When I think about Colombia, I think first about food. Said no one, ever. Colombia is famous for a few things (three seasons-worth so far) but in terms of South American gastronomy, Peru usually hogs the limelight. The vibrant food scene of Colombia might not be top of mind, but that is fast-changing. While the country still struggles to shake off a shady reputation, it has become a must-visit destination for travellers looking for adventure, culture and – increasingly – world-class cuisine.
We spent six wonderful weeks eating our way around Colombia, taking in its majestic landscapes and meeting some wonderful people. There’s so much to see and do, it’s hard to know where to start. But, wherever you go, you’re gonna need some energy. Hearty breakfasts for fuel. Triple-carb lunches for sustenance. Deep-fried donuts for…. well, because why not? Who am I to judge?
What to eat in Colombia
Colombians take their food pretty seriously. Their mantra is:
Eat like a King for Breakfast, a Prince for lunch and a Pauper for dinner. We love this philosophy, especially because it’s a good way to save money. Lunch menus are often cheaper than dinner, so you’ll have more money for
beer cultural tourist activities.
A lot of Colombian food, especially street food, comes deep fried. Combined with the ginormous portions, it can be a bit heavy – especially if you try to match the locals whose appetite is ferocious!
Each department, or district, in Colombia has its own traditions when it comes to food, but a common theme runs through them all; meat and carbs. What’s not to love?
Keen to get a taste of local life, we took a culinary tour with La Mesa Food Tours. David, our guide, took us to some of the most famous spots in Envigado, a quiet city just outside Medellin, to indulge in the best local food Colombia has to offer. Check out some of our favourite recommendations for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Colombia.
Breakfast in Colombia
Breakfast traditions around the world are fascinating. Whether it’s a cappuccino and a corneto in Italy, a full fry up in the UK or rice and octopus in Indonesia (yes, really), breakfast is the most delicious, yet potentially controversial meal of the day. A typical Colombian breakfast, at least in Medellin, comprises deep-fried empanadas made with corn and filled with ground beef, potato and onion. Like a Cornish pasty, but smaller and more lethal.
If this isn’t hearty enough to start your day, fear not. Empanadas are usually accompanied by arepas – corn or flour patties that are fried or baked and sometimes stuffed with meat or cheese. Arepas are a cornerstone of Colombian cuisine, appearing in pretty much every meal of the day. To be considered a Paisa, the nickname given to people from Medellin, you need to eat Arepas three times a day. Our favourites were Arepas de Choclo con Queso – corn Arepas with cheese. They tasted like semi-sweet pancakes and the cheese provided a cool and creamy consistency to complement the warm and fluffy arepa.
To wash it all down, breakfast is typically served with warm sugar-cane juice, pink apple juice or a cup of good Colombian coffee.
Lunch in Colombia
This really is the main event for Colombians. It is not uncommon for Colombian people to have a two-hour lunch break during which time they will eat, spend time with family and friends and catch a cheeky siesta. Lunch options vary across the country, but meat and carbs prevail. The most famous Colombian dish is the Bandeja Paisa.
Bandeja Paisa is to Colombia what ceviche is to Peru. An institution. A national treasure. An absolute JOY.
The Bandeja Paisa is a beast of a meal. It’s an interpretation of the best food, all on one plate.
Local variations exist, but the version served up to us by the infamous Gloria at her self-named restaurant ‘La Gloria de Gloria’ (amazing, right?) is not to be missed.
It features – get ready for it – avocado, rice, a fried egg, ground beef, chorizo, pork belly, lettuce, tomato, and fries. That’s not all. No Bandeja Paisa is complete without morcilla (blood sausage) and a bowl of beans in a thick, beany sauce. Oh, and a side of arepas. Obvs. I need a nap just thinking about it.
Bandeja Paisa is most commonly eaten at weekends, as a special family meal, but even the day-to-day lunch offering is pretty impressive. The corrientazo is a cheap meal including some meat, double-carbs and a side salad. There’s often a meaty soup and a drink to accompany it. We enjoyed a corrientazo with some locals at a humble road-side restaurant on the way back from a weekend trip to the beautiful Villa de Leyva. Not quite as filling as the Bandeja Paisa, but delicious and amazingly cheap at only £2 a portion.
Juices are also a staple of the Colombian diet. With an abundance of fresh fruit at their fingertips, they whip up all sorts of concoctions such as Lulo, Guanabana and Chontaduro y Borojoro which is said to have aphrodisiacal properties. During our tour, David introduced us to lots of fruit we’d never heard of which was… interesting!
Dinner in Colombia
In keeping with their mantra, dinner is a quieter affair. Arepas, again, are commonplace. A typical dinner time treat is hot chocolate with cheese. Yes, you heard right. Chocolate. And cheese. They really love their cheese. We didn’t get the chance to try this delicacy, but were assured it was ‘muy rico’.
Desert and other tasty snacks
If, after all that, you are still hungry (what is wrong with you?!) you can indulge in some sweet treats.
Salpicòn is a typical Colombian desert made with ice cream and cheese. It’s like a booze-less English trifle, with cheese on top. Pieces of mango, banana, strawberry and papaya soaked in a rich fruity juice. Topped with vanilla ice-cream, strawberry sauce, a wafer and the all-important cheese shavings. I told you they love their cheese.
Deep-fried donuts are also delicious, and can be found on every street corner. If you are fond of your clear arteries, then perhaps the Caribbean delicacy of breadfruit is more appealing. It is savoury, similar to a potato, and can be scalloped, boiled, fried or mashed. We enjoyed simple breadfruit chips from San Andres, a super cool corner of the world.
With so many delicious meals to choose from, you definitely won’t go hungry in Colombia. We’d love to hear what some of your favourites are!