Colombian recipes rely heavily on fresh, regionally available ingredients. While Colombian cuisine may not have the boldest or most adventurous flavors, the traveler will have no trouble finding filling and inexpensive traditional dishes, snacks, street food, and tropical produce that hit the spot.
Colombian arepas (fried cornmeal patties) are a street food sold and eaten all over the country, but in western Colombia are often breakfast (along with hot chocolate). Plain arepas are rather bland and are typically eaten with cheese or butter, though several variations are also popular. Stuffed arepas include the arepa de choclo, made with corn and cheese; arepa de huevo, egg arepa; and arepa de queso and arepa boyacense, which are filled with savory and sweet cheeses. Packaged arepas can also be bought in the supermarkets.
Empanadas (fried pastries stuffed with meat or cheese) and buĂ±uelos (fried, cheesy corn-flour balls) are two more deep-fried foods that are also quite common, among others.
An ever-popular dish you are likely to encounter, especially in and around BogotĂĄ, is ajiaco, a riff on chicken soup that contains corn and potatoes. It is usually served with heavy cream and avocados, making it a hearty lunch on its own.Though typical of MedellĂn and the northwest, another nationally favorite dish is the bandeja paisa, or paisa platter, which includes rice, beans, ground beef, plantain, sausage, chicharrĂłn, arepa, avocado and a fried egg.
Sancocho, a stew that is typical of Cali and the southwest, is often prepared on special occasions or weekends. Another hearty dish, it usually contains chicken, fish or oxtail, plantains, yucca (manioc), potatoes, cilantro and spices.Both Pacific and Caribbean coastal cuisines are unsurprisingly heavy on spicy fish and lobster, often accompanied by coconut rice. Seafood is generally difficult to find inland.In the Llanos, or eastern plains, where large ranches and vaqueros (cowboys) punctuate the open landscape, barbecued meat or asado is the main staple, and the most common dish is mamona, or barbecued veal.Goat meat commonly appears on the menus in several parts of Colombia. In the Guajira, this meat is often served in a stew called friche. In San Gil, Capitanejo and other villages in Santander Department, the roasted meat is served with pipitoria, rice prepared with goat blood and finely chopped innards. Another treat in this region is roasted fat-bottom ants.In NariĂ±o Department bordering Ecuador, adventurous meat-lovers also can try fried or roasted cuy, or guinea pig. Though cuy is generally consumed in the household, many tourist-oriented restaurants have it on offer.
Particularly pleasing is Colombiaâs abundance of delicious exotic fruits, many of which do not have names in English. Lulo and guanabana make particularly good juices and curuba (banana passion fruit), feijoa, mamey, guayabamanzana (hybrid between guava and apple) and nĂspero, among many others, are all worth a try.Vegetables are rather hard to come by in Colombia. The most commonly served are roots, like carrots, potatoes, batata and yucca. Also expect plĂĄtanos (plantains), squash and salads made of cabbage, tomato and onion.
By far the most famous of all Colombian beverages is, of course, its internationally consumed coffee. Be warned, however, that coffee quality varies and your tinto (small black coffee) may be weaker and sweeter than expected. The word tinto can also mean a glass of red wine, but avoid Colombian wines â Chilean and Argentine wines are widely available and of a much higher quality.Other alcoholic drinks of Colombian origin that are indeed worth trying include aguardiente, sugarcane alcohol; guarapo, a drink made of fermented fruits and sugar; canelazo, a warm, fruity drink made with aguardiente and cinnamon; refajo, a mixed drink of rum or beer and cream soda; and chicha, a fermented corn drink made by the indigenous in the Andes. Of course national beers are also widely available; top brands are Poker, Ăguila, Pilsener and Club Colombia.
If alcohol isnât your thing, the many nonalcoholic drink options are worth a try. Colombian hot chocolate is made with a special pitcher and a molinillo for stirring, and is often served with cinnamon and cheese. Aguapanela is a drink of dissolved sugarcane in water with lime juice and sometimes cheese added in for flavor. Both champĂș and lulada are thick drinks that utilize Colombiaâs wondrous spread of unique fruits, and salpicĂłn, which translates into large splash, is a refreshing drink of soda and chopped fruit. Coca-cola and other sodas are available everywhere as well, as are fresh fruit drinks.
Like entrĂ©es, desserts are a regional affair in Colombia. Mazamorra, cornmeal boiled in milk, a common sweet in Antioquia. On the Caribbean coast, try the crema de arroz, a delicious rice and coconut milk pudding. A cheap dessert is obleas, large circular wafers sandwiching arequipe (soft caramel) or fruit sauces. Colombiaâs many fruits also can satisfy your sweet tooth.
Where to Eat on the Cheap
Like in neighboring countries, many restaurants in Colombia offer inexpensive multi-course set lunches, which usually include soup, meat, rice, French fries, a small salad and grilled plantains. This is the best way for the traveler on a budget to fill up on hearty, hot food. These and other restaurants do not usually have printed menus, so if your Spanish is rusty, it might be useful to have a pocket dictionary handy while the server gives you the run-down on what is available. Colombians tend to take siesta in the afternoon, so most lunch spots serve meals between noon and 2 p.m.
In restaurants, vegetarians may find it difficult to find satisfying options aside from arepas, rice, beans, salad and potatoes. Luckily, most cities have at least one vegetarian-oriented restaurant. The Hare Krishnas operate a chain of eateries called Govindas.
Should you tire of Colombian food and require something different, the three big cities of BogotĂĄ, Cartagena and MedellĂn offer quite a few nice restaurants with international fare to choose from. Also, in the Caribbean coast cities, where many Middle Eastern and other foreigners have settled, you can venture into other culinary worlds.