Colombia is not exactly known as a food destination. While I love Colombia, the people, landscapes and climate it’s just not a country I go to for the food. The meals are huge with a lot of meats, proteins and fried foods. And while it may not be the healthiest food, or the best place for vegetarians, the food in Colombia is fresh and very economical.
Colombian cuisine is a blend of culinary traditions from different parts of the country. It has indigenous, Spanish and African influences and being such a biodiverse country uses a wide variety of tropical ingredients.
The best part of Colombia is the exotic jugos (fruit juices) and the wide variety of fruits and vegetables one can find in the markets. And while vegetables aren’t featured in the restaurants, due to a low demand from the locals, fresh fruit and juices can be found everywhere. (see article on jugos of Colombia)
The local cuisine usually lacks flavor, is often over cooked and under seasoned. It’s their cuisine and they seem fine with it. It’s the tourists who complain, not about the cost of the meals, but how they are cooked. After a week or so, dining often becomes monotonous and the meals cease to be an anticipated part of the day. But on the upside, on every trip to Colombia, I’ve happily shed 5-10 pounds after a few weeks travel.
Lunch is the big meal of the day. In the restaurants, which are cheap and plentiful throughout the country, the diners sit down to a corrientazo or cheap lunch. The ‘menu del dia’ or daily menu is also called almuerzo (lunch), menu ejecutive/del dia (menu of the day) or plato del dia (plate of the day).
A typical lunch will consist of a soup, a protein like meat, chicken or fish with white rice, potatoes or fried plantains, arepas, a piece of lettuce or tomato and a juice – usually lemonade mixed with agua panela or sugared water. The price is 5,000 COP – 15,000 COP , ($3 – $5). Meals are even cheaper in the markets 3,000 – 6,000 COP ($1 – $2). And street food, also a bargain, is more available at night when most of the restaurants are closed.
Dining experiences improve a lot in the cities where, for a price ( 30,000 – 60,000 COP -$10 – $20) , one can enjoy a good selection of high-end dining options where the food doesn’t disappoint. Seafood restaurants, Peruvian, Mexican, Italian and Argentinian steak houses are all very popular. Fast food outlets, Chinese and Lebanese restaurants can be found in most cities and are an inexpensive option.
If you like to cook and eat well, then after a few weeks on the road, stay somewhere with kitchen access, so you can shop and cook your own food. But if you’re on the move and eating in restaurants, hotels and markets where the meals are fast and cheap, here’s what you will find :
The Most Popular dishes of Colombia
Soups & Stew Dishes – classic Colombian food considered the best dishes of the country.
Ajaico – is a potato soup made with chicken, potatoes, corn on the cob, flavored with an herb called guascas and topped with avocadoes and sour cream.
Sancocho – is a soup made with plantains, yucca corn and meat and served with fresh tomato and onion sauce. This is one of the the most popular dishes in Colombia. Sancocho di Pollo – is made with chicken, Sancocho di Gallina is made with an old hen and Sancocho di Pescado with fish.
Caldo – is a soup made with beef short ribs, potatoes, carrots, yucca and topped with cilantro. This beef soup is often a breakfast option and is actually quite invigorating in the morning. They say it is the best cure for the guayaba or the common hangover.
Mondongo – is a tripe stew. Tripe, the stomach lining of a cow or pig, is diced and cooked in a chicken stock with onions, carrots, cabbage, celery, green peppers, cilantro, garlic, potatoes and yuca. This was a fan favorite of the former Spanish colonists.
Frijoles Antioquenos – while beans are usually served as a side dish, this is an entree cooked with green plaintains, carrots and pork hocks.
Sopa de Patacon – is a vegetarian soup made with green plantains and usually served during lent when Catholics sacrifice meat.
Sopa de Lentajas – a lentil soup with sausage and potatoes topped with avocado and onions.
Sopa de Arroz con Albondigas – is a meatball and rice soup.
