One of my favorite ways to explore a culture is through its food. On a recent trip to Colombia, I was not disappointed, as hearty dishes, street snacks and soups — not to mention sweet desserts — delighted my palate. To help you plan a delicious trip of your own, here is a guide to eight not-to-miss meals in Colombia.
I was introduced to Sancocho during a cooking class I booked through Bogota Bike Tours. The owner of the company, Mike, helps set up cooking classes in the home of his landlord, Doña Elsa, making quintessential Colombian dishes. During my class the dish we made was Sancocho, a satiating chicken and vegetable soup. Featuring chicken legs, salt and produce like yucca, potatoes, beans, chocla (corn) kernals and plantains boiled in a pot, the dish is served hot topped with cilantro and a side of avocado. While there are a number of restaurants throughout the country that serve the dish in a delicious manner, I highly recommend those visiting Bogota to opt for the cooking class.
Note: The class is only offered in Spanish. While there’s no need to be fluent, a basic understanding of the language is preferable. The cost for a group of four was 25,000 COP + 5,000 for ingredients (total of about $15 USD).
Another famous Colombian soup, this dish is most well-known in Bogota, as it’s believed to originate around this area. Similar to Sancocho, Ajiaco is a soup features boiled chicken and vegetables, although here you’ll find three types of potatoes — red, yukon gold, and russets — which melt down to thicken the soup. There’s also a quintessential herb called “guascas” that imparts a grassy flavor. On top, fixings include cilantro, sour cream and capers, with rice and avocado on the side. Look closely at the ingredients and you’ll see they tell the story of Colombia’s history, with meats and spices from Spanish colonization, root vegetables introduced by African slaves, and produce like corn and tomatoes that came with the advent of modern farming.
3. Bandeja Paisa
My personal favorite Colombian meal, don’t order this dish unless you’ve got room in your stomach (or friends to share with). What I love about Bandeja Paisa, Colombia’s national dish, is it allows you to nibble on a number of quintessential Colombian staples, including beans, rice, avocado, morcilla, chorizo, plantains, egg and arepa. Note that the exact recipe and what you’ll find on your platter varies by region and restaurant. The word “Paisa” in this dish refers to the Paisa people of this namesake Colombian region, the very place the dish originates from.
What blew my mind in Colombia was all the different kinds of arepas — fried, grilled or baked corn cakes stuffed with all kinds of fillings — to be had. Like empanadas in Argentina, different areas of Colombia are known for different kinds of arepas, such as egg arepas near the Caribbean coast, savory cheese arepas around Bogota, cheese arepas drizzled with condensed milk in Medellin, sweet cheese arepas in the department of Boyacá, and Arepa Paisa topped with meats and butter in Colombia’s coffee areas. You can learn more about this at Eyes on Colombia.
Best of all, you can find this tasty snack on the streets for about $1 USD.
Many of Colombia’s typical dishes come with a side of arepa. The arepa has roots in indigenous culture, who used fresh corn. Sadly today, you’re more likely to find packaged corn flour, although the result is still very tasty.
Carnivores only for this dish. Churrasco refers to a giant grilled or broiled lean sirloin — sometimes over an inch thick. While you’ll find the tender steak in many South American countries, its preparation differs a bit from place to place For example, in Colombia the dish is topped with a cilantro-infused chimichurri sauce to give it some tang.
6. Spaghetti Bolognese
Huh? Italian food on a Colombian cuisine guide? This was surprising to me, too. When I first saw Spaghetti Bolognese on a menu in Cartagena I thought to myself how badly I would love to have it, but how I wanted to savor something Colombian. Turns out, the dish showed up on almost every restaurant menu I visited. In the 19th and 20th centuries there was a wave of Italian immigrants to Colombia, which made an impact on local gastronomy that can still be seen today.
7. Cazuela de Frijoles
Just thinking about this Paisa dish makes my mouth water. Featuring a base of beans — aka frijoles — mixed with hogao (a tomato sauce with garlic, cumin and pepper), plantains, chorizo and chicharrones (pork rinds), it’s another one of the country’s more hearty dishes. While not a soup, the beans create a more stew-like consistency. Like with many typical dishes, there’s a side of rice, avocado and arepa.
8. Hot Chocolate With Cheese
This unusual combination beverage is surprisingly delicious. I tried it for the first time in Bogota served with bread and a small cookie. The sweet thick cocoa served with the savory queso contrasted so well it was complimentary, and made an excellent ending to the traditional dishes on the menu. Tip: The proper way to savor this treat is to place chunks of the cheese in the cocoa, so it soaks up the drink.
What’s your favorite Colombian food? Please share in the comments below.