“What’s the food like?”
The first question asked by friends back in the States nearly always sits with knife and fork at the tables of Colombia. I find this natural—when my own traveling amigos return from adventures in Morocco or rural Georgia (the Georgia with Hahira, not Tskhinvali), I ask the same question.
The fare in wayfarer surely means table fare.
Sometimes my friends ask culinary questions that feel unkind, uninformed. “Have you had a tarantula taco?” I’ve been asked. “Is there burro in a burrito?”
Ignoring those ugly assumptions, I’m happy to report that food in Colombia is very good.
This column, pull up a chair. I’ll introduce a traditional Colombian dish you can try every day of the week. Buen provecho! (Enjoy your meal!)
Caldo de costilla. What? Soup for breakfast? Is it so strange? What’s a bowl of cereal? A cold soup of flakes in milk. Oatmeal? A thick soup made of boiling water and horse feed.
Still, those conditioned our entire lifetimes to think of breakfast as heavy plates of egg and sausage, egg and bacon, egg and anything, might find a steaming-hot caldo, or rib broth, an unusual start to a day.
Never mind. Here in Bogotá, a half mile closer to heaven than Denver, the eastern Andes breathe temperatures in the mid-50s down into the city at dawn. Brisk! You see bogotanos in buttoned-up coats when they go out early.
A hot bowl of morning soup with a whole potato, fragrant green onion bits, and a hearty beef chunk sends warmth all the way to the bone. If you add a café con leche, nearly always served here with a generous piece of farm cheese (Colombians crumble cheese into hot chocolate), it makes the sun come up like thunder. A warm fresh-baked French roll to soak up the soup brings even more heartiness.
Growing up in Alabama, no plate of vegetables or Sunday fixings ever came without cornbread. Think of the arepa, the unchallenged national food of Colombia, as southern U.S. cornbread gone wild … only arepa’s been on tables in Colombia centuries longer than cornbread back home. This longevity accounts for arepa’s bewildering assortment of types and tastes.
Flat, round, and grilled—that’s the most traditional arepa. But that’s only a starting place for the creative Colombian cook. You’ll enjoy arepas con queso, for example, with the cheese bubbling inside a split corn cake about the thickness of your hand. Arepas come in small doubloon-sized portions too, bites to take between mouthfuls of beans or with scrambled egg scooped on. Colombians pride themselves on arepas by region, some sweetened, some with different colors of corn meal. They even come with meat, sauces … or with nothing but salt and the taste of wood smoke and open air.
Honestly, arepas range in quality. I’ve had some that tasted like bathroom sponges. (Don’t ask.) I’ve also had some so tasty and toothsome that I made an entire meal of them.
A notable arepa came from the kitchen of my fiancée, Adela. It arrived straight from a little toasting device held over the glowing eye of a gas stove. The arepa crackled with each bite, and I ate it with a perfectly fried egg and a little grated cheese, plus black pepper and salt—about as basic a meal as humans can make. It gave me great satisfaction then … and it gives me the same satisfaction now, simply to remember it.
Let me introduce a feast called lechona. West of Bogotá lies Tolima, a region of green vistas where many well-to-do bogotanos keep weekend getaway homes. The specialty dish of that region is a whole roast pig stuffed with rice, chopped onions, and little soft peas. Lechona can be found all over Colombia these days, served fragrant with spices after roasting very slowly overnight in a traditional clay oven. The golden pork with its crispy skin and the delicious roast meat with rice looks like something prepared for a wedding banquet. (Just don’t throw this rice at the newlyweds.)
Eyeing a weekend, it makes sense to stock up on something simmered in stock. A good sancocho, a soup made with three different potatoes, yucca, plantain, and most any kind of meat … and even fish … tastes delicious at first serving. It’s even better as a leftover, after the ingredients socialize and know one another a bit better. Most every region of the country makes sancocho in its own special style, so try several bowls in several places before arguing with a cook over what’s best.
Time to test your courage. Order mondongo. You’ll do best not to think that you’re munching chopped cow stomach. Still, once you get in touch with your inner culinary adventurer, you’ll slowly realize, bite by bite, that cow stomach tastes pretty good. Mondongo benefits from a slow marriage in a big pot with garlic and root veggies, plantains, bell peppers, tomatoes, celery, onions of course, and a snowfall of spices like coriander, salt, and whatever dashes of pepper the cook prefers. Don’t be surprised when you want seconds … but find the pot already empty.
The syllable pan betrays its origin—empanar, in Spanish, means to wrap in bread. You won’t go far in Latin America without running into empanadas—little baked or fried pastries filled with carne (spiced beef), pollo (chicken), or a seemingly infinite variety of other ingredients (chorizo sausage, spinach and cheese, mushrooms and cheese, etc.). Every country in South America proudly boasts its own style, and you can even ask for empanadas by national name. “I’ll have a Chilean please!” (That’s a flour empanada stuffed with ground pork, hard-boiled egg, black olives, and raisins.) A traveler won’t go wrong whether snacking street vendor empanadas or making a full meal of them in a cafe that serves the treats.
With empanadas, always ask for aji. You’ll receive some combination of vinegar and olive oil seasoned with tomato, two kinds of onion, cilantro, and red pepper. Some aji burns like fire. Some tastes mild, a little sweet. Aji makers guard their recipes as jealously as U.S. rib masters guard their secret barbeque sauce recipes.
The Lord may have rested on Sunday, but you will have to work hard to finish a Sunday plate of bandeja paisa (country platter). You’ll know what I mean after I simply list what shows up when you order this monstrous plate, named for the huge portions served to working folks on ranches or farms to keep them going strong till quittin’ time.
The traditional paisa platter: Ground beef. Chorizo sausage. Chicharrones (fried pork skin). A mound of rice. Frijoles (red beans, commonly). Avocado slices. Fried plantains, sweet to tease taste buds between bites. Arepas. And … a drum roll here … a couple of fried eggs usually ride on top of it all, staring I-dare-you-to-eat-all-this with unblinking yolk-yellow eyes.
If you’re still not full after reading this column, stay tuned. We’ll share more about foods of Colombia in future dispatches.
Photo: Eric Hunt, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.