Bristolatino joint editor-in-chief Rosanna West gives us the low-down on what to eat and drink in Colombia.
Colombian cuisine is sadly not as widely known as that of other Latin American nations such as Peruvian and Brazilian. However, its diversity is quite exceptional. The country’s cooking varies quite dramatically between its many distinct regions, offering a wide selection of dishes ranging from the arroz con coco side dish of the Caribbean coastal area, to Bogota’s traditional Andean ajiaco soup, to the Amazon region’s paiche. The country also has the advantage of being one of Latin America’s best street food vendors, meaning those of us on a budget need not miss out. Food and drink are prominent in the expression of Colombian culture, so it is essential to try what is on offer in order to gain a greater understanding of this colourful country. It is important however to remember that Colombians eat their main meal at lunchtime, so this is the time to go out and experiment!
Although Colombia’s cuisine stands out for its regional variety, there are of course some common foods and drinks that characterise the country’s hearty and fresh culinary scene. Staples used in Colombian cooking include maize, platano (plantain- green savoury bananas), maduro (overripe platano- sliced and fried for a sweet, sticky dish), frijoles (black beans), papa amarilla (a type of yellow potato), and yuca (cassava root which is usually boiled, but is far tastier frita). In my experience, Colombian food, wherever you are, is never disappointing. Street food is of particular prominence, with many of its must-tries being available for just 2000 pesos (70p) from one of the carts scattered around the cities. Perhaps the most famous Colombian street food is the arepa, the quintessential Colombian snack; a corn pancake, fried and stuffed with varying ingredients such as cheese and chorizo, dependent on region. Others include mazorca– corn grilled over charcoal and served with butter and salt, and indulgent obleas– wafers filled with arequipe, Colombia’s version of Argentina’s famous dulce de leche.
With cheap and cheerful street fare abound, it is quite easy for those counting the pennies to try every culinary delight available inColombia’s capital city. Those looking for a sit-down dining experience will not be disappointed by Bogotá’s many low-key traditional restaurants, many being situated in the city’s historic neighbourhood ‘La Candelaria’. They offer filling and tasty meals such as Bogota’s staple dish ajiaco santafereño, a potato soup usually served with large chunks of corn on the cob, chicken, cream, avocado and guasca, a herb common to the Americas that gives the dish its distinctive flavour. However, to keep you going whilst wandering the Capital’s streets, satisfying street food can be found on almost every corner; in Bogotá, plain arepas are typically eaten for breakfast, accompanied by a hot chocolate, which in Bogotá comes with dipping cheese.
The Caribbean coast offers one of the most exciting cuisines in Colombia. Regular consumption of seafood (including scandalously cheap lobster) is often accompanied by the coastal staple dish arroz con coco (coconut rice) and/or platanos. The coast also offers a wide range of tropical fruit jugos (juices) to keep you refreshed in the hot climate; popular flavours include lulo (a delicious citrus fruit, often called a ‘mini orange’), and maracuya (passion fruit). The coastal take on the arepa- arepa con huevo (arepa filled with egg)- is commonly eaten for breakfast.
In the Amazon region, the cuisine is significantly different; there is a prominent influence from Brazil and Peru, especially in the capital of the region, Leticia. Dependent on the area of this vast rainforest, there are multiple, community-specific recipes, with meals being cooked over a wood-fire in a pan. The staple ingredients across the region include river fish, domestic (and occasionally wild) meat, locally grown vegetables and potatoes. Try paiche, the world’s largest freshwater fish in a ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices). Another common eating ritual is to have grilled meats, cooked in makeshift charcoal grillers served with rice and plantains on a Sunday.
Coffee, beer and rum are all essential to Colombia’s gastronomy. The world-famous coffee beans of Colombia are unbeatable, and whether it is a mug bought in a bar or a shot bought from a street cart you will be pleasantly surprised by the consistent quality, and perhaps more so by the low price. It should be noted that Colombians take their coffee strong and sweet, so expect a generous helping of sugar. Colombia offers one of the better selections of beer in Latin America. Bavaria Brewery was South America’s second largest brewer before being taken over in 2003, and their range of (mostly) lagers includes the widely sold Pilsen, Aguila and the particularly good Club Colombia. For those in need of something with more of a kick, try rón Medellin (the most popular rum), or neat aguardiente, the anise-flavoured liqueur that has remained the most popular alcohol in the Andean regions of Colombia since the Spanish era. If feeling really adventurous, chicha is what you should order, though it is more difficult to come across. This extremely strong, home-made fermented maize drink is a traditional beverage usually drunk in rural areas, though some bars do serve it in Bogotá and other Andean cities. Be warned that it is an acquired taste… and packs a mighty punch.
The cuisine is just one reason why it should be obligatory for everyone to visit Colombia. Food and drink is, of course, key to appreciating any culture, and in Colombia even travellers on a budget can experience the diversity of its culinary scene. Whether it’s strolling the streets of Bogotá with an arepa con carne in one hand and a 20p shot of coffee in the other, or it’s overlooking the Caribbean Sea whilst tucking into a hearty plate of fresh fish and coconut rice accompanied by a chilled Club Colombia, anyone’s desire to have (quite literally) a taste of Colombia, is guaranteed to be fulfilled.
Header photo: arepas and chorizo by William Neuheisel, Creative Commons 2.0.