Colombian food doesn’t have the same reputation as some of the other Latin American countries – Peru for its ceviche, Argentina for its steak etc. There are, however, some pockets of really wonderful food which I believe are absolutely underrated. From the seafood of the Colombian Caribbean coast to unique dishes with indigenous origins, there are gems to be tried all over this beautiful country. Everyone already knows how great Colombian coffee can be but find below the twenty must-try items that foodies shouldn’t leave Colombia without trying! It’s the full low down on what to eat when travelling in Colombia!
The empanadas in Colombia are nothing like those I’d tried before. These are crispy little pastries made of pan-fried cornmeal and can be stuffed with any savoury filling from cheeses, veggies to meat, fresh coriander and potatoes. The typical way to eat these is to take a bite and then add a tiny spoon of salsa and vary for each bite. Some stalls have over 10 different salsa varieties to try from mild guacamole-style avocado sauces to fiery “super picante” ones for chilli-lovers. These are a must-try!
Colombia’s coastline is packed with delicious seafood. Similar to the Peruvians, Colombian ceviche is tangy and hearty. You’ll find locals eating this all over the Caribbean coast from beaches to stalls with local fish and shellfish.
3. Frijoles Antiquoan
Frijoles Antiquoan refers to the beans from the central northwestern part of Colombia. The dish is called Tipico Antioqueño and served at restaurant Mondongos in Medellin.
The dish is composed of local beans, crispy pork crackling, ground beef, a soft-fried egg, raw banana, ripe plantain, steamed potato, fresh coriander and the hugest portion of avocado. It is served with two types of chilli sauce and steamed rice. Get one dish to share between two for lunch with a fresh mandarin juice each, and be prepared to skip dinner.
4. Plantain crisps
Plantains or platanos as they’re known in Spanish, grow in abundance in Colombia. Thinly sliced and deep fried they make truly fantastic crisps, which I much prefer to potato ones! They’re best bought fresh on the street where they’re fried fresh and sold in open packs and sprinkled with salt. They’re ludicrously cheap and a delicious snack for long journeys.
Arepas, like bread, can be really dull if not made well, but find a good one and you’ll transported into a when-Harry-met-Sally heaven. Like bread there’s tonnes of varieties – you couldn’t compare a sandwich sliced supermarket white bread to an artisanal Danish sourdough, equally you have the same variation in Colombian Arepas. Arepas are a staple for Colombian families and are the typical breakfast or lunch of most Colombians.
They’re made of cornmeal and usually grilled but that’s pretty much all they have in common. There are dozens of different types – some made on hot stones, some grilled, some griddled. Some are served like thick tortillas, some like cakes, some split open and filled with all sorts! My favourite type are those stuffed with local sour cheese, onions and topped with hot sauce. Don’t miss the modern twists on arepa’s at Zea Maiz in Cali where, as well as classic fIllings, you can get unusual takes like the Tierra Libre with a Thai inspired salad filling, or the Palestina arepa filled with hummus and sun dried tomato. Their chocolate chilli peanut sauce is also divine! We may have liked the arepas here so much that we went three days in a row and still didn’t manage to get a photo before eating them up… oops!
Chicha is a fermented drink made of corn, water and local brown sugar. It has a sweet but malty flavour and is served in Totuma shells. It has a fascinating history as the government first attempted to ban it in the 1920s to increase the sales of beer! It was seen as a drink for commoners as previously it was drunk by street vendors, those in construction and the elderly. It was formally prohibited in 1948 and replaced with beer. Nowadays, Chicha is available again in Bogotá despite being formally prohibited. Its taste is sweet and malty unlike its history. It was prohibited for the benefit of the political and powerful who previously spread propaganda that if was poison and blamed it for political riots! Nowadays its marketed as a cultural drink to reconnect with indigenous routes and is well worth a try.
7. Porteña de dulce de leche
Whilst this cake isn’t strictly Colombian, this is a must-eat in Cartagena! This wonderful cake at Mila Pasteleria incorporates meringue, Arequipa (local dulce de leche) and gold leaf for the most epic dessert. Don’t miss this!
8. Ajiaco soup
Ajiaco is undoubtedly my favourite of all Colombian soups, and perhaps one of my favourite soups of all! Made with three types of Andean potato, corn-on-the-cob and a plant called Guascas are used to make this incredible soup. It’s hearty, spicy and thick because of the buttery yellow Criolla potatoes that only grow in the Andes. The soup is served with a side of chicken, rice, sour cream and ripe avocado for you to add as you see fit.
9. Buffalo meat
We tried wonderful fillet of buffalo at Restaurant Itaca, Medellin, which was one of my favourite restaurants on the trip! Behind a blue door sits a unique tiny little restaurant with no menu. The esteemed chef Juan-Carlos makes impeccable food served family style whilst he sings opera for a truly unique experience! Our buffalo meat was served medium – rare with two sauces – one earthy with coriander, onion and mustard and one spicy tomatoey red pepper. Served on a Colombian version of bubble & squeak. It was serve with a salad of lettuce, onion, mushrooms, grated carrot, cantaloupe, watermelon and yellow courgette. Delightful and definitely one you can’t miss when in Medellin.
