I arrived to Colombia after spending five weeks in Belize, during which I largely subsisted on red beans. While I love red beans and appreciate their ability to keep me energized and alive in the Central American jungle, I was looking forward to the diversity of food I knew existed in Colombia, and learning about the unique culinary customs of the country.
My interest in visiting Colombia was born as a teenager after reading the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time Of Cholera, rumored to be set in the coastal colonial city of Cartagena. The book spends more time on intricacies of the heart than on the stomach, but even I knew that the South American country called to both.
Colombia country shares a border with Panama, has coasts on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and lays claim to a huge portion of the Amazon jungle. It’s the most biodiverse country on the planet, with highlands and lowlands and sealands and junglelands characterized by entirely unique collections of animal and plant species.
So it’s no surprise that the various regions of the country independently developed their own take on Colombia’s cuisine, using the available flora and fauna to create delicacies endemic to their respective locations. Colombia has also seen a wide range of cultural diversity throughout the nation’s history, from the original indigenous groups to Arab traders to the Spanish invaders that ultimately shaped their modern culture.
Even though I expected a level of culinary diversity unlike anything I had ever seen before, food from the United States included, I encountered so much more than I could have imagined. I was graciously hosted for two weeks by actual Colombians, I their complete student to the culture and food, and they assured me that what I was fed is what actual Colombians eat, prepared how they eat it.
Photo by Ali Wunderman
The standard ingredients and individual menu items became obvious right away. What I noticed first was the ubiquity of arepas, little cornmeal cakes infused with cheese that can be eaten as sides or entirely on their own. At one restaurant in a little country town outside Bogota called Guatavita, arepas were served with salsa, much in the way tortilla chips are served with salsa in the US’s version of Mexican cuisine. I ate them daily for breakfast, and while my hosts even taught me how to make them, they were a far cry from Colombians who grew up emulating their grandmothers’ cooking skills.
As a self-proclaimed lover of fruit, I was astonished at the abundance of fruits that I never knew existed before, like the granadilla with its slimy black seeds that made my mouth dry, and the uchuva, which, like the total gringa I am, I initially mistook for a tomato. It seemed like every morning my gracious hosts had another fruit with which to bewilder me, but I ate them all with a silent note to myself to try to find them at home in San Francisco.
Photo by Ali Wunderman
Avocados were part of almost every meal, and like other fruits and vegetables, they were fresh and readily available. As a Californian I thought I knew everything there is to know about avocados, so I did not expect these ones to be as big as my face! They taste more buttery than their California cousins, but utterly devastating in their deliciousness, in that now I never need a Californian avo again. I began to crave avocados the way I once craved meat in Argentina: incessantly.
Colombia is known for its coffee and cocaine, and since I don’t drink the former, I filled up on the latter – in tea form. It’s not really cocaine-like in the way Narcos makes it out to be, in that actual cocaine is largely gasoline, but the tea made from coca leaves is quite delicious, gives a nice caffeine-like kick, but like the powdery stuff is totally illegal to bring back to the US. I checked.
Though many cuisines are available throughout the country and two weeks of looking around makes me in no way an expert, I found the majority of the Colombian meals I ate to include some combination of a few basic ingredients: rice, chicken, cheese, a tortilla-like bread, the aforementioned avocados, and plantains. How plantains haven’t made their way into every meal worldwide is a mystery I will never solve.
Photo by Ali Wunderman
You don’t really need much more than that to be happy, but it’s worth mentioning the street-Sundae-built-in-a-pineapple I encountered in Bogota during their famous Sunday Markets (Mercado de las Pulgas de Usaquen), which looks and feels like a big outdoor festival. Carts full of those moutherwateringly giant avocados and every kind of fruit bustled by as I became hypnotized by the skill of the sundae-making woman, so deft in her handiwork. I cursed my lactose intolerance, placating my appetite with giant, horse-sized avocados…I’m exaggerating, but their avocados really are exceptionally big.
A facet of Colombian eating that was also new to me was the big breakfasts and lunches, followed up by tiny, sometimes nonexistent dinners. I was so used to my Bean Routine in Belize, that I wondered if skipping dinner was just a thing my specific hosts were into. Nope. That’s just how they do things there, I learned.
Though I was only able to visit Colombia for a mere two weeks, during that time I experienced some of local the cuisines of Bogota, Guatavita, and Cartagena. As a food writer I definitely had my eye open for all things culinary, but I’m looking forward to spending more quality time in the country so I can get to know it in an even more significant way, hopefully even beyond the lens of my gringa eye. Or maybe that’s just my excuse to stuff my face with arepas and avocados.
Ali Wunderman is a freelance food, travel, and wildlife writer authoring the Moon Travel Guide to San Francisco and chasing animals for her magazine, The Naturalist.
Top and preview images by Cucombre Libre CC BY