Undoubtedly, one of the best things about any trip somewhere new is sampling the local cuisine. From exotic fruits and unusually shaped and named vegetables, to meats you definitely won’t find on the deli counter at your local Morrisons and speciality beers.
Anyone who knows me will know that I love my food – almost as much as I love travelling – so I always endeavour to order a local dish if I’m away (even if it doesn’t sound particularly appetising, such as the Dutch delicacies in Amsterdam I tried).
But I learnt this weekend that you don’t even have to go very far to try something new. I’ve just come back from a weekend in Hull, where I was educated about chip spice and pattie butties. Yep, they’re real things, and they’re “specialities” of Hull (or ‘ull, as it’s pronounced up there). Don’t they sound just delicious?
More on my northern escapades soon, but for now, here are 23 things you must try if you ever visit Colombia.
I went to Colombia last summer, staying with friends and their families in Bogotá and Cali, then travelling solo on to Santa Marta and Cartagena. Spending the first two weeks with locals was great, as it meant I got to try all sorts of traditional foods from the different regions. It also helped when on my own, as it meant I could (sort of) translate the menu.
Anyway, here are some of my favourite snacks, dishes and drinks that I tried while travelling around the South American country:
Empanadas are one of the most popular Colombian snacks, and you can buy them just about anywhere (even frozen ones in supermarkets). The best ones I tried were homemade on a farm in Buga, north of Cali – covered in homemade ají (Colombian-style hot sauce). They were so good I filled up on them, before realising they were only a snack before our three-course meal. Oops.
Empanadas come from the Spanish word “empanar”, which means to wrap or coat in bread. Basically empanadas are like a small pasty which is baked or fried. The crust is made with corn masa, while the filling is made with meat, potatoes and spices. The flavours vary depending on the region though. For example, in Medellin chorizo-filled empanadas are extremely popular, while in poorer areas they can be filled with cheese and spinach.
Ajiaco is a hearty soup from the capital of the country, Bogotá. It is so tasty, I had several helpings at my friend’s mum’s house.
It’s typically made with chicken, three varieties of potatoes, corn and the herb guasca, and usually served with cream, capers, ají (that hot sauce again, see a theme here) and avocado. It’s literally comfort in a bowl. It has a very distinct taste and is ubiquitous throughout Colombia, so you’ll be able to try it in almost any kind of eatery.
3. Chocolate con queso.
Yes, you’re reading correctly: hot chocolate and cheese is a thing in Colombia, and it’s very popular (especially when the weather is cool). It’s usually served at breakfast time or as an afternoon snack in the Andean region of Colombia. The combination of chocolate with cheese may sound weird to you (I was a little freaked out at first when my friend dunked a big piece of cheese in her mug), but it’s absolutely amazing.
Arepas are one of the most commonly served foods in Colombia. They are a standard accompaniment to most meals (like bread in France), and also eaten on their own. It’s essentially a kind of bread made from cornmeal, and is often served with butter or corn. Anyone who books a holiday to Colombia will quickly become very familiar with arepa when they arrive, as it is widely served all over the country.
Also known as tostones, patacones are a popular Colombian appetizer or side dish made from unripe green plantains. We had amazing homemade ones in Buga, dipped into fresh guacamole (made from avocados grown on the farm, I should add). Delicious and greasy but very filling.
You may be starting to see a theme here – yes, Colombians love carbs.
There are many variations of tamales in Colombia, but they all have something in common: they are all wrapped in plantain leaves. I tried homemade ones at my friend’s brother’s house in Bogotá. It’s hard to describe the taste, but the texture was similar to a risotto – kind of rice-y and creamy.
7. Papa criolla.
Colombians love potatoes (so much so that their soup Ajiaco contains three varieties), but when you ask a Colombian which is their favourite, they’ll reply with the small, yellow, creamy papa criolla. It’s a particular cultivar that’s really difficult to track down outside of Colombia.
They can be cooked in a number of ways – steamed, boiled, baked in salt, cooked into a soup – but the simplest (and tastiest) is to fry them whole, skin and all.
8. Pescado frito.
This Colombian-style fried whole fish is a very popular dish from the coast of Colombia. I sampled some when I was in both Santa Marta and Cartagena, despite having a massive phobia of bones on my plate. When in Colombia and all that…
Some of the most popular fish in Colombia used to make this dish are red snapper, mojarra and tilapia.
9. Tajadas de plátano.
Ripe plantain fritters are one of the most popular side dishes in Colombia and very simple to make. We had these ones for breakfast one morning when staying in Cali.
10. Pan de bono.
Pan de bono are small cheesy bread rolls, perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack with hot chocolate or coffee. They’re popular all over the country, so if you’re a bread lover, this Colombian bread speciality is a must try.