10. Melcocha Colombiana
This marshmallow-like soft cream looks very similar to a cone of ice cream from afar but don’t be fooled. This loose meringue is nothing like it’s freezing counterpart. This street food is made in the most unique way.
We witnessed it being made by hand on a tree where local brown sugar ‘Panela’ is hand-mixed with gelatine until it’s soft and mallow-like. Finally, it’s loaded into a cone wafer and sold fresh at less than 50p! A sweet treat and totally unique!
11. Jugos Naturales
Jugos Naturales translates literally to fresh juices. You can’t visit Colombia without trying them! The local fruits in Colombia are exquisite. There are tonnes of varieties and lots of fruits we don’t get in the UK in exotic shapes, colours and textures. The climate lends itself to growing tropical fruits so juices and smoothies are cheap, fresh and available everywhere. My favourite is a mix of mango, pineapple, passionfruit and lulo fruit. Ask for a “jugo de mango, piña, maracuya y lulo” and have your thirst quenched.
This dessert is a half way blend between a snow cone and a fruit salad. On top of shaved ice is a concoction of syrup, fresh mango, banana, passionfruit, condensed milk and caramel sauce! We loved it on a hot day in Cali as the perfect sweet refreshing treat.
13. Posta Negra
This dish is local to Cartagena, was a surprising find for us. The pork is cooked slowly in a pressure cooker in onions, garlic, local brown sugar called Panela and spices, resulting in tender, tasty, melt-in-the-mouth meat in a sweet BBQ-like sauce to be mopped up with brown rice and crispy plantains.
14. Avena Helado
Avena Helada is the perfect antidote to hot weather in Colombia. It’s a refreshing oat drink akin to a vanilla milkshake – so smooth and refreshing.
Pandebona are soft buns made of yuca flour and corn starch enriched with cheese in the dough. They resemble the Brazilian Pao De Quejo and are utterly delicious, like little savoury brioche buns. Go for the one sin fruta (without fruit) for a true savoury snack. They’re best served warm with a cool glass of Avena!
16. Chocolate con queso
Translating literally to chocolate and cheese, this is a combination I’d never have put together but in Colombia worth trying. You’re served a small cup of dark hot chocolate made with cacao and water alongside a slice of neutral local cheese. The locals suggest breaking the cheese up into small chunks and dropping them into the hot chocolate. Now forget all about those chunks. Enjoy the hot chocolate and when you reach the end of the cup you’re left with small melted blobs that resemble melted mozzarella which you then eat with a spoon. Does it sound bizarre? Well, depending where you try it, it may taste it too. For the most part we tried this with a very neutral cheese with little flavour, which was inoffensive with the hot chocolate, but occasionally it’s salty cheese. Weird but worth trying! If the cheese combination is too strange then do try the hot chocolate anyway – the bitter sweet cacao flavour is great!
17. Coffee cocktails
Everyone knows that the coffee from Colombia excellent, but what about their cocktails? Sample premium coffee at the Barista school at Arte y Pasion Escuela de baristas and don’t miss their espresso martini’s and coffee mojitos. The latte art is unreal and their java bean mojito is incredible – the classic mojito has a subtle coffee undertone which is sophisticated and delicious. It may be the best mojito I’ve ever tried!
Imagine an ice cream sandwich with crisp wafers, sweet toffee sauce and maybe strawberry sauce too. That audibly crunchy type that you’d have as a kid. Now imagine someone forgot to put the ice cream in and instead loaded up on sauce. Obleas are the best version of those! Obleas are crispy wafers filled with dulce de leche caramel, jam and cheese. Yes cheese! A neutral white cheese is used which helps take away from the sweetness. This dessert will make you nostalgic for an ice cream sandwich but it is in fact served without any ice cream. The crisp wafers squish together all the fillings for a sweet treat and it’s seriously delicious to share between two.
I suspect the ring of this being shouted sing song style aren’t likely to leave my mind anytime soon. Each morning in Cali we heard the local avocado seller walking through town with a 7am sale. Who would want to buy avocados (Aguacates) first thing in the morning? You. That’s who. Trust me on this, these are some of the best avocados you’ll enjoy. Big, ripe and perfectly soft. Whack them on an arepa (with marmite if you’re into it, like I am) or into your soups. This is one fruit that the Colombians have perfected and they’re certainly some of the best avocados I’ve ever tried! Potentially even on par with those we loved in Mexico!
20. Mango con miel y limon
Mango is great all over Colombia, there are many varieties available in every market but an unusual snack that we loved were the strips of under ripe green mango. The mango is shredded into beautiful strips and served in cups on street stalls all over the country. You can have it topped with local honey and lime making it a great sweet and sour snack to have on the go.
So, there you have it, that’s the full list of twenty Colombian dishes that you just have to try when visiting Colombia!
Would you try these Colombian dishes? What unusual dishes have you tried? Comment below with some of the dishes you’ve loved trying across the world!
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