Colombia’s cuisine does not yet have the reputation of some of its Latin American counterparts – Peru comes to mind – and thus remains something of an unknown entity in much of the world.
By no means does this imply that it’s inferior, there’s just more to explore!
For this reason, we’ve devised a crash course in Colombia’s top 10 “must try” foods. It’s our attempt at helping guide you through Colombia’s rich and intriguing gastronomic history. Of course, in order to truly experience it you’ll need to visit and come to your own conclusion. But trust us, Colombia offers something truly delicious and intriguing for everyone.
Here we go…
La Mesa has previously covered the ubiqitous arepa. Colombia’s most popular staple food, it is served mostly at breakfast but is not out of place at any time of the day. The arepa is a circular flatbread composed of maize and flour kernels, probably best described as ‘corn cake’ or ‘corn bread’. It is eaten as many people would eat bread, with butter or a variety of other toppings.
Originating in the “paisa” region surrounding Medellin, this colossal meal is sufficient to render any self-proclaimed big-eater absolutely comatose. The platter is available in various guises, but usually composed of steak, pork crackling, chorizo, generous wedges of avocado, brown beans, a fried egg, fried banana and a bed of rice and red beans. Chicharron (see number 5 below) is added in the Antioquia region as an essential element.
Sancocho is another hearty dish found across South America. While many people might crave the greasy spoon after a few too many drinks, Colombians swear by this thick brothy stew. Based off the Spanish dish Cocido, it will usually contain a meat (mostly on the bone), sweet plantain banana, yuccas, corn on the cob, and rice on the side. It’s the kind of dish that warms you up and gets you going for the day.
Empanadas are likely the most readily available and cheapest street snack in Colombia. Available throughout the continent in various recipes, styles and sizes, the Colombian empanada is a palm-sized deep fried treat that resembles a miniature turnover. Potato and meet stuffing (usually chicken or beef) are surrounded by a fried outer shell of fried dough deliciousness. Usually eaten with chili sauce and occasionally guacamole, most of Colombia’s main streets will be lined with vendors selling the tasty snack.
Colombia’s version of this popular dish is usually made of deep fried pig skin with pork meat and fat, although this can occasionally be replaced with chicken. It is eaten either freshly cooked, succulent and juicy, or as a dryer, more mature snack. Chicharron may not be all that good for you, and I wouldn’t suggest eating it every day, but wow is it delicious.
This is a popular lunch dish originating from Bogotá, but now found all over the country. The soup usually contains chicken, various forms of potato (of which there are many!), corn on the cob, capers, avocado and topped with sour cream. It is often complimented with a side of rice. The South American herb guasca is an essential component of the dish, giving it a unique flavor. Talk to any Colombian about the dish they most loved from their mother, and ajiaco is almost always at the top of that list.
Buñuelos are a fried dough ball which are popular not only in Latin America but also in Spain and parts of Europe near the Mediterranean. Fried golden brown, these heavy balls are often filled with a type of cheese, making for a gooey and white center. A slither of fruit is occasionally added, providing a contrasting hint of sweet to the saltiness. The fist-sized treat is a fatty, dense snack which packs a punch to easily satisfy a grumbling stomach. The balls are fried in large metal containers of hot oil, usually on the sides of streets. During Christmas time they are traditionally served with the sweet Colombian cake natilla.
While vaguely similar and utilizing some of the same ingredients, Colombian tamales largely differ from the tamale found across Mexico and the southwestern US. Colombian tamales are a steamed meal wrapped in long banana leaves. Leaves are laid out flat and covered by a wet, soft, yellow dough, and then usually filled with a combination of pork or chicken (sometimes both are blended together) and then wrapped up tight to be cooked. Carrots, corn and various other vegetable chunks can also be found within the tamal’s dough. In general, the tamales are far larger than the Mexican tamale and are eaten as a full meal.
Arguably the most popular food eaten exclusively during the Christmas season, natilla is a sweet cake which resembles more of a pudding. Harder and slightly rubbery in texture on the outside, it is gooier on the inside. It is made from milk, brown sugar, panela, cinnamon sticks and flour or cornstarch. Natilla is usually white or a caramel color and is most-often complemented with the buñuelo. I’m not sure how much natilla is consumed during the holidays, but based on my experience here it has to be a ton. It is much loved by Colombians.
Lechona is – and there is no other way to put this – a stuffed whole pig. Packed with various ingredients, including spices, onions, peas and rice, the pig is cooked for a minimum of eight hours and often as long as fifteen in a large brick oven. A crispy skin is crucial to a flavorsome lechona, so that the crunchy outer punch is balanced with the tender meat and slowly steamed insides. Lechona is not an everyday thing, but cooked for special occasions and large family get-togethers. And it’s much more than a meal, it’s an experience.