The first of the beverages on my list is aguardiente. Translated literally to “fire water”, this stuff is lethal. It’s got the aniseed-y taste of Sambuca, but is served chilled – and apparently, at any time of the day (I’d had three shots of it before 10am one morning, wahey).
There are different varieties native to the different areas of Colombia, but my favourite was this one in Cali, as it was slightly lighter than the stuff I had in Cartagena.
So I ended up having this by accident when I first arrived in Cartagena, as the host in my hostel spoke absolutely nada English, and my brain was too tired to translate a menu.
Sancocho is very thick soup made with root vegetables and different kinds of meats, in a broth, usually flavoured with herbs, onions, garlic and peppers. And then served with a range of accompaniments, like rice, plantain, lentils and salad. The perfect Sunday meal, you’re thinking. Not so great when you’re hungover at 3pm and just wanted a snack.
If you like Irn Bru, then you will like this. Fact.
Ok, now for something less stodgy and a lot healthier – the granadilla is my favourite fruit from Colombia. It’s a member of the passion fruit family, and inside the crisp orange shell (which can be pierced with a thumb and spoon) there is a mass of flesh-covered seeds that look similar to passion fruit seeds, though more frog spawn-y. They are delicious.
I’ve seen them in the exotic fruit sections in Asda and Waitrose, but refuse to pay £2 for just one fruit when I paid the equivalent of 10p for them on the Colombian coast (just another reason why I love Cartagena).
15. Pony Malta.
My friend was breastfeeding while I was staying with her in Colombia, and was drinking loads of this stuff. It’s a slightly sparkling malt drink and it’s delicious (but quite calorific). Unfortunately it’s only available in Colombia, but I did try something similar when I was in Puerto Rico earlier this year.
Another reason I loved Colombia was all the fresh ceviche I ate. It’s basically raw fish/seafood that has been cured in lime juice and spiced with ají (that sauce again), chilli and herbs. It can either be served simply with a saltine cracker (like the picture below on the right, which was at a shack on Tanganga beach), or dressed up like the two on the left (which were in 88 Sillas, a restaurant in the Usaquén area of Bogotá).
I love ceviche, and really want to find a good ceviche restaurant in the UK – if you have any recommendations drop me a comment below.
17. Poker cerveza.
I drank a fair bit of this stuff in Cali – it’s light and a little citrus-y. I’ve since found out it’s also made by the company that makes Pony Malta (maybe that’s why I like it so much?).
18. Tasty (and massive) fruits.
Ok, so I pulled out granadilla as my favourite fruit consumed in Colombia, but while I was travelling through the South American country, I also got to sample: guanabana, guava, avocados that were as big as melons, carambola, zapote, papaya, lulo and annona.
If you fancy trying something new, head to any of the local fruit markets to get the freshest and cheapest variety of these exotic fruits (or try them in juice form from street vendors and restaurants). Maracuya juice is amazing, though quite sweet.
19. Torta de chocolate.
While every nation in South America has a distinct culinary tradition, shaped by local crops and waves of immigration, there is one element that unites them all: a serious sweet tooth. Despite not really having one myself, in Colombia I couldn’t resist some of the amazing desserts on offer, including this gorgeous torta de chocolate.
The main ingredients to this chocolate cake are coffee liquor, cream, dulce de leche and cookies. Need I say more?
20. Chuleta valluna.
This pork milanese is one of the most popular dishes in Colombian restaurants. It’s a traditional dish from the El Valle area of Colombia, but we had it for breakfast in Cali.
21. Club Colombia cerveza.
Another beer in at 21, Club Colombia. It tastes much nicer from a glass bottle, chilled; but at 1am when you’re not fussy, a lukewarm can for the equivalent of 50p from a street vendor in Cartagena will do. Cheers.
Kind of like English black pudding, morcilla is a sausage made of pig’s blood, finely chopped pork belly or bacon, herbs and spices. We had it as an appetiser at Andres, the best restaurant in Bogotá by a mile (so good we spent about six hours there).
Our other appetiser at Andres were these amazing little pork scratchings, served warm with a spicy garlicky dip. It’s basically pork belly squares that have been deep fried. Some even had little hairs on them still. Mmmmm, they were the best.
As you can see, Colombians sure love their food, especially carbs.
Meal times are not just a “sit down, eat, wash up” affair. While I stayed with my friend’s families in Bogotá and Cali I was submerged into Colombian life, eating traditional, homemade recipes that were particular to the region, while enjoying the meals for what they were: an occasion for everyone to get together and celebrate being alive. And what’s not to love about living in a country with some of the tastiest food I’ve ever eaten?
I cannot express my gratitude enough to those that let me stay in their homes last summer – I am so thankful to them for being kept “fed and watered”.
I hope one day, when they visit England, I’ll be able to repay the favour. I may even treat them to a pattie butty, if they’re lucky.