope to change that real soon. I’ve had Colombian friends along my life’s journey and like any new encounter, it spurs my love and desire to learn more. Colombian food is heavily influenced by their Spanish history. As always, I do know that this is just a scratch on the surface but if the cuisine is new, I feel that the list above is a great place to start.
‘Till next time… Stay hungry my friends.
Jusep, the ChronicFoodie