The crystalline waters of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline will have you lazing on the beach enjoying life’s simple pleasures. And nothing is simpler than frying up the local catch - teeth, bones, scales and all – for lunch or dinner. Pair this with coconut rice and some petacones (fried plantains) and your tropical meal is complete.
Fried whole fish, commonly red snapper, is a favourite along the northern coast of Colombia. The tenderness of the fish with the sweet rice and starchy plantains make it easy to understand why this dish is so popular. Forego your knife and fork, and dig in with your hands instead to really bring this meal back to the basics.
From avocados as big as your head to seeded fruits of every colour and the most flavourful watermelons you’ve ever tasted, Colombia’s fruit can only be described in a series of absolutes: the sweetest, juiciest, freshest! And you won’t have to look far to get your fill as every street corner and plaza is teeming with food carts piled high with exotic fruits and their fresh squeezed juices.
Try lulo juice, a small orange citrus fruit that is both sweet and tart but ultimately refreshing. Or guanábana, this large fruit has a spiky green exterior but its white interior is dense and sweet, which makes for a delicious natural smoothie when blended into a pulp. Or go for a mixture; a cup of tuti fruti is made from a concoction of watermelon juice and assorted mashed fruits like banana, papaya and mango. The more familiar but equally delicious, dragon fruit, passion fruit, strawberry and gooseberry can also be found in abundance. Whatever you choose, do not miss this opportunity to try some of Colombia’s bountiful harvest.
When travelling to new lands and soaking up new cultures it's best to do as the locals do. And if you find yourself in Colombia craving a coffee, a straight, strong tinto is the way to go. Colombia is world-renowned for its coffee beans and so of course every city has its share of cafés brewing the regular coffee fare - lattes, cappuccinos and the like. But if you look around, you’ll soon notice that every passerby is sipping from a tiny non descript plastic cup and if you listen for it, you’ll hear “tinto” shouted by a man strolling along the sidewalk with a cart full of thermoses. He’s the guy you want if you are looking for an authentic coffee the Colombian way.
Tinto is a small cup of black coffee, which sometimes comes sweetened (although if your Spanish is up to par then you can ask for it without sugar) and can be found everywhere from cafés and newsstands to the guy walking next to you on the street. The abundance of tinto vendors attests for the prominent role coffee plays in Colombian culture and history – getting your morning caffeine fix is an easy way to partake in a long-standing tradition of Colombian hospitality.
The culinary history of the tamale dates as far back as the days of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Today, versions of this wrapped snack are eaten across Central and South America with each country adding a regional twist of its own. Tamales play a prominent role in Colombian food culture and are commonly found among the many food carts that roam the streets of every Colombian city.
Colombian tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves and are larger than typical Mexican-style ones. They are filled with cooked vegetables (often carrots), rice, corn, and pieces of chicken and/or pork, which are mixed into the masa (cornmeal dough) and then boiled.
Commonly considered a breakfast food in Colombia, tamales are enjoyed with an arepa and a hot chocolate in the morning. That said, they are also available throughout the day and make for an easy snack or light lunch. When hunting for tamales among street vendors, look for the giant silver pots of boiling banana leaves.
This ground cornmeal flatbread is found alongside many Colombian dishes. It is served with steak and chicken dishes in the evening (pictured), egg and sausage dishes in the morning and makes a great snack when stuffed with cheese. It has a subtle flavour that works well either sweet or savoury (although Colombians usually eat it savoury), and a spongy texture to soak up sauces and jams.
You’ll find it on every menu and on every street corner being served up in some new delectable way. The possibilities are endless and some restaurants have begun pairing this Colombian staple with other culinary influences like Indian curries or baking it with toppings like a pizza. What remains unchanged, however, is the arepa’s place in Colombian cuisine. It is sure to make an appearance on every plate.
You may like chocolate and you might like cheese, but would you eat them together? Well that’s what they do in Bogota, where the curious combination of hot chocolate, cheese and bread originated. This unusual snack is served as a mug of hot chocolate accompanied by an almojábana, a bread roll made from cheese curd and corn flour, a pandebono, another type of cheese bun, and a piece of cheese. All three accompaniments are to be dipped into the hot chocolate and enjoyed.
As you stroll along the cobblestone streets of old town Bogota’s La Candelaria neighbourhood, be sure to pop into one of the little chocolate cafés near Plaza de Bolivar and taste this local favourite. It might sound a bit strange, but it is definitely worth a try.
Bandeja Paisa is a popular lunchtime dish that hails from the Antoquia district of central northwestern Colombia. Served up on an oval-shaped platter, the traditional spread consists of red beans, rice, ground beef, sausage, fried egg, fried plantains and avocado, however variations on these ingredients exist throughout the region and across the country. For example, pictured above is a simpler version of the Antoquian original, which substituted lentils for beans and is without the avocado or egg components.
Medellin, the capital of the Antoquian district, is a great place to try Bandeja Pasia. If you don’t mind hitting a touristy spot on your tour of the city, then walk, bike or drive up to Peublito Paisa. This miniature colonial town sits perched atop a small hill just southwest of the city centre. While a bit kitschy, it does boast panoramic views of the sprawling city and surrounding mountains, and is also chock-full of food counters dishing out heaping trays of Bandeja Paisa with all the fixings.
Made famous by its coffee, Colombia's culinary scene is just as good, to the last bite
Colombia in one word: delicious. Whether fried or fresh, sweet or savoury, from a café, street vendor, or restaurant, experiencing the culinary culture of Colombia is an integral part of any visit.
One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Colombia is how green it is. Rolling hills, tangled jungles, mountain plateaus, whatever geography you come across is covered in lush vegetation. And with this thriving landscape and rich harvest comes a culinary culture as fresh and vibrant as its surroundings.
Already famous for their coffee, Colombians also enjoy hearty meals, succulent fruits, unique sweets and deep-fried everything. While restaurants dish out traditional favourites and modern twists, you can also eat just as well on the street at the many vendors found on every corner.
Former intern turned contributing writer, Natalie Walters covers a range of topics for BC Living, with a special interest in travel, style and all things edible. She loves exploring food and far off places, preferably at the same time, and hopes to continue adventuring her way around the world as an international journalist.