Although my heart belongs to New Jersey with its disco fries and taylor ham, I was born in Colombia. This means that I am one of the lucky few who actually know Colombian food. The issue with Colombian food in the US is that most restaurants all serve the same food and barely touch upon the diversity of Colombian food. Colombian food is not just Bandejas Paisas. There are more things to eat in Colombia than that.
What makes Colombian food so good is its influences. It is a mix of European, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and African flavors. While most typical dishes (keep in mind this is poor, humble, highly caloric food meant to keep workers going through a long and arduous work day) include a protein (pork, beef, or chicken) potatoes, beans, and rice.
Your main meal is usually lunch, eaten between noon to 4pm depending on what region you live in. The meal consists of a soup, a seco (main course), and dulce (dessert).
Dinners are smaller, and usually had much later, around 8 o'clock, so that parents can enjoy time with their kids.
Top 10 Things to Eat in Colombia
Every Colombian eats arepas. While they may not eat the same type of arepas, believe you me...they are eating it in one form or another. An arepa is a patty made of cornmeal and cooked on a grill. They can be eaten alone (with butter) or served along with other dishes (like you would serve bread).
If you go to the Coast (Cartagena), you can enjoy my favorite arepa. The Arepa de Huevo. These are sold on the street and are deep fried a first time with ground beef. It is then taken out of the fryer and an egg (or two) are put inside and deep fried again. Healthy, not so much. Delicious - absolutely!
Her second favorite is the Arepa de queso. To make these, you mix in quesillo into the dough. When you bite into them you get the deliciously gooey cheese as a special surprise.
If you want to sweeten things up a bit, try an Arepa de Choclo. These are made of sweet corn, and usually made into a sandwich of cheese. Not my cup of tea, but people love these.
The arepa you will probably have most often is the Arepa Antioqueña. These are tiny little arepas that look like a hockey puck. They are served as a side with dishes such as a Bandeja Paisa (you will read about that one later). This is bland, and IMHO a waste of calories, but don't tell Colombians that. Talking badly about an arepa is a good reason for a fight.
You will probably also run into the Arepa Paisa. These are flat and wide and usually topped with either butter or some sort of beef.
There are tons other types of arepas, but before they take over this post, we'll move onto other food types.
Soups are quite popular all over Colombia. Even in tropical areas where temperatures reach 100 degrees, people will eat soups. This soup comes from the Cundinamarca area (where Bogota is located). it is made of chicken, multiple types of potatoes, corn, and avocado. The most important ingredient in ajiaco is guascas. Without guascas, this soup is not an ajiaco. In the US it is known as a gallant soldier. While this soup is from the Andean region, it has taken hold all over the country, so you will probably be able to taste it anywhere. It's a great hangover cure.
Although this dish originates from the Medellin area, it has become Colombia's national dish. If you've been to a Colombian restaurant in another country, you've probably seen this on the menu. A word of warning, it is a hearty dish, so make sure you don't eat anything when facing this dish. Bandeja means "platter" and the Paisa Platter is made up of either steak or powdered steak (ground beef that is so fine it feels like a powder), chicharron (pork cracklins), white rice, morcilla (blood sausage), sweet fried plantains, avocado, an arepa, and a fried egg.
You cannot...I repeat you CANNOT go to Colombia and not taste this delicious dish. Lechona is a typical dish of the Tolima region, but can be found throughout Colombia. This roasted piggy goodness is stuffed with rice, peas, onions and spices. The best part of a lechona is taking a bite off the crispy skin. Yum!
Arroz Con Coco
Colombians make two types of coconut rice; a white and a dark version. The white version is a bit similar to Thai coconut rice, but the one you have to try is the dark version. It's sweet and salty and somehow it is perfectly suited for fried fish.
I mentioned soups were big in Colombia. This is probably Colombia's most well known soup. There are versions of it all throughout South, Central America and the Caribbean. Colombian sancochos vary per region. They are usually made with a protein (chicken, meat, or pork), and always with potatoes, yica, and plantains. A proper sancocho is served with white rice topped with a fried egg and a side of cilantro to garnish the soup.
These tiny potatoes are amazing. They are fried and salted and super creamy on the inside. These will become a favorite of yours in seconds.
The Fritanga is all about fried foods. This one means chicken, pork ribs and beef, papa criolla (creole potatoes), with Chunchullos (fried cow intestines) and comes with a spicy aji or lime to pour on top.
Colombian empanadas are a great go-to snack. These are their version of a dumpling. They are fried and are usually filled with beef and potato (although other fillings can also be found).
I hate this dish. Blanca loves it. It is another dish from the Andes region. Changua is a breakfast soup made of milk, water, eggs, cheese and scallions (and stale toast). I almost forgot, this one is also garnished with cilantro. The cheese melts at the bottom and if you are lactose intolerant, this could put you out for the count.
Every country has that one dish that just seems weird as hell to the rest of the world. Colombians enjoy their big butt ants. Yup. Ants. They roast them, salt them and roast them. They kinda taste like peanut butter.
Tons of countries make tamales. Colombia's are great and (as I am sure you've noticed with most of the dishes mentioned here) they vary by region. A tamal is basically dough that has been filled with meats and veggies. It can be pork, chicken, beef or all three. Sometimes they have a hardboiled egg. They usually have peas, carrots, and potatoes inside. They are wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled when they are ready to be eaten. My favorites are Tolimenses, but I urge you to try some from every region to check out the differences for yourself. These make for an awesome breakfast.
Bonus - Fruits
Colombia is an incredibly diverse country, and one of the best things to eat there is fruit. When you go, make sure to try granadillas, mamoncillos, maracuya, gulupa, curuba, lulo, and pitaya. If you want to make the fruit adventure more fun, then grab a juice. All over Colombia there are juice stands of freshly squeezed fruit. You will fall in love.
If you want to learn a little more about foods in Colombia, check out my posts on the Galeria Alameda in Cali.