Differences between American Culture and Colombian Culture: Meals

Not too long ago, I tried to explain a bit about the differences between the American and Colombian concepts of time. Today, I want to talk to you about another pretty significant cultural difference: the concept of meals. Like most people in the United States, Colombian tend to eat three meals a day; however, these three meals are very different both in size, time they take to be eaten, and types of foods typically found in each meal.

Just as most people around the world do, Colombians start their day with breakfast. While the Colombian traditional breakfast is fading in some places due to the intensifying nature of modern lifestyles, many Colombians continue to eat traditional regional breakfasts which can include tamales (Tolima, Bogotá, Boyacá), hot chocolate with cheese and artisanal breads (interior departments), changua (interior departments), calentao (Coffee Zone, Medellín), smashed green bananas with coastal artisanal cheese (Caribbean Coast), caldo de costilla (beef broth with potatoes), or an arepa with butter, salt, and cheese possibly accompanied with fresh tropical fruits. Most of these breakfasts would be eaten with a nice cup of Colombian coffee to give the perfect burst of energy for starting the day.

A nice arepa filled with cheese in Usaquén, Bogotá

A nice arepa filled with cheese in Usaquén, Bogotá

These breakfasts are very different from the typical sweet cereals, oatmeal, scrambled eggs with bacon, biscuits and jam, or donuts with coffee that you may find most American eating in the morning. As a matter of fact, many Colombians say they could not stomach an American breakfast on a daily basis as it is generally too sweet or too large of a portion for so early in the day. Likewise, while there are many Colombians who have breakfast on the go, I would say in general, Americans are more rushed in their morning eating routines, as there are still a fair number of Colombians who are able to have breakfast with their families before heading off to work.

In my opinion the biggest difference in meal concepts between Americans and Colombians is found in how lunch is had. In the United States, lunch is not typically a big meal. It is generally seen as a small meal, eaten in a fairly fast-paced, rushed setting, often times cold (think sandwiches and pre-packed lunches meant to last long periods of time). Even school children eat lunch in a hurry in the United States, often having only 30 minutes to eat before returning to class.

Family lunch in Llanogrande, Antioquia

Family lunch in Llanogrande, Antioquia

In Colombia, however, lunch is a serious affair. While there are the exceptions to the rule, I would say the majority of Colombians have about a 2 hour lunch break during which most Colombians go home, have lunch with their family, and even have a small siesta (nap) before returning to work in the afternoon. Lunch is the most substantial meal in Colombia and often consists of three courses: a soup, a main dish (a meat, rice, and some sort of vegetable—potatoes, salad, plantains, etc…), served with fresh fruit juice and small dessert followed by a tinto (small portion of black coffee). That being said, a cold lunch is not something normally seen as acceptable here.

Dinner in Colombia is also a good deal different than it is in the United States. In the United States dinner is typically the biggest and most substantial meal for most families. It is also the meal that is traditionally eaten as a family unit, whether at home or in a restaurant. For many Colombians, dinner is the least important meal of the day, and is not seen as traditionally eaten with the family. Many Colombians have what most Americans would consider a snack for dinner—an arepa or bread and cheese with a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, or hot agua de panela (unrefined cane sugar juice)—something small to tide them over until breakfast, while most Americans eat something most Colombians would consider fit for lunch as dinner.

Colombian Food - Hot Chocolate and Cheese

Colombian Food – Hot Chocolate and Cheese

Even so, some American eating customs are creeping there way into Colombian culture and there are some Colombians who have begun eating a more American style dinner, especially in the sense of eating out at night after work with friends, family, and/or co-workers.

All the same, when and if you come to Colombia be prepared to jump into Colombian eating customs. Eat it up (no pun intended) and remember, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.”

Here’s to a happy tummy wherever you are,

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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