Food in Colombia
In many parts of Colombia, it is common to eat buñuelos (fried cornmeal balls with cheese in the batter) and arepas (fairly thick corn tortillas, often made with cheese and served with butter) with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Bogotá and the central region have their own breakfast speciality, tamales – maize and minced pork or chicken with vegetables and eggs, steamed in banana leaves, often served with home-made hot chocolate.
Empanadas, made of potatoes and meat and with a yellow exterior like a pocket, are delicious and completely different from their Mexican and Argentine counterparts. Pastries are widespread, both savoury and sweet, including pandebono, pan de yuca, pastel gloria and roscon. They vary in quality – ask locals where the best niches are to enjoy them.
For lunch, especially on Sundays, try a sancocho de gallina (rich chicken soup served with some of the chicken itself, rice and vegetables/salad). Sancocho is common throughout the country, with countless regional variations. On the coast, it is served with fish and is highly recommended. Another soup served in Bogotá and the surrounding area is Ajiaco (chicken soup with three different types of potatoes, vegetables and herbs (guasca), served with rice, avocado, corn, cream of milk and capers).
The “Bandeja paisa” is common in most places, (the “paisas” are the natives of some departments in the northwest, like Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío). It includes rice, beans, fried plantains, arepa, fried egg, chorizo, chicharrón (pork) with the meat still attached. It’s a very fatty dish, but you can leave out what you don’t like, and if you’re lucky, you can find a gourmet bandeja paisa in a good restaurant in Bogotá or Medellín. They are lighter and smaller.
There are a few chains throughout the country. Apart from the global franchises (McDonald’s, Subway, T.G.I.F., which focus specifically on Bogotá and other major cities), the Colombian chains are very strong and present in almost every city. Presto and especially El Corral serve excellent burgers, Kokoriko does fried chicken and Frisby specialises in fried chicken. Gokela is the first choice for people looking for healthy options like wraps, salads, superfoods and supplements, making it one of the only options for vegetarians, vegans and organic eaters. Pancakes and Waffles is, as the name suggests, an upscale breakfast/brunch restaurant with great food and… Pancakes, waffles and ice cream. There are many international restaurants, including Rodizios (Brazilian steakhouse style), paella houses, etc.
There is a wide variety of tropical fruits and a corresponding variety of juices, from the strangest you can find in the world (really) to the sweetest. You just have to know how to find and prepare them. In any case, anyone will be happy to teach you. Some examples of these exotic fruits are: Tamarinds, mangoes, guanabanas, lulo, mangosteen (really great and rare even for Colombians) and a wide variety of citrus fruits. In addition, you can find some of these rich and strange flavours in processed foods such as brands of ice cream or restaurant juices. Most Colombians drink juices at home and in restaurants, they are cheap and natural everywhere.
Colombia has a wide range of tamales if you like them, but be aware that they are very different from their more famous Mexican cousins. They vary from region to region, but they are all delicious. They are called “envuelto”, the sweet corn-based tamales.
As far as coffee is concerned, there are many products, both commercial and artisanal, made from this very famous Colombian product, such as wines, biscuits, sweets, milk-based desserts such as “arequipe”, ice cream, etc.
Colombians are known to have a sweet tooth, so you’ll find plenty of local desserts and sweets such as the guayaba-based “bocadillo” (guava fruit) or the more famous milk-based “arequipe” (similar to its Argentinian cousin “dulce leche” or the French “confiteure du lait”). This only covers the basics, as each region of Colombia has its own fruit, its own local products and therefore its own sweet offerings. If you are a fan of rare sweets, you can get handmade sweets in the small towns near Bogota and Tunja.
The “Tres Leches” cake is not to be missed – a sponge cake soaked in milk, topped with whipped cream and served with condensed milk is for the great milk lovers. Another delicious dessert is the “leche asada”, like roasted milk.
Organic food is a current trend in big cities, but in small towns you can get all-natural, fresh fruit and vegetables. Colombians are not used to storing food for the winter, as there are no seasons in the traditional sense. So don’t ask them for dry goods like tomatoes or dried fruit. Just shop in the small grocery shops nearby and get the freshest produce from the month’s harvest (almost everything is available and fresh all year round). As for pickles and similar preserves, you can find them in supermarkets, but they are not common in family households.
Pre-Columbian civilisations cultivated about 200 varieties of potatoes. Colombia, as an Andean country, is no exception. Even McDonalds recognises the quality of this product and buys it. Try local preparations such as “papas saladas” (salted potatoes) or “papas chorriadas” (steamed potatoes).
In short, in Colombia it can be fun to have the ingredients and preparation of many exotic recipes explained to you.
Drinks in Colombia
Take a homemade hot drink with you to breakfast. The choices are usually coffee, hot chocolate or “agua de panela”. The latter is a drink made from panela (dried sugar cane juice), sometimes with cinnamon and cloves added, which gives it a special taste. In Bogotá and the surrounding area, it is customary to prepare the drink with cheese, so that small pieces of cheese are placed in the cup, which, after melting, are picked up with a spoon and eaten like soup. Hot chocolate is also drunk in the same way.
Colombia’s national alcoholic drink, aguardiente (also known as guaro), has a strong aniseed flavour and is usually bought by the bottle, half-bottle or litre. It is usually drunk in shots. Each region has its own aguardiente, “Antioqueño” (from Antioquia), “Cristal” (from Caldas), “Quindiano” (from Quindío), “Blanco del Valle” (from Valle del Cauca) and “Nectar” (from Cundinamarca). There are also a variety of rum drinks, such as “Ron Santa Fe” (also from Cundinamarca), “Ron Medellín Añejo” (also from Antioquia), “Ron Viejo de Caldas” (also from Caldas), among others.
Water is drinkable directly from the tap in most major cities, but be prepared to buy bottled water if you are going to the countryside. Agua Manantial bottled water is recommended, from a natural spring near Bogotá. A word of advice, make sure you don’t use ice cubes or drink drinks that don’t contain distilled water, ask if the drink is made with tap water or bottled/boiled water.
If you are lucky enough to stay at a family-run “finca cafetera” (coffee farm), you can ask your Colombian friends not only about the exquisite coffee (a quality export), but also about the leftover coffee that the farmers leave for their own use. It is picked, washed, roasted in rustic brick ovens and ground by hand. It has the most exquisite and rare taste and aroma ever found.
In Bogotá and the rest of the country, black filter coffee is called “tinto” – which is confusing if you were expecting red wine.
There are also specialised places where you can drink coffee with many different combinations (such as Juan Valdés Café or Oma), hot or iced preparations.
Commercially, there are also many products made from coffee, such as wines, ice creams, sodas and other drinks.