The following posts are directed at describing certain salient features of Colombian culture that we have encountered upon our travels. These are unguarded observations and attempt to highlight both the good and bad about this really neat country.
10) The food is simply tragic (mostly).
In Colombia, at any given place, at any given time, someone somewhere is trying to sell you an empanada. Empanadas are one thing you simply cannot escape. They will haunt your dreams. Those varied pockets of fried dough, along with the arepa, are the backbone of Colombian cuisine. We had empanadas with queso, pollo, guava, yucca, and carne. Some were terrible and dry, others were pretty good. Queso, in Colombia, refers exclusively to their standard cheese. There’s only one kind and it’s not great. Tastes somewhat like a softer feta. Dairy cows everywhere, but one single monotonous cheese. Tragic.
The arepa is number two on the food-chain (arguably). It is a fried corn meal patty that comes in a similar degree of variation as its culinary cousin, the empanada. In Cartagena, we stayed in a family-owned hotel where an abuela prepared some delicious arepas con queso. They are also very conspicuous on the streets, where vendors are frequently found frying their doughy treats from their street stands.
As demonstrated by the two most conspicuous Colombian foodstuffs, frying is the cooking method of choice in this country. It is performed to a gratuitous extent and ruins a lot of food. See, La Truchera photo (above). At La Truchera, a quaint little fish farm in the Andes, we arrived, grabbed a fishing pole, and caught our dinner for 2,000 pesos per fish ($1 USD). Thrilled at the thought of fresh, clean fish, and wanting a change from the gallons of cooking oil we had likely consumed over the past days, we took our catch over to the kitchen where they prepared it for us. Five minutes later, we were brought out a plate of fried fish, fried corn meal (arepa), fried plantain, and french fries. After staring for a moment in disbelief that literally every portion of our meal was fried, we just laughed it off. When in Rome…
A typical Colombian treat is queso dipped in hot chocolate. I’d rate it as a “meh.”
The “comida tipica” in these parts is a cut of pork that includes the outer layer of fat of the pig and the skin, giving it a pork-rind crunchiness on the exterior. All aspects of the meat are entirely without flavor.
Admittedly it has been more bad than good, as far as food goes. However, we have still had some fantastic meals in Colombia.
Our most amazing food experience was, strangely, while hiking through the jungle of Tayrona. We left camp early in the morning without food or coffee and had hiked for over and hour through remote, monkey-infested jungle, until we came upon a small beach-side panaderia. It was a small shack in the middle of the jungle, with rudimentary wooden seating, and a straw roof. A wooden slab nailed to a tree had etched with black paint “Bere Panaderia,” and large piles of coconut husks were stacked inexplicably around the yard. We ordered, and minutes later a glowing, golden bread roll, filled with hot guava jam and queso came out before us. Fresh out of the oven, and melted in your mouth. It was almost too much to describe. The confluence of our exhaustion and hunger combined with the amazingness of the food was just too much. We were reduced to blissful smiles and grunts as we ate. Per usual, we washed down our meal with some hot tinto (black coffee).
The night before our Bere panaderia experience, we had another fantastic meal near the entrance to Tayrona park. Sydney ordered fish and rice perfectly cooked in a fresh banana leaf, leaving a subtle banana flavors throughout the meal. I also ordered a shrimp and plaintain meal cooked in a cherry sauce, which was quite good.
Another interesting and quite good Colombian snack is “Mango biche,” green, unripe mango slices seasoned with lime and salt or chili powder. They are a tart, easy snack that draws from Colombia’s over abundance of fruit. We caught a bag of this mango biche as we were on the bus to Jardin. When a public bus drives through a town, vendors will frequently board in order to sell a variety of foodstuffs to passengers and then jump off at the next stop. Satisfying and cheap.
Finally, Colombia did have its share of amazing Peruvian food, including some terrific ceviche. I met Juan, the enterprising owner of Peru Mix, a new “fast food” Peruvian food joint in the Poblado district of Medellin. Upon trying his three different renditions of ceviche (traditional, Asian-influenced, and tomato-based) I tried convincing him to open up a store in North Carolina. Unfortunately I did not make a compelling argument.
A separate section will be added for beer and alcoholic spirits of Colombia as well as fruit, which, for obvious reasons, deserves to be treated differently.