The Cuisine of Colombia (The Good & The Bad…but mostly the good)

21 Aug

Life is nothing without passion.

They say that you need to live passionately to lead a fulfilling and happy life and I couldn’t agree more. I live for my passions and of all of them the one that is most evident to those around me in my day to day life is my almost carnal love for good food.

Eating is one of life’s simplest pleasures and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy traveling so much. Going to a new country and trying new foods that I’ve never had before is a real pleasure for me (I have to confess that one of the first things I do when I get to a new country is go to a big supermarket so I can get a crash course introduction to how the locals eat).

I have to admit, I didn’t really know much about Colombian food before I came here. I ignorantly assumed (assuming is never a good idea) that it would be something similar to Mexican food, or at least to the Mexican food you get in California (which may not be the best representation). What I actually got was something different.

WARNING: I am about to give my opinion about Colombian food. I will write some good things and I will write some bad things. Before you do anything else, read through the article completely. Then take a deep breath and go for a walk, maybe grab yourself a coffee or even better, an ice-cream and then go back home and sit down before you even think of flying off the handle and starting an online storm of abuse!!!

Any foreigner who has lived in Colombia knows that Colombians are very proud… almost patriotic about their local cuisine. Any bad talk about it is almost considered a sin… or even… treason. That’s why I’m going to be figuratively walking on eggshells for this article and I’m going to be very careful about how I say things.

I’m going to word the next sentence very specifically: The food consumed regularly by the majority of average Colombians i.e. the food that is seen most often in common eating places in Colombia…is disappointing!

Let me clarify, in general, Irish food is nothing special (although it has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years) but I’m not comparing Colombian and Irish food. I’m speaking from a more international perspective. Generally speaking Colombian food is over-cooked, under-seasoned and a lot of it is deep fried (a lot like some Irish food when ya think about it).

BUT!!!!!
And it’s a “big butt” (teehee) ladies and gentlemen, Colombia still boasts an incredible repertoire of spectacular dishes that I have fallen in love with in my two years here. The thing is though, they are not “as” readily available (they’re generally more expensive and sold less commonly) as the poorer quality foods I mentioned above.

The great thing about living in a mountainous country that straddles the equator is that the varied climate zones here mean you can grow almost anything you want. Walking through the fruit and vegetable section of a Colombian supermarket is a true pleasure to the eyes (although it is a real pity that Colombians don’t take full advantage of all this produce; vegetable use is few a far between here). Add to this great produce the indigenous, European and African culinary influences and you end up with some truly memorable dishes.

For the rest of this article I’m going to haphazardly introduce you to some of “MY” FAVORITE Colombian foods. Enjoy!

Soups
When I first arrived in Cali (where midday temperatures hover around a sweaty 29°C) I found it unusual that lunch was always served with a piping hot bowl of soup. In the majority of places this caldo (broth) is nothing to write home about. However Colombia does have a few soups that I definitely think deserve a mention.

Ajiaco

There's a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

There’s a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

Ajiaco is a hearty soup made with no less than 3 different varieties of potatoes, chicken, corn and cream, seasoned with a local herb called guasca, topped with a handful of capers and served with slices of avocado. As an Irishman who knows his stuff when it comes to potatoes I have to say this is one of the finest potato soups I have ever tried. There’s eatin’ and drinkin’ in it!

Sancocho

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

This is a soup made with either chicken, beef or fish with big chunks of potato, plantain and cassava inside, seasoned with fresh coriander (cilantro) and lime. My favorite, by far, is the sancocho de pescado or fish version that is made extra creamy from the use of coconut milk. I never thought it would have been possible for me to like fish soup.

Pacifico Food
The western coast of Colombia is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the region is mostly inhabited by the descendants of African slaves that arrived during colonial times. To this day, access to the area is difficult due to poor infrastructure and because of this the area has managed to retain a great deal of its unique culture, in particular music, dance and food.

The cuisine of the pacifico is heavily seafood and coconut based and has easily become my favorite regional cuisine in all of Colombia. Here in Cali I’m blessed to live near a neighbourhood called “La Alameda” which specializes in food from the pacifico. I’m further blessed in that the brother of one of my best friends happens to own one of the best restaurants in that neighbourhood (for those of you visiting Cali it’s called “Punta del Mar”).

Apart from the sancocho de pescado which I just mentioned a few other typical dishes include:

Cazuela de Mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

A casserole of mixed seafood cooked in an incredibly seasoned, creamy sauce, topped off with cheese and served in a heated clay dish. The extra weight you’ll gain from eating it is totally worth it.

Arroz  de Mariscos

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it's full of shrimp like this

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it’s full of shrimp like these babies!

