Whether you visit Medellín and its “eternal spring,” the highland climate of Bogotá or the tropical paradise found in the historic port city of Cartagena, you are bound to find a friendly face and a hot plate of the region’s specialty.
Colombian cuisine is as diverse as the country’s 32 departments (departments are similar to the states in the U.S.), and it’s one thing tourists can’t get enough of. A few months ago I read a blog post called: 10 Traditional Dishes to Try When Visiting Colombia.
Seeing that they are an authority on info about Medellin and Colombia as a whole, I thought I’d do a quick review on the dishes they mentioned and add few more important ones.
One of the great joys of traveling is being able to try the traditional food of a country. Some countries are famed for their food and nowadays people are able to enjoy varieties of Chinese, Italian, French and Indian dishes in some form in their home countries.
Colombian cuisine is a blend of European and indigenous ingredients and many dishes include pork, potatoes, chicken, beans, corn and rice.
The main meal of the day in Colombia is lunch and it’s eaten between two and four in the afternoon. Lunch is usually three courses, with soup and rice, a main course and dessert. Dinner tends to be more of a snack, though if it is served as a main meal, it will be eaten around eight o’clock in most cases.
Here we take a look at 10 traditional dishes to try when visiting Colombia:
Arepas, or “corn cakes,” are not the sweet baked goods their English translation may indicate. They are to Colombians what tortillas are to Mexican, as in they go with anything at anytime and anyplace. Arepas come in different sizes and varieties. In the department of Antioquia, you’ll often find a small white arepa on your plate as a side, while in Boyacá they prefer larger buttery arepas made with cheese. Other varieties? Arepa de Huevo, an arepa stuffed with an egg, and arepa de chocolo for true corn lovers. The one thing they have in common? They’re all delicious.
Arepas are perhaps the most commonly served food in Colombia. It is the most standard of accompaniments and is also eaten on its own.
Arepa is basically a kind of bread made from cornmeal which is often served with butter, cheese, eggs or corn, the arepa is part of the main Paisa dish called the Bandeja Paisa.
Anyone who books a holiday to Colombia will quickly become very familiar with arepa when they arrive as it is widely served all over the country.
For most foreigners the Arepa is bland in taste, and I would have to agree. As a Colombian myself, it’s biggest attraction is the nostalgia and the fact that it is healthier than eating white bread.
Personally, the best arepas in Colombia are in Santander. They are stuffed with cheese and nice and greasy!
Bogotá is nestled deep in a mountain basin of the Andes, which makes the city’s weather colder than the hot climate found just a few hours outside of it. So, it’s no surprise that the Colombian capital’s staple is a hearty soup.
This is a soup containing chicken, two or three different types of potato, corn, capers, avocado and sour cream.
An essential ingredient in ajiaco is guasca, a herb grown throughout South America in the U.S. you might know it as potato weed..
Ajiaco has a very distinct taste and is ubiquitous throughout Colombia, so you’ll be able to try it in almost any kind of eatery.
3. Bandeja Paisa
In Colombia, the word “paisa” isn’t really used to identify fellow countrymen, across the country people from the departments of Antioquia are called “paisas” – hence, la bandeja paisa. What does this colorful dish have to offer? Ground beef, egg, arepa, chorizo, avocado, rice, red beans and chicharron (more on that later), fried plantains, morcilla (blood sausage). Yes, that’s all for one person.
Antioquia’s regional dish is considered to be the bandeja paisa. This is a real feast and not for the faint hearted.
The designation of bandeja paisa as a national dish has been subject to much dispute and there are many disagreements about what should be included. You can find a version of it everywhere in the country.
Regardless of what variation you get make sure to be very hungry because this is a huge dish.
Whether it’s celebrating Independence Day or Christmas, Lechona is very popular dish in Colombia. It’s made with peas, green onion, yellow rice and spices which are all stuffed within a roast pig and cooked in a brick oven for several hours. The process is lengthy but lechona is always a crowd pleaser.
Lechona is wonderful dish. This is typical of the Tolima area, which is to the west of Bogota. However, it is served in speciality restaurants throughout Colombia.
Certainly if you are in the Tolima area, you’ll see lechona at any kind of special occasion.
Lechona consists of a whole roast pig, stuffed with rice, peas, onions and a fragrant combination of spices and then cooked in a clay oven for up to ten hours.
Another hearty Colombian soup is sancocho. This is based on the Spanish dish cocido and is popular almost everywhere in South America, with some regional variations. It’s basically a very hearty stew.
In Colombia, the ingredients vary depending on what is available in the different regions of the country. It can be made with any kind of meat, or fish in the coastal regions, but almost always includes plantains, potatoes and yucca (cassava).
It tends to be served with plain white rice, which can be a side dish or added to the sancocho itself. Sancocho can be found all over Colombia and is often served in simple pavement restaurants as a dish of the day.
Sancocho is one of the most popular dishes among people trying to recover from a hangover, it is known to get the person out that stage and back to normal is very short amount of time after consuming it.
Yet another hearty meat-filled dish is fritanga. Served with arepas, manioc or plantain, this is a plate full of grilled meat such as chicken or beef as well as fried cow intestines. It is covered in aji sauce and can be found all over the country in some form.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everything in Colombia is meaty and huge but there are other less daunting dishes available too.
For those looking for lighter food, there is a dizzying choice of fruit easily and cheaply available.
Any visit to the market will introduce you to many fruits you have never seen before, in addition to many different varieties of more familiar fruits such as bananas or mangos.
Like arepas, the fried patty is made from yellow cornmeal, or masarepa. This ingredient is what sets Colombian empanadas apart from, let’s say, Argentine flour empanadas. Both, however, can be filled with anything from shredded meat and potatoes to chicken to cheese.
This snack can be found in little plaza stands or street carts and can be served at any time of day. But why stop there? Add some ají, lime or pineapple sauce for some extra flavor.
This can be found all over South America, but each country has made it its own version of the dish.
The origin of this dish lies back in Spain and Portugal. Empanada comes from the Spanish word empanar, which means to wrap or coat in bread. Basically, the empanada is like a small pasty which is baked or fried.
In Colombia they are usually fried. These treats contain many different fillings that vary according to the region.
For example, in the city of Medellin meat empanadas are extremely popular, while in poorer areas they can be filled with cheese and potatoes. The variations are endless and all can be sampled on any street corner.
Colombian breakfast, as you can imagine, sets you up for the day. Churros, long pieces of fried dough usually covered in sugar, are popular, sometimes they are doughnut shaped.
Another Andean breakfast that is also easy to find in Bogota is changua.
This is a rich soup made from milk, water and eggs which are cracked into the soup without breaking the yolk. It is also served with spring onions, stale bread and coriander.
10. Hormigas Culonas
Finally, for those who are particularly brave there are hormigas culonas, which are a kind of ant.
They are collected during the wet season, soaked in salted water and then roasted.
In the north east of the country the ants are thought to have aphrodisiacal properties and are given as a wedding gift, you can find people selling them in the streets of Medellin for about 3,000 pesos.
One thing is for sure, Colombia is home to some of the best prepared food in Latin America, while there are many varieties of things to eat people still tend to go for the traditional regional plate as an example we can see people from the Antioquia region eating a lot more Bandeja Paisa then the people from Cartagena.