Changua – is a breakfast dish of warm milk with a poached egg, a toasted slice of bread, onion and parsley and cilantro.
Fish is popular throughout Colombia but I usually stick to meat when I’m inland and go with the fish when I’m anywhere near the coast. Frozen fish is very good and accessible throughout most of the country. The most commonly available fish are tilapia, red snapper and mojharra. The best way to eat fish is grilled but will most likely be served deep fried. Pescado frito, or fried fish, is served with side of beans, rice, a salad and fried plantain.
Mojharra – is Colombia’s favorite fish dish and is eaten all along the Caribbean coast. Mojarra is a small, silvery fish abundant in shallow coastal and brackish waters of the tropics. It is usually served fried with coconut rice, fried plantains and a salad.
Trucha – or trout is a popular dish especially in the mountains where there are plenty of streams where farm raised trout are raised and harvested. It is usually served whole and prepared grilled, fried or smoked.
Bagre – is catfish. It is used in fish stew (sancocho) or breaded and fried.
Corvina – is a type of sea bass served with a seafood sauce called marinera. This is the mostly widely used fish in the preparation of ceviche.
Ceviche – is usually made with raw fish marinated in lime juice. In Colombia it’s usually made with red snapper or octopus. With shrimp it’s called Ceviche de Camarones and is blended with ketchup, tabasco, onions, lime juice and served with saltine crackers.
Cazuela de Mariscos – a thick, creamy, hearty soup with shrimp. It may include lobster, a white meat fish, vegetables in a coconut broth. They claim this dish to be an aphrodisiac.
Traveling around Colombia you see beef cattle dotting the countryside. Colombia is the 7th largest producer of beef in the world. The cattle are all grass fed and are free to roam the green mountain sides.
The meat is quite good. But pastured beef doesn’t have a lot of fat making it tougher than grain and corn fed beef. Then they usually cook the meat until very well done making it seem tougher yet.
Bandeja Paisa – an over hyped dish in Colombia which originated in Antioquia (paisa) It’s a festive plate (bandeja) of meats – ground beef, chicharones (fried pork rinds), Colombian sausage, eggs, beans, rice, avocado, fried plantains and arepas. It’s one of the more expensive dishes on the menu. Not really that interesting it is way too much food for one and can easily be shared.
Fritanga -also called Picada Colombiana, is a large basket of meats which include grilled beef, chicken, sausage, morcilla or blood sausage, chicharones with sides of potatoes, corn on the cob, baked plantains and French fries. It is usually served on the weekends and meant to be shared and eaten with your fingers.
Lechona – is a traditional pork dish from the department of Tolima. It is considered one of the best dishes in the country. It’s a whole roasted piglet stuffed with yellow peas, green onions, rice and slowly cooked in a brick oven or over a charcoal pit for 10-12 hours.
Cabrito – are pieces of marinated goat meat usually grilled to a smoky finish.
Cuts of Meat
Here are the main cuts of meat you will see on the menu. They are usually prepared a la parrilla, (on the grill), estofado (stewed) or cooked in a tomato sauce sudada, ‘estofado’ or ‘a la Criolla’.
Pecho – is the brisket, the meat that comes from the chest area of the cow. It is a tough but versatile meat.
Falda – is flank or skirt steak. It is also known as sobrebarriga.
Churrasco – is the top sirloin. It is a meat with a fair amount of juicy fat with lots of flavor.
Cosilla/Bife Ancho – is the rib eye steak. Also called ojo de costilla. It is tender and one of the most expensive cuts.
Lomo Fino- is tenderloin steak. It is an expensive cut and should be tender, two inches thick and cooked rare to medium.
Lomo Bajo – is the T-Bone or Porterhouse and should be grilled.
Chuleta de Res – is bone in strip steak
Riopa Vieja or Desmechada – is shredded beef
Costillas – are the ribs. Asado de Tira – are the back ribs and are used in soups and caldos
Higado – is liver.
