This is a critical article about Colombian food. To see a positive article about the Colombian dishes I miss, see 10 Things to Eat in Bogota.
I didn’t understand what “bad food” meant until I moved to Colombia. Bad food doesn’t mean unpleasant flavors. It means NO flavor. It means flavorless food at every meal, meal after meal, day after day. It means meals aren’t a part of the day to look forward to.
This is something that Colombians are becoming increasingly aware (and sensitive) about in regards to their country. I’m not the only guy saying it. All the expats in Colombia gripe about it when they get together. It’s unanimous.
Below are the main reasons why eating in Colombia every day is No Fun.
Photo credit: MasterChef Colombia
Above is a version of ACPM, the most typical meal in Colombia, except the beef would neither be that thick nor so free of fat and gristle … that was the MasterChef’s touch. I also had to Photoshop out (actually I use Paint) a little ramekin of sauce he had on the plate. You’d never get that with your ACPM in Colombia, it’s FAKE NEWS!
ACPM is what Colombians say to describe what they want in a plate: arroz, carne, papa, maduro – rice, meat, potato, fried plantain. The rice is white, cooked without garlic. The meat is bare, maybe a little salt. The potato is unpeeled and dusted with salt. The plantain is fried. It’s a utilitarian plate, and with a little variation this is what you eat in Colombia every day (