A Colombian version of mixed seafood fried rice that would put any Chinese restaurant to shame.

Ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

Not so much a food as a sauce or condiment ubiquitous in Colombian restaurants. Ají is super easy to prepare (it’s just a mix of finely chopped scallions, tomatoes, chilly peppers, fresh coriander and vinegar) but it transforms boring foods into a taste explosion. You can often see Colombians eating empanadas (deep friend pastry parcels of rice, potatoes and meat) with one hand while spooning on generous dollops of ají with the other.

Lechona

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

Imagine a huge delicious pig hollowed out and then stuffed with a delicious combination of well seasoned rice, peas and pig meat roasting in an oven for 10 hours. Then imagine a portion of that rice-mix that has soaked up all those glorious juices from being roasted inside the pig, topped off with a square of crispy pig skin. That is pure piggy perfection right there.

Chorizo Santarosano

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Chorizo is a type of sausage common in most latin countries. Chorizo, like most sausage, is good. Chorizo santarosano is simply spectacular. I have no idea what they season it with to make it so good but it has made the town of Santa Rosa famous for producing them. In fact you can walk around the town from stall to stall trying all the different versions of the famous chorizo just like the locals do; with a dash of lime juice.

Arepa
Arepas are cornmeal patties of indigenous origin, cooked on a griddle that are served alongside virtually every meal of the day in Colombia. They are the quintessential “Colombian” food and they take up whole sections in the supermarkets.
Uncooked and cold (just as they are often served with other foods)… they taste like Styrofoam. Heated up on the griddle or even spread with a little butter they begin to taste a little better but I honestly have no idea whey they’re so popular here.

However there are two types of arepa that I have come to love and that prevent the word “arepa” from falling from grace.

Arepa con Todo

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Literally an arepa with everything. The contents can vary but generally its an arepa filled with pulled beef and chicken meat, pork-rinds, quail eggs, cheese and an assortment of sauces. It is in my opinion the pinacle of Colombian fast food and it’s my “Go-To” “I’m in a hurry” food in my neighbourhood.

Arepa de Choclo

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

Choclo is the word used for yellow sweet corn which is used to make these, the sweetest and most flavorful of arepas. A fun day out for me is to go up the mountains outside Cali to a place called “Kilometro 18” where it actually gets cold because of the altitude. Once there, I order a hot chocolate and an arepa de choclo smothered in butter and filled with fresh cheese (on my cheat-day of course). Heaven.

Fritanga
There are a whole host of foods in Colombia that fall under the umbrella of fritanga; basically battered and deep-fried. Some of them can be delicious (like the papa rellena; a battered and deepfried ball of seasoned potatoes, rice and meat. They “can be” amazing and “papa rellena” was actually the first word I learned after I arrived in Cali). However in general they are very “hit and miss” with most just tasting like an oily mess.

There is one however that I cannot leave unmentioned;

Maduro Aborrajado

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it's almost sexual.

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it’s almost sexual!

A maduro is a “mature” or ripe plantain (a member of the banana family) that is sweet and delicious, just like I like them. The plantain is split open along the middle and filled with cheese (mozzarella or doble crema is the best in my opinion). It is then battered and deep-fried to crispy perfection. Now that’s how you cook a plantain.

Almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

They only bakery product that you will find on this list as living here in Colombia has almost put me completely off eating breads. The almojabana is a special little guy though. When made right, they’re light, airy and moist with a very subtle sweetness and a mild cheesy taste. Amazing with your cup of coffee in the morning, when they’re fresh out of the oven.

Arequipe

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Colombian desserts don’t really do it for me. I won’t get into it but there’s nothing special about them. Colombia does, however, have one little sweet trick up it’s sleeve. Arequipe, known as “Dulce de leche” in other parts of South America, is a thick caramel sauce that is hugely popular here… for good reason. You can put it on anything from fruit to biscuits to arepas. If there are any Colombians reading this try spreading some arequipe on a hot arepa de choclo with butter and cheese… you can thank me in the comments.

Fruits and Juices
No article on food in Colombia would be complete without mentioning the amazing fruits and fruit juices that this country is blessed with. On the corner of virtually every busy street you can find a cart or stall selling freshly cut fruit salads and a variety of juices made with water or milk. Pineapple, mango, papaya, blackberry, strawberry, orange, passion-fruit, guava, guanabana, lulo, curuba and a whole host of other fruits I had never heard of before. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a passion-fruit juice in milk.

On top of that, Colombians have managed to come up with a great many “original” drinks too;

Salpicon

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Chop up a whole variety of different fruits into small chunks and put them in a bowl. the juice seeps out from the fruit creating a liquid fruit salad. It’s one of my favorite on the go snacks.

Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Coarsely chopped lulo mixed with sugar makes this strange looking green juice very popular in Cali.

Champus

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

A Cali classic and definitely my favorite drink. A fermented mix of corn, pineapple, lulo and panela (unpreocessed cane sugar) flavored with orange leaves, cloves and cinnamon. Paradise in a glass.

Cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

The best way to describe this concoction is as a cross between a fruit salad and a snow-cone drenched in fruit syrup and condensed milk. The perfect way to celebrate a hot Sunday afternoon in Cali.

A Taste for Home
Any body who has lived in a foreign country knows that you eventually develop a taste for the local cuisine. I’ve lived outside of Ireland for 6 of the past 7 years and I’ve grown to love some of the foods in my “new homes” away from home. I have no doubt that in a few months I’ll be craving all sorts of delights from Colombia.

Colombia does have a rich food culture, you just have to look for it a little harder and ignore all the not so nice stuff on offer. I really do hope some of you reading this will get to try some of these dishes if you come to Colombia. I just hope that I’ll get to try them again sometime in the future.

SIDENOTE: It’s 7.30am here in Colombia and I’m just after finishing this article after working through the night since around midnight. I actually completed this article at about 4 am and lost everything with the click of a button. You have no idea how filled with rage I was when I realized what I had done. I simultaneously wanted to cry and to break everything in my vicinity. I’m pretty damn proud of managing to “play through the pain” and write out the whole article all over again. Moral of the story: “be careful how you save your work”.

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9 Responses to “The Cuisine of Colombia (The Good & The Bad…but mostly the good)”

  1. Paula August 21, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks Richard for sharing this! I personally developed a ‘love and hate’ relationship with Colombian food. I got used to healthier meals, with more vegetables and no meat. So I found myself in trouble when I went to a Colombian restaurant a couple of weeks ago: all kind of meat, deep fried food, and huge amounts of starch! Not very appealing for me. However, I do miss all versions of fruit preparations…I will love a champus, salpicon or lulada right now!!! Hope to see you in Cali soon!!! xx

    • The Dancing Irishman August 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

      Thanks Paula,
      Yeah, I don’t eat here too often as I get bored with the everyday places serving almuerzo ejecutivos so when I do go out I usually save it for a really nice place. Also I have never seen a single meal with so many different carbohydrate sources… not even in Japan hahaha

  2. martin dolan August 21, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    A pretty definitive list and I totally agree about pacific food being the best in the country. However I would add bandebono, buñuelos, empandas (in some places), arroz de coco and Club Colombia Roja. Not one of them is good for you though.

    • The Dancing Irishman August 23, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      I can honestly say that very few of the foods on my list are good for you either hahaha.
      Buñuelos are one food I have never learned to like. Maybe I’ve just been getting them in the wrong places.

  3. Kevin Muñoz April 5, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    Hey man what’s the crack!
    My Irish friend, I gotta say I loved your blogs about Cali, but let me tell you that this one makes me cry as I been living in Australia for the past two years and you can’t imagine the cravings that these God’s meals can create when there is nothing like it down here. I’m happy that you loved our food. I hope you won’t get to miss it and crave it as much as I do.
    I hope you get to try other very yummy foods around Colombia.

    • The Dancing Irishman April 5, 2014 at 11:32 am #

      Thanks Kevin,
      I’m glad you liked it. I actually left Colombia last year so I’m having a serious craving for Arepa de Choclo right now haha!

  4. Rick bauza August 26, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    I totally agree with you. I am american bien with my patenta Being fron Cuba. I mar ríes an Awesome woman from COLOMBIA met Her through a friend here in the good US of A. It was love At first suchi after 12 traes of barriste we aré still dept in love we aré inseparable. I has the chance to visiting COLOMBIA in 2011 to meet Her Family Awesome to the end. But what i did motives right away a big atte tirón get yet for you reyes was the amazona y beautiful fruirá and vegeta les. Am not going to get to detalla about the ir food because you detalles it perfecto y and i feel just like you about the ir cuido me and also felt in love with distes, Fruit juices, and arenas, Arequipa. Your article is super es my friend very detalles and very true. But please these of you reading these arto les dont go by what we aré saying from experienced go to COLOMBIA and try it yourself the montañismo aré breathtaking thank you Rick Bauza

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 21 Things I F##KING HATE about Colombia! | The Dancing Irishman - January 26, 2014

    […] So BEFORE YOU READ THIS ARTICLE,  READ SOME OF MY OTHER POSTS: Things I love about Cali Proud to be Colombian The Cuisine of Colombia […]

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