One of the first things someone warned me about when I arrived in Bogota was that ‘people don’t come to Colombia for the food…’ and after a few days of the hotel buffet (which was provided at training) I was definitely not questioning this statement.
Our meals were made up almost exclusively of rice, corn and meat, all consistently unseasoned. A Colombian girl on the course explained to me that locals prefer ‘neutral tastes,’ and that when she traveled to the US she thought everything tasted too much like garlic. I’m not gonna lie, I was worried.
Unfortunately, apart from a disgustingly hungover McDonald’s, and the oddly traditional cheese and hot chocolate combo, I couldn’t justify skipping the free food to go and discover the culinary delights that Bogota was surely hiding.
Since arriving in Santa Marta I’ve been able to branch out, and things are definitely looking up.
Here are some highlights so far:
When I first heard people talking about salchipapas I heard ‘Salty papa’s’ and pondered not for the first time on Colombians obsession with papi/mami references. Turns out salchi is short for sausage, and papa means potato, (or the Pope) and they’re even more fun to eat than they are to say. Salchipapas are a layer of chips and sliced fried sausages, covered in salad, a thousand-island kind of sauce, and topped with grated cheese (and shame, so much shame.) In Cartagena you can get a version with fried plantain instead of the chips. This feels a lot more Colombian and less like you’re just eating sausage and chips.
Can you see a theme emerging already? Potatoes are definitely a big deal over here, and if you’ve ever tried paparellenas you’ll understand why. Literally translated to stuffed potatoes, paparellenas are a delicious ball of fried mashed potato, stuffed with minced meat, chicken, chorizo, egg or a combination of the above. Siiiii papi.
Patacones are mashed-up, fried plantains, which are served as a side with almost every Colombian meal. Street food vendors also do stuffed versions of these with juicy shredded beef. As far as I can tell these don’t have their own name, although patarellenas would make a lot of sense.
Arepas are a big staple of Colombian food, and are a magical blend of corn and cheese. You can get them on the street, in hipster gringo places, and pretty much everywhere else in between. My favourite so far has been in a place called Barbacoa in Santa Marta where they pile on rice, two types of meat, salad and pretty much every other topping known to man. Arepa con huevo is a popular Colombian breakfast, and if you’re lucky the egg will have been cooked inside the arepa. Basically witchcraft.
Soup is also a big deal in Colombia, which is kind of surprising given the heat. Salcocho is the traditional soup which has different cuts of chicken and beef, with root vegetables and corn, and is served with rice. They even have a kind of chicken broth for breakfast, which is the most comforting thing in the world once you get past how weird it is. If you order a menu del dia (menu of the day) it often starts with a bone soup, which as well as being all kinds of good for you, is delicious. I’m told that eye soup is also a thing but haven’t had the chance to check that out yet!
I’ll keep my eyes peeled…
Almuerzo literally means lunch, and again, surprisingly given the heat, lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Colombia. To get a taste for local food and to make the budget go further, getting a set almuerzo, or menu del dia is definitely the way to go. It starts with a soup, followed by some kind of grilled meat with rice, fried plantain, beans or lentils, and a fruit juice or ice tea. This usually costs between 4-10 thousand pesos depending on where it is on the authentic-to-gringo scale. As a general rule, if there are plastic chairs, concrete floors and no written menu but lots of locals, it’s going to be good.
7. Pargo rojo
Go to the kind of beach restaurant that consists of a tin roof on wooden poles, and where the closest thing to a menu is pointing to the fish you want. My favourite so far is the first restaurant on Playa Grande in Taganga. Tuck into some fish soup from a plastic bowl while you wait for a fish so crispy you can eat it’s face. Usually served with patacones, salad and coconut rice. (Arroz con coco is definitely the most Caribbean flavour on the coast. I found it to be way too sweet when I first tried it, but once my palate adapted to how much sugar is in everything over here I learnt to like it.)
While most people may warn you against eating seafood from a bucket when it’s 30 degrees, as far as I’m concerned you can’t beat beach/street vendors for ceviche. Less than £2.50 for plastic cup full of prawns, chopped red onion, coriander and lime juice. Some people add ketchup and mayo, someone needs to have a word with them.
Cabo de la Vela in Riohacha is one of the only places in the world where I’ll ever be able to afford to eat lobster two nights in a row. And it’s no coincidence that it is one of my favourite places in Colombia. For about £7.50 you can get a whole lobster in a delicious creamy garlic sauce. Who needs running water when you have this kind of luxury?
Although not technically a meal, I can’t finish this post without mentioning the fruit in Colombia… You can get fresh fruit juice almost anywhere, and as usual the best place to look is on the side of the road. Chunks of watermelon with ice, mango blended with milk, and maracuya, (giant passion fruit) are my favourites, but I’m not very adventurous.
If you want to branch out, lulo, guyaba and gyuabana are examples of fruit that only exist in this part of the world and are impossible to explain. Tomate del arbol has the best name (tomato of the tree) but isn’t as exciting as its name.