Colombian Food is Not “Mexican Food”

Many people wrongly assume that Colombian food is the same as Mexican food. I often get the question, “Do you eat tacos and burritos in Colombia?” or “Is the food extremely spicy?” For people who think Colombian food is the same as Mexican food—you are in for a real shock! Colombian food couldn’t be more different from Mexican food, and is quite unique when compared to food from other Andean and Latin American countries.

Typical dish from Caribbean coast of Colombia:  Fried red snapper, green plantains, and coconut rice

Typical dish from Caribbean coast of Colombia:
Fried red snapper, green plantains, and coconut rice

First of all, most people are surprised to learn that Colombians are extremely sensitive to anything spicy, and hardly ever use hot peppers or anything similar in their dishes. That is not say, however, that Colombian food is bland or without flavor. Colombian dishes often have other spices and herbs such as: cilantro (a true Colombian favorite), parsley, guascas (known as “gallant soldier” or “potato weed”), and chives that add wonderful flavor. Colombians also use a plethora of fruit and vegetable-based sauces to give dishes a kick of flavor.

Secondly, although some people may assume that all Latin Americans love to eat their daily portion of beans, many Colombians do not actually like beans and beans are not a common dish in many parts of the country. In Colombia, beans are a regional specialty of the Coffee Zone (Antioquia, Quindío, Risaralda, and Caldas), and are not so common in other regions of the country. Even so, maybe ironically so, one of the most well-known Colombian dishes is from this region and is centered on beans: la bandeja paisa. La bandeja paisa is what some Colombians call a “heart attack waiting to happen,” and includes: a portion of beans, a fried egg, rice, ground beef, chorizo (type of sausage), morcilla (blood sausage), avocado, chicharrón (fried pork rinds), and a sweet plantain. Although this is one of my personal favorites, it’s best eaten on an extremely empty stomach and is best prepared in the Coffee Zone, even though you can surely find it other parts of the country.

Bandeja paisa in Salento, Quindío

Bandeja paisa in Salento, Quindío

Interestingly, Colombian cuisine involves a lot of soups. Colombia is a very regional country; and, each region has a very distinct cuisine. Part of each region’s unique cuisine is a traditional soup. One of my favorites is a soup called ajiaco. Originally from Bogotá D.C., you can find a good bowl of ajiaco in Boyaca and Cundinamarca as well.  Ajiaco is a soup made with chicken, corn, potatoes (yellow papas criollas and white papas sabaneras), and guasca leaves. The small yellow potatoes fall apart and melt and give the soup its thick consistency. Ajiaco is normally accompanied by a portion of white rice, avocado, capers, and crema de leche (table cream). On a cold day in Bogotá, an ajiaco is just what you need to warm you up and restore your energy.

Another amazingly delicious soup is called mote de queso and is typical on the Caribbean coast of Colombian. Mote de queso is made with ñame criollo (white yam), queso costeño (coastal artisan cheese), onions, lime juice, and garlic. I have never seen or tasted a soup quite like mote de queso before. It’s a very unique soup, but, personally, it’s one of my favorite Colombian dishes. It can be hard to find a really good mote de queso, but it’s definitely something anyone who visits the Caribbean coast of Colombia should seek out to try.

In addition to food, Colombia also has some amazing and unique traditional drinks. One of my favorites is a hot drink called agua de panela (unrefined whole cane sugar water). When taken hot, agua de panela is normally accompanied by some type of bread. One of the most traditional breads to eat with agua de panela, and probably my favorite Colombian bakery good, is an almojábana. Almojábanas are small baked rolls made with corn flour and artisan cheese. Although you can buy them at room temperature in many bakeries, it’s best to eat them when have been recently made.

Ajiaco in Ráquira, Boyacá

Ajiaco in Ráquira, Boyacá

When not drinking a cup of the famously wonderful Colombian coffee, Colombians often drink fresh fruit juice. The incredible variety of fruits that grow in Colombia makes Colombia the perfect destination for fruit and juice lovers alike. One of my favorite fruit beverages in Colombia, typically found in Cali and Valle de Cauca, is lulada, made with the tropical fruit lulo. Lulo is a fairly acidic fruit and most Colombians douse it with sugar, much like people in the United States do with lemons in lemonade. Lulada, though, is not quite lulo juice. Instead of juicing the lulo in a blender or juicer, lulada is made by simply cutting the lulo in half and squeezing out the fruit pulp. This pulp is then mixed with water and sugar (some people add lime juice), stirred, and served chilled. When I make this, I leave the water + lulo +sugar mixture in the refrigerator overnight to give it more flavor. Although lulada is not commonly found in Barranquilla (where I am currently living), it’s the perfect cold beverage to refresh with on scorching hot days.

Breakfast in Boyacá:  Artisan cheese, peach juice, fruit bowl almojábana, and agua de panela

Breakfast in Boyacá:
Artisan cheese, peach juice, fruit bowl almojábana, and agua de panela

Hopefully, with the few examples I’ve been able to give you, you can now see that Colombian food is a world of its own, quite different and distinct from the cuisine in other Latin American countries. If you can’t make it to Colombia quite yet, I urge you to seek out Colombian restaurants where you live, as I am sure that at least one of the dishes I’ve mentioned will be served—and, you know your taste buds are itching to taste the scrumptious cuisine of Colombia!

Paige M. Poole

About the author:

“Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie.  You can see more of Paige’s traveling experiences in her personal blog www.trotamunda.wordpress.com

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15 thoughts on “Colombian Food is Not “Mexican Food”

  1. As a mexicanist teaching in a southeastern university in the US, I found this article both useful and interesting for the cultural component of my classes. I certainly learned a few things! Keep up the great work!

    • Hello! Thanks for stopping by. Let us know if you plan to visit Colombia. If you are into cooking you will surely enjoy our cooking class tour including a visit to Bogota’s biggest food market and lesson with a professional local chef on how to cook a traditional Colombian dish. Great for South American food aficionados.

    • You’re right. We have published a few articles in this blog covering the great variety of fruits that can be found in Colombia. You could literally have a different type of fruit every day of the year. Thanks for your comment and for reading our blog. Happy travels!

  2. As a Colombian living overseas and close by Asia, I can objectively say Colombian food classifies as semi-bland…
    Yummy, yes! Much defently! However, Colombian food doesn’t have the explosion of flavours of a Thai Green Curry or an Indian Lamb Korma, for instance.
    I work in travel, and low expectations are always my key to success…

    • Hi Vivarama. Thanks for your interesting comment. While abroad, we’re often asked what Colombian food is like and our response is that Colombian cuisine is an adaptation of Spanish cuisine adding native-american ingredients and flavours. Colombian food will never be an assault to the senses. It won’t be ultra-spicy but we don’t think that makes it bland in the same way that French, Spanish or Italian food are very nice in their own special way. Thanks for stopping by and happy travels!

  3. Pingback: How to teach English in Colombia | Teach English in Colombia

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