Colombia is where I started my big South American adventure last year and it will always hold a special place in my heart. Luckily my local guide let my appetite lead the way through every meal, market and farm (thanks Hector). As usual I had the best fun, and learnt the most about the country, culture and people through eating. And these are the food rules I learnt along the way.
1. Put avocadoes on and in everything
The running joke in Australia is that millennials can’t afford mortgages because they spend all their money on (expensive) smashed avocado on toast. This is clearly not an issue in Colombia because avocados are not only cheap they are MASSIVE. One could feed an entire family. Twice. That explains why avocados can be found in every meal. Having said that I did find the larger the avocado the less flavoursome it was. A bit like prawns. But they certainly made light work of guacamole.
2. Colombian ceviche is…. Different
I’m all for experimentation and new flavour combos. But some things are perfect the way they are and one of those things is ceviche. The original dish created in Peru is simply raw fish/seafood marinated and ‘cooked’ by fresh citrus juice, with a few accoutrements like coriander, red onion, tomato and fried corn. I have to admit I was horrified to order it in Colombia and find it doused in tomato sauce, i.e. ketchup! Why, WHY????? It killed it for me.
3. So many fruits, so little time
I was blown away by how many different fruits exist in Colombia. I tried to get a handle on them all by taking photos of each and making lists and eventually gave up. It’s such a tease as most can’t be found elsewhere. Especially not Australia. Guana’bana, curuba, tomate de arbol, mamoncillo, chirimoya…. How I miss you all! And the best part was picking up freshly chopped fruit on any street corner for next to nothing. It’s an outrage that I now have to cut up my own mango every day.
4. There’s fruit and there’s fruit juice
Fruit juice is expensive in Australia so I always regard it as a luxury. It’s the opposite in Colombia where fruit is cheap and plentiful and fresh juice is a meal staple. Colombians eat a lot of heavy fried food so I honestly believe it’s the juice that keeps them in check. My absolute favourite was lulada made from lulo – a fruit only found in Colombia and Ecuador where it’s called naranjilla. Sweet, tangy and fresh, I drank it constantly. Perfect in cocktails too!
o5. That little bit extra
Hector introduced me to the concept of ñapa, or ‘that little bit extra’. It’s the lulada left in the blender which the vendor uses to top up your cup once you’ve made some room. The extra serve of soup at the markets. A couple of extra maracuyá over the kilo because, well why not? It says a lot about the spirit of generosity that lives inside a lot of Colombians which warmed my heart whenever I experienced it.
6. Soup is god. You will eat it all the time, for every meal, regardless of the weather
I’m all for a bowl of soup. But I have nothing on the Colombians who embrace it for practically every meal, regardless of the weather. And the general approach is the more carbs you can fit into your soup the better. Soup was often included on the menu del dia and as part of every home cooked meal I was lucky enough to enjoy. My favourites included meaty broth sancocho and seafood stew-like cazuela.
7. There is soup and then there is ajiaco
Ajiaco is THE soup. The soup to end all soups and the most iconic dish of Colombia. Ask any Colombian outside of the country what they miss most about their homeland and I guarantee they will look at you wistfully and say ‘my mum’s ajiaco’. And fair enough too. It’s generally made with chicken, three varieties of potato, corn, capers and cream with rice and avocado on the side. It’s rich, comforting and the culinary equivalent of a warm hug. Many Greeks would say the same about their mum’s/yiayia’s avgolemono. I certainly would.
8. Arepas at ever meal
And what do you serve with ajiaco and basically anything you care to order in Colombia? Arepas! Dating from pre-Colombian times they are arguably the most popular food in the country; the equivalent of tortillas in Mexico or the baguette in France. There is never an occasion in Colombia when an arepa is not welcome: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, full meal, you name it. Made from cornmeal, water and salt and sometimes jazzed up with cheese, the patties are fried, grilled or baked. I quickly became a fan except for the odd occasion when they would be served stale. Cue sad face.
9. Carbs reign supreme
Rice and corn rule the roost when it comes to food. Every meal includes at least one (or both). Wherever you go there will be a standard worker’s lunch being served, the menu del dia which is a multi-course meal for a very reasonable price. It would generally include protein (meat or fish), rice, patacones (fried plantain slices) and maybe some salad. Occasionally I’d ask to swap the carb for a bit more salad and always got a strange look. Hector explained this was because salad was merely there for decoration, the carbs were the real deal. Colombians might ask for more protein or carbs but never salad.
10. Soup as a nightcap
We’d had a big night of drinking, dancing and general revelry. Then as we left the club in the early hours of the morning we were each handed plastic cups. I looked at Hector quizzically, ‘que?’. Well, it turns out that partygoers are treated to a cup of warm meaty broth on departure, which acts as a little hydration boost. What a brilliant idea! Who needs Berocca? Clubs around the world take note please.
11. Sharing is caring
When my (big fat Greek) family gets together it’s a melange of food, fingers and madness. I was happy to see that my host Colombian family in Bogota were much the same and Sunday lunch was an all-hands affair of delicious barbequed chicken, roasted corn, grilled plantain, chorizo and guacamole. If you’re wondering why sliced beetroot also made an appearance on the table, it was part of my Aussie care package for Hector (what’s more Aussie than sliced beetroot?).
12. Cheese on fruit salad is a thing. Don’t fight it
Cheese and fruit make terrific bed fellows. Think blue cheese and quince paste. Watermelon and feta. However I was still a little surprised to see fruit salad served with grated cheese on top. No one batted an eyelid because it’s just the done thing. Point taken.
13. Colombia makes fantastic coffee but not every coffee you drink will be fantastic
Oh the irony. Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world but they tend to ship all the good stuff elsewhere. So it’s hard to get a decent cup and baristas tend to only be a thing in the big coffee chains. The best spot was undoubtedly at the coffee fincas (farms) where it was direct from the source.
14. Salchipapas is the best hangover food
Forget hotdogs or pizza. Now that I’ve discovered salchipapas, every other greasy drinking food pales in comparison. The name comes from a melding of ‘salchicha’ (sausage) and ‘papa’ (potato). I first tried this concoction of hot chips, shaved sausage, shredded lettuce and sauce in Minca and it was a game changer. From that point on we had to drink every night purely so we could end up eating salchipapas from a food truck at 2am. I’m not even sure if they operate in the daytime, I believe it’s purely a nocturnal food. The combo of fried, fresh, meaty and zingy was unbeatable.