The flavors of Creole cuisine, are very different from those in the Mediterranean primarily because in Colombia, normally, olive oil is not used.
The people know and use it, but it is not typical. You can find it in the elite supermarket Carulla, there is at least one in every major urban center, where more or less everything can be found but at high price.
The street food is widely spread, snubbed by the upper classes also for hygienic reasons, it is instead often delicious, if you know how to choose. In the capital, however, you may run into soups roughly cooked, rice and chicken based menu or fried and not fresh food, so as to leave you with the impression of eating badly and unimaginatively.
If you are unable to start your own culinary adventure by being invited by a local family it is advisable to be patient: the Creole cuisine can be really delicious. Forget the Italian restaurants (which I always avoided, apart from the pizza from time to time) and those customized for international tourists.
Traditionally, in Colombia a lot of meat is consumed, starting from breakfast. However, exactly for this reason, vegetarians and vegans are increasingly getting more and more, so in nearly all the regions it will be possible to find suitable foods for every need.
A typical Creole lunch
It begins with a fruit juice. There are many varieties of tropical fruits difficult to clean and to eat but perfect to be whisked into smoothies with or without sugar, with or without milk.
Mango, papaya, lulo, passion fruit, tomate de arbol, Curuba, feijoa, guava, soursop, banana some of the names you’ll see on the menus, often accompanied by the therapeutic properties of the fruit, but be careful not to buy juice mixed with liquid sugar and prefer the shops where they will prepare them on the instant.
In addition to these are the more well-known flavors like blackberry, strawberry and orange juice.
Very easy to find street vendors who prepare you a double portion with mineral water, although for many Colombians it is still not safe to buy them on the street; for me it has always gone well and I did make great use of them in the Caribbean area of Santa Marta.
The locals drink it morning, afternoon and evening, maybe with a snack of the usual fried and salty, as las empanadas, small fried rolls stuffed with meat or chicken, to be seasoned with aji, unfailing hot sauce on the tables.
Even las arepas, corn or white flour patties, stuffed with egg, cheese or meat, they are a typical “hunger-killer” served a bit everywhere, and often accompanied by a hot chocolate.
Lunch can also be accompanied by a simple lemonade or from delicious cold panela with water, lemon and ice cubes, molasses obtained directly from sugar cane. I also used it in my coffee.
The first dish consists usually in a sopa, or soup. There are hundreds of different soups but normally sancocho is considered the national sopa.
The best I ate in a cheap restaurant in Zipaquira on a Sunday. In fact, the sancocho is a special soup, cooked for special occasions.
The broth is not very thick and it is always cooked with many varieties of tubers : aracacha, potato, ahuyama are some of the names you’ll hear ; then green banana and ripe banana, beans and lentils, corn. All served with chicken, pork or beef or fish only.
In short, a sancocho is a soup with EVERYTHING, and I mean it, inside and it may happen for you to eat ten without ever eating the same soup!
It’s very substantial and when you eat it you have the impression of being already full. For 2,000 pesos a person with few resources can be satiated in this way. But it is only the beginning. It is accompanied by white rice. The white rice is used by Colombians in the manner of the Asian people, steamed, but with the addition of a little vegetable oil and onion.
Besides the sancocho there are many other soups. The simplest of all is made of water, salt, onion, oil, a dash of milk, cilantro (the substitute for parsley but with a totally different flavor) and if there is an egg, cooked in the broth.
In Cartagena I ate a delicious cazuela de mariscos, that is, once again, a sopa though all of sea-food. You may also come across that with overcooked spaghettis inside, sopa de pastas, along with lentils.
In Bogota there is the ajiaco, other soup made of various types of potatoes and chicken, accompanied by avocado, white rice and a few slices of fried ripe banana.
Season it with capers and a teaspoon of cream. After the sopa and its infinite variations, there is the seco. Or the “dry” dish.
Very cheap restaurants in the Candelaria or the Macarena district of Bogota vary the menu every day even though it will always be rice with chicken or meat and side dish.
The portions abound and with other 2000/3000 pesos represent the central meal and for some the only one of the day. The same restaurants usually only open for lunch. So between juice, sopa and seco, the courses of the Creole lunch will be fulfilled.
Rice is always the side-dish, vegetables, at times latita, especially on the coast where going to eat fried fish (it’s yummy) you will see in your dish always and only a handful of lettuce and tomato. Typically, the fish is also served with coconut rice and pataconas, inevitable slices of fried ripe or green bananas, or fried cassava or manioca.
There are many very typical sweets made mostly of milk, sugar, composed of guava and cheese. The arequipe is a sweet of very sweet milk served in cups or spread on obleas, big wafers that you can fill at will.
The typical dessert of Bogota, however, is the simple fruit salad of fresas with cream de leche, or rather strawberries and cream.
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The Colombian Coffee
It’s true that Colombia is one of the major coffee producers, but this does not mean they have the habit of drinking it, nor to drink it “expressed”.
The chains of Oma and Juan Valdez offer great coffee made in all ways, but at high prices.
On the street instead, the, so called, tinto sold by street vendors is simply water elongated with coffee and lots of sugar.
Walking through the small villages you can find, in addition to street food, small shops where local women cook frittters , ie empanadas and many of its variants, daily, or bread made of cassava or cheese bread, almohabanas and other specialties that the locals have the habit of eating as snacks, good if fresh and as a rule this happens more in small towns than in big cities.
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Every Colombian also extols the delicious ceviches: cocktails of seafood or raw fish mixed with lemon, mayonnaise and ketchup. I confess I have never eaten one by way of a horror-limit story of my aunt Fernanda, who, during a romantic holiday with my Uncle Eduardo, stuffed herself with them and landed up in the hospital!!
I think she was unlucky or careless, and at the same time I perceive that the times in Colombia have changed and buying food from a street vendor is not as risky as even just a few years ago.
But, as you can imagine, the stories of the people who have lived in Colombia for decades strongly influence the perception of the state of things, and although it is important not to be too influenced by the paranoia of those who have lived through difficult years, for me, it is not possible to do without them if you really want to understand this country.