You’ve probably already heard that 2018 is Colombia’s year. Well it’s no wonder; a high-profile 12-year peace treaty, a Nobel Peace Prize for its President, and national investments in marketing the country overseas have all combined to boost Colombia’s reputation as a great place to visit and slowly shed its bad boy image in the process. Inbound tourism has rocketed by more than 250 per cent in the past 10 years, outpacing tourism to all other South American countries. Those are some serious stats right there, and thankfully the country has the minerals to back it up.
But what about the food? Well if you’re planning a trip to the country, you’re in for a real Colombian culinary adventure. Inexpensive, delicious and in huge portions, the food in Colombia is meaty, hearty and diverse. It’s a fascinating a blend of European and indigenous ingredients, with stews a common centre piece; the low and slow braise making the most of humble cuts to delicious ends.
A couple of things you must know before getting stuck in – the main meal is usually eaten in the afternoon (between 3 and 4) and dinner tends to be more of a snack, eaten at around 8pm. It’s often said that in Colombia you should ‘eat breakfast like a king, have lunch like a prince, and eat dinner like a beggar’; a mantra great for the waistline, too. One more thing; you’ll no doubt be asked “con queso?” when you order your food. This means would you like cheese with that, and of course, you do. Colombian cheese is a fairly neutral flavor that’s eaten with everything, giving body and a little richness.
Now we’ve got the formalities out the way, let’s get cracking. Here are 20 IDEAL dishes to try in Colombia.
CHOCOLATE CON QUESO
We had to put this top on the list because it’s ridiculously addictive. Chocolate and cheese? It sounds like something you crave when you’re pregnant, however the saltiness of the cheese combined with the sweetness of the hot chocolate is something special. Don’t turn your nose up at this curious combination or you’ll miss out, big time. In Colombia it’s completely normal and extremely popular for breakfast and tea time, especially in the Andes region of the country. The country has a reputation for making seriously good chocolate Colombian hot chocolate itself is something else; thick and rich, we think its success lies in the froth. Using a molinillo (a wooden chocolate stirrer), they hand whisk the chocolate and milk until it’s hot and bubbly..
Hot chocolate and cheese in Bogota | © einalem / Flickr
PAN DE BONO & ALMOJABANA
If you find yourself feeling peckish, look no further than a simple snack of moreish balls of cheese bread that are sold everywhere. You’ll find variations of them all over Latin America under different names. Best served when hot and gooey inside, Colombians like to eat this doughy ball of heaven warm with a cup of hot chocolate.
Some dishes stand the test of time and this is one of them. These little corn cakes were originally made by pre-Colombian natives and to this day are eaten everyday, all over the country. We’d go as far as to say it’s the most commonly served food in Colombia.
While they come in an array of different varieties (our favourite are the ones with sour cheese worked into the dough), the most ubiquitous are made with corn flour and pressed into patty like cakes. They’re cooked and served with cheese or a dollop of hogao – a Colombian mixture of cooked onions and tomatoes which forms the base of many dishes, like a sofrito. Feel free to eat your Arepa however you see fit, the Colombians are an easy going bunch.
We suggest splitting your arepa to make a sandwich and stuffing it with beans or pork – just one of the a many ways the Colombians like to eat it.
Arepa | © VillaRex1 / WikiCommons
Larger than life, hearty and filling, this is the national dish of Colombia. Peasant workers used to eat this to provide them with enough energy to last the day. It’s a plate of meat and carbs and treats – rice, chorizo, minced meat black sausage, fried pork rind, all sorts – served on a bed of rice and beans and usually topped with a fried egg. It’s usually served with avocado and plantain; the more the merrier, we say. Warning; this is a real feast so make sure you come hungry.
Bandeja Paisa | © Chun Yip So/Flickr
Colombian style, fried pork belly? Yes please. From the Andean region, for the faint hearted this is not. It’s cholesterol clogging, but utterly delicious. The pork belly is cut into strips and the meat is scored in a cross hatch style, so when it’s cooked, it simply falls into bite-sized hunks, and the crackling gets really crispy.
Colombia is renowned for its delicious stews and types vary from corner to corner of the country. Probably the most famous is Puchero Santafereño, named after Santa Fé de Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Puchero, the Spanish word for stewpot’ contains three types of meat; beef, chicken and pork. Served with broth on the side, the dish itself is thought to have originated in Spain. When the conquistadors came so did their stews. Most versions are served with white rice, avocado slices and a healthy serving of hogao.
Soup forms a huge part of Colombian cuisine and ajiaco is one of the most well known soups. It typically contains chicken, with three different types of potato (including Colombia’s famous criollas which are small, yellow, creamy and buttery), corn avocado and flavoured with guasca – a herb grown in this part of the world which has a very distinct taste. The soup is usually served with rice and avocado and a dollop of cream.
Ajiaco in Bogota | © Cesar.cely / WikiCommons
If you like rice, you’ll love this simple dish, which is typically found in the Cauca Department (the south western region of Colombia). Here nearly every household has their own way of making it, and recipes are passed from generation to generation, cherished and rarely leaving the household. It has a similar consistency to risotto – creamy, wet and sticky in texture – and usually contains chicken, pork, potatoes, vegetables. It’s a real one pot cook, this one, saving precious time on the washing up.
BISTEC A CABALLO
This traditional Colombian steak dish is delicious. Steak is served with hoago which over a bed of plain rice and topped with an egg. When you break the yolk of the egg, it runs over the plate, melting into the sauce creating a thicker consistency. Bistec a caballo means ‘steak on horseback’ – a pretty strange name considering it has nothing to do with horses. We think it’s to do with the egg straddling the steak – like it’s riding it?
Otherwise known as ‘fast lunch’, this isn’t just one dish, it’s three. Typically soup for starters, rice with beans, plantain and a piece of meat or fish for main, with a side of lentil or salads completing the trio. Filling, yes but fast? We’re not so sure.
Fried offal? Yep, that ticks our boxes. A plate of cow or pig’s intestines, black pudding, pork rinds – you name it, they’ll fry it. It usually comes served with white arepas, fried plantain and fried yellow papas criollas creole potatoes. Its popularity mean it’s served by street vendors and restaurants alike.
Fritanga Stall | © Torrenegra/Flickr
Usually served on special occasions, Lechona is an impressive centrepiece for any party. A whole pig is stuffed with rice, onions, peas, herbs and a combination of fragrant spices. The pig is cooked in a brick oven for up to 12 hours, rendering it so tender it falls apart when you as much as look at it, let alone eat it. Typical of the Tolima area, come Christmas, New Year’s and any national holiday, the outdoor oven is fired up and the hog is roasted.
ARROZ COM POLLO
Translated as ‘rice with chicken’, this dish is found all over Latin America, with each country having their own tweaks to personalise it. We could eat this stuff everyday for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Don’t flinch when you see the locals enjoying theirs with a splash of ketchup – it’s totally normal and actually rather delicious.
CAZUELA DE MARISCOS
Served by both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, Colombia has a bounty of fresh seafood at their shores. If you find yourself on the coast – and be honest, why wouldn’t you? – then this dish is a must try. It’s a creamy seafood stew enriched with coconut milk, and feels tropical and perfectly suited to the location.
Hey you! Fish fan! Another fish favourite of ours popular on the coast is is pescado; that’s Colombian style whole fried fish, usually using red snapper, mojarra or tilapia.
One of the best things to eat in Colombia are Tamales, preferably at a traditional Desayunadero (breakfast restaurant) with a mug of hot chocolate. In the pre-Colombian era, the Mayans ate them at feasts and festivals. The are so many different varieties of tamal, but the most widely known are tolimense.
Grilled sausage, chicken, beef and pork is served on a lettuce and topped with grated cheese, potato sticks and sweetcorn. This is then further adorned with mayonnaise, tartar sauce and even a touch of pineapple. It’s full of grease and as such, is what you typically eat after a night out. It’s served in 24 hour cafes the country over to hungry, hammered revellers.
You can’t come to Colombia and not have an empanada. Yes, we know they’re popular all over Latin America, but the thing that makes Colombian empanadas so special is that they’re usually deep fried – and isn’t nearly everything better deep fried? Just ask the Scottish. Crunchy and with a moresih filling of meat and potato that’s lightly spice, for us empanadas are the pinnacle of Colombian food.
If you’re a regular reader of IDEAL then you’ll know we love to eat bugs. Hormigas Culonas are a type of ‘big bottomed ant’ that have been eaten for hundreds of years in the country, dating back to pre-Colombian cultures. Packed full of protein and low in fat, these guys are harvested for about nine weeks every year during the wet season, soaked in salted water and roasted. Apparently they have aphrodisiac properties and people often give them as a wedding gift. 9 months later…
OBLEAS CON AREQUIPE
These are big wafers, filled with a dulche de leche, the famous caramel-like spread that is the thing of dreams. If you’re looking for the ultimate indulgent sweet treat to round off your Colombian feast, then this is it. If you’re craving this dessert when you get home, it’s so easy to make. Simply place an unopened can of sweet condensed milk in a pan of boiling water for three hours and there you have it – just scoop out the intensely sweet, golden brown goo inside.