Leaving Colombia behind me already, I feel that it’s time for a tribute to its beautiful… food. Even though I could hardly eat for most of my time here due to a dental surgery (they took out all four wisdom teeth), I made sure to shamelessly exploit every occasion to eat during the days before my surgery. Let’s just state that I had my fair share of Colombian culinary produce. And luckily, I equally spend my time to investigate well when I was here last year already.
Colombian cuisine is as diverse as the country is geographically and culturally. Colombia is bordered by both the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean, topped by the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the north and the Andes running from north to south almost all the way through, and is blessed to cover a part of the Amazonas in the southeast. Its different regions have strongly maintained their own culinary identities and each has its own specialties, brought forth by the ingredients available and the customs of the different peoples that have all left their mark through the ages. Colombian cuisine entails indigenous – the original owners of the land – elements, but through the centuries also Spanish, African, Arab and Asian influences have blended in.
No need to say that, all of this taken together, means that eating in this country is a both never-ending and marvellous adventure. Colombian cuisine is too rich and varied to list all its frequently seen ingredients and dishes here, but here are some of my personal favourite Colombian kitchen giants.
My Colombian breakfast: arepa de choclo, arepa de yuca, scrambled eggs, papaya, quesito, té de coca, cafecito
Arepas. The day that I devoured a chewy, freshly made arepa with cheese between my teeth, bought in a small food booth in the streets of Bogotá, was one to remember. I have been so much happier ever since. An arepa is a cornflour patty (although varieties based on rice and yuca exist), that can either be fried, baked or grilled. From egg arepas on the Caribbean coast, to cheese arepas covered under a thick dripping layer of condensed milk in Medellín, to arepas topped with meat and butter in the coffee region, and sweet cheese arepas in the department of Boyacá – the varieties to this pancookie are endless. The basic ones are not hard to make at all, but every supermarket in the country offers a wide range of different types already prepared too. A classical Colombian breakfast: arepa served with soft white cheese and scrambled eggs.
Yuca. Another classic of the Colombian kitchen that significantly added to the quality of my existence, is yucca. Yuca is a root vegetable that was introduced by black slaves that were shipped to the continent during the Spanish colonisation. The yuca has a flavour and structure that is best compared to that a potato (but then way better). Frequently used in soups and as a side-aliment on a basic lunch plate, my favourite way this ingredient is used is when it’s shaped into a bun – pan de yuca (although, obviously, there’s a delicious variation of arepa made with yuca-flour too…).
Yuca (image found here)
Guanábana (image found here)
Jugos. Colombians like juicin’ up things, including their plethora of tropical fruits. The country is one of the world’s largest consumers of fruit juices (according to Wikipeda: more than three quarters of a cup each day). One can usually choose between water or milk to mix with. My personal favourites: guayaba (con agua), and guanabana (con leche).
Papaya. It took me a while to get used to the flavour of this red-fleshed fruit, but meanwhile it’s become a fixed item on my traveller’s breakfast menu. Papaya is renoun for its numerous health-benefits, under which are its high concentration of antioxidents and its positive effects on digestion. Within medicine, its seeds are known to be a strong remedy against parasites and food-poisoning. In short, eating papaya everyday will keep the trouble away.
A sexy papaya I encountered last year in Palomino
Ajiaco bogotano (image found here)
Sopas. Every lunch comes with a soup as a starter, but soups may be consumed during other meals throughout the day as well. The list of classics is, again, endless. Their ingredients reveal the story of Colombia’s history, with meats ad spices from Spanish colonisation, root vegetables introduced by African slaves, and modern farming produce like corn and tomatoes. Bogotá is famous for its ajiaco, a soup based on three different types of papas (potatoes), filled with chicken, and served with capers, cream and avocado. Sancocho, another national classic, is estimated to be served in 193 different localities and comes with all sorts of meat, or fish on the Caribbean coast.
Patacones (image found here)
Aji. Colombians like things spicy. That’s why you will find this hot chilli sauce on every lunch table, often homemade and somewhat suspiciously-looking in a pot, sometimes bought in stores and in a bottle. Aji is a brew that typically contains garlic, chilli (aji) peppers, cilantro (coriander), onion and water. It’s worth overcoming your fear for germs and food-poisoning, as aji has the power to significantly pump up the flavour of soups and several meat dishes. My philosophy: if the locals haven’t died from eating it, I probs won’t either.Aji (image found here)
Beans. Beans, beans, beans. White beans, brown beans, flat beans, round beans, cooked beans, toasted beans… Again, beans (and lentils) are seen on the side of basically every lunch plate. As a semi-vegetarian, I’m a big fan of beans. It must be said that they often come alongside a peace of meat though. But still. It’s pretty nice to eat them. Cool beans.Hot chocolate with cheese. Ok, this is not really one of my favourites. But it’s so weird that it deserves to be mentioned. I can hear you think – ‘chocolate with cheese?! Really?’ Yup, it’s a thing. The way to do it – from what I’ve been told – is to break the cheese in little pieces, throw them in your cup and let them simmer. And frankly, it’s not as horrible as it sounds.Pandebono. This bun made out of cornflour, fermented yucca starch, cheese and eggs and originates in the Valle de Cauca region (around Cali). There’s no consensus on how the ‘pandebono’ and its name came into being, but one of the stories going around is that of a young girl who fell in love with a young man named Bono, and made this bun in his honour. Whatever caused this bun to come into existence, the result is amazing. You can get them plain or with different fillings, such as guayaba jam or Arequipa (the Colombian variety of dulce de leche, and another must-try).
Pandebono (image found here)
Tamales (image found here)
Tamales. One of my favourites since my dental surgery. They’re cheap, tasty, not terribly unhealthy and, in my case most importantly: easy to chew. A tamal consists of plantain leaves that are boiled for several hours and then generally stuffed with corn dough, rice, pork, chicken, potatoes, carrots, peas and spices. It’s a typical breakfast around the country that originates in the Tolima region.
Well, I’ll be off bussing to Ecuador now, where quimbonitos, humitas and comforting menestra will be awaiting me!