While having to eat Colombian food is awful when you live there, there are enough good dishes to enjoy eating during a brief stay. These are my favorite things to eat in Colombia after living there for just under three years.
1. Bandeja Paisa
You’ll eat Colombia’s national dish, bandeja paisa, throughout the country. Rice, beans, ground beef or steak, chorizo, chicharrón, arepa, avocado, platano, fried egg, and sometimes morcilla (see below). Any bandeja paisa costing 15,000 pesos will be good. My favorite is La Cucharita de Mi Abuela at Calle 63 & Carrera 13. Be like me and mix it all together with a cup of ají for spicy, sloppy goodness.
UPDATE – Bandeja paisa originates in Antioquia and Medellin. I’ve been to Medellin three times now and had many “authentic” bandeja paisas, so I can say with authority that THE BEST BANDEJA PAISAS ARE IN BOGOTA.
Ajiaco is Bogota’s regional plate. Chicken, potato, and corn soup served with a plate of rice and avocado. Add everything on the plate into the soup. Be like me and ask for extra capers (alcaparras). I didn’t see the big deal about ajiaco for a few months because I only had it at cheap and mid-priced restaurants. Make sure you have it at a decent place for at least 10,000 pesos. My favorites are the places a block from Plaza Bolivar downtown.
3. Black Folks’ Fish
Colombia’s black population is on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, so fish is part of their culture. It’s pescado pacifico, technically, but I call it Black Folks’ Fish. They run the best fish fry houses in the city. Latin cities cluster their industries, so there will be a black folks’ fish street or district in any given neighborhood. I go to a place at Calle 51 and Carrera 17. Another Chapinero district is at Calle 57 and Carrera 8. If you’re staying in La Candelaria, there’s a district at Calle 20 on Carrera 4. Buy an avocado on the street before you go in.
When I first ate Colombian fish, I’d attack it with a knife and fork. This is wrong. Eat with your fingers and eat everything. Unless it’s a bone, put it in your mouth and disintegrate that shit. Fins and tails go down like potato chips. There’s only a tiny skull in its head so you can digest everything else: face skin, eyeballs, soft gunk, hard gunk, everything. Omega 3 goodness.
Chiguiro is served with pork ribs, steak, potatoes, platano, arepa boyacense, and avocado. I’d been eating chiguiro for six months before learning what it was. I was told it’s baby pig. I figured Colombians had a different word for baby pigs, like ‘veal’ for baby cow in English.
One day a Colombian explicitly told me chiguiro wasn’t pork, but a rodent. He didn’t know the word in English. He tried “hamster” and “guinea pig.” A hamster on steroids with gene therapy wouldn’t yield the big chiguiro filets. And I lived in Peru for a year, so I know guinea pig (cuy). That fishy rodent full bones is not chiguiro.
I did a Google Image search right then and there. This is what I saw! I thought it’s a beaver! I couldn’t believe it. I’d been eating beaver for months and loving it! Some research later, I learned they’re actually ‘capybara’ in English.
Capybaras are native to South America so most wouldn’t know the word in English. My original theory was that beavers down here evolved past what they did in North America due to the combination of Andes Mountains and heavy rainfall, which must make for some killer dams. They stand up to a human’s knees. I’m not an evolutionary scientist, but look at that thing! It’s a beaver!
Chiguiro spots are difficult to find. I go to one on Calle 61 east of Carrera 13.
Best served on a hangover with beer and friends.
Here are some closeups of the meat:
Colombia’s one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. There are loads of exotic fruits and you should eat them all. See my entire post on Fruit in Colombia.
6. Ensalada de Frutas
While Americans may take issue with the word, “salad,” Colombians make the best fruit salads. Each bowl has a dozen different kinds of chopped fruit, cream, ice cream, and cheese. You can get these at various fruterías and cafes throughout the city, but the best (and cheapest) are at informal produce markets. These markets also have excellent morcilla and lechona (see below). Pic above taken at 7 de Agosto.
Ensaladas from a fruit-and-ice-cream parlor.
Known as “manjar” or “dulce de leche” elsewhere Latin America, arequipe is my favorite dessert. Above it’s pictured with melted cheese. Also get it served with chocolate, cuajada (milk curd), figs (sinful!), in a croissant, in a wafer with cheese and blackberry sauce (obleas), or in herpos. If it’s got arequipe, it’s good. It’s cheap and easy to make at home. Boil a pound of brown sugar into a liter of whole milk, stirring until thick.
Pictured with cheese and brevas (figs), courtesy of Hatoviejo.
8. Arroz con Pollo
Every Latin American country has its own version of Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken). And while Colombian does not best any of its counterparts (Peruvian is the best), it is good enough to make this list. Bell peppers, chicken stock and saffron give the rice its flavor and yellow color. Mixed with shredded chicken breast, peas and green beans and served with fries.
Lechona is pork, rice, and peas cooked together. Then they stuff the shelled pig carcass with the rice and pork mix. It’s cheap and tasty. I always eat it at the market with morcilla, which is sold in the next stand. Morcilla is a sausage casing stuffed with cooked blood, rice, peas, and maybe celery. It took some getting used to, but now I love it.
A picada is a platter of fried or barbecued, bite-sized meats and starches. What any given restaurant puts in its picada varies, but the most common mix will be pork loin, chicharron (crackling), chorizo, morcilla, potato, plantain and the boyacense arepa. The platter is usually shared among friends, and tastes better with beer. This is the thing to eat if you visit La Calera.
The photo comes courtesy of my friends at Tours of Colombia, a recommended tourist agency in Bogota.
3 Things You Don’t Have To Eat in Bogota
As I said in the first paragraph, eating Colombian food everyday as a resident is not fun. For more info, see Colombian Food: Worst of the Worst.
If only in town for a short stay, you can steer clear of these items.
Yuca is a major staple in countries throughout the Americas. It can be OK slow boiled in chicken broth, and anything’s OK deep-fried. But yuca is generally hard and flavorless. What’s the difference between yuca and wood? Yuca grows below ground.
Colombia is a leading producer of panela, bricks of evaporated sugar cane juice. It’s sold in the shape of a brick, but it’s also as hard as and probably heavier than a brick. You can’t cut it with a knife; you have to break it in half by banging it with a metal rod. Pure sugar. You can melt it into desserts but many people eat it in small brick form, letting it dissolve in their mouths. Once a week without fail, The Mick insists I tell the world that Colombians aren’t as strong or athletic because their parents feed them panela, and that in over 20 years he “never lost a tackle!”
You’ll have a hard time coming to Colombia and not eating arepas, a national staple. They’re cornmeal biscuits with less moisture and flavor. For more on arepas and lots of pictures, see my post on Arepas in Colombia.
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