Street food is staple of the Colombian culture. It is the most playful and interesting food scene in the country.
As the sun sets street vendors come out and set up their grills and frying pans and begin serving up bite sized snacks till late in the evening. Since Colombians eat their main meals at noon they only need a light snack at night. Everyday restaurants close after lunch. So if you skipped the mid-day meal, street food is often the only option.
After sunset go to the main squares, parks and terminals and these are the street foods you will likely see:
Arepas – is the most popular street food and nothing like the tiny arepa blancas served at breakfast and lunch. Arepas are deep-fried cornmeal dough filled with pieces of cheese arepa de queso, or an egg – arepa de huevo. Arepa de choclo is an arepa smeared with butter, fried on a griddle until golden brown then topped with more butter and white fresh cheese. (see article on Arepas)
Meat on a stick – the international classic. Sizzling, grilled meats on a stick in Colombia are called Chuzos. The chuzos are made with beef or chicken. They can also come with a combination of beef, sausage, pork, chicken, a potato and a vegetable or two – a complete meal on a stick.
Empanadas – are a street vendor staple. Small, bite sized meat pies in a half moon shaped crust of cornmeal. The filling is made of shredded pork, beef or potatoes. Deep frying gives them a crispy exterior. They are served with a spicy garlic/chile sauce called salsa de ahi.
Patacones – are green plantains fried, smashed flat and refried. They are used like a pizza crust and topped with fresh cheese, tomatoes or guacamole
Tamales – corn and rice cakes wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. They are made with chicken, pork, rice, potatoes, peas, carrots, corn and cheese. It’s a specialty of the Tolima region.
Tintico – Colombia has the best coffee in the world. And while more upscale coffee shops, like Juan Valdez, are appearing in most towns and large villages, most locals still take their coffee from kiosks on the street or from people roaming the town squares with carriages filled with thermoses of coffee prepared the way you like it.
Mango Biche – unripe, green mangoes doused with lime juice and salt.
Grilled Corn on the Cob – corn with the husk off, grilled and smeared with margarine.
Bunuelos – are balls of dough and cheese fried until golden brown.
Pandebuono – a type of Colombian bread made from corn flour, yucca starch, cheese, eggs and sometimes with guava jam known as bocadillo.
Almojabanas – are soft pillows of cheese bread served warm.
Churros – are a deep-fried doughnut type pastry sprinkled with sugar.
Raspoa – is shaved ice snow cones drizzled with fruit juices.
Hot chocolate – served with a side of fresh farm cheese – delicious.
Cheeses – most all the cheese in Colombia is white, fresh, farmers cheese. Campesino cheese is fresh cheese, double crema is semi-fresh and costeno is salted cheese.
Obleas – are a sweet treat found throughout Colombia. It is a large, round, thin wafer spread with arequipe (reduced sweetened milk), raspberry or strawberry jams , shredded cheese and coconut, fruits and whipped cream.
Avena – is a rich, creamy thirst quencher made of oatmeal. It is boiled with oats, water, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, milk and served cold.
Salchipapa – cross a hot dog (salchicha) with a potato (papa) you get salchipapa. This is a street side meal of hot potatoes and sliced hot dogs served with ketchup.
Sausage – if the breakfast menu says eggs and sausage, the sausage is hot dogs. But on the streets, hot dogs (perros calientes) are served in a bun with lots of sauces, ketchup, mustard, cheese, mango and pineapple sauces.
Hamburgers – have become an integral part of Colombia’s night life. They are a popular street food and fast food favorite. The hamburgers are cooked on griddles in the street and topped with a garlic sauce, ketchup, mustard, potatoes, shredded lettuce and pineapple sauce.
Pizza – Some towns wheel in portable electric pizza ovens and cook pizzas right in the parks and town squares. They like to feature a lot of tropical fruit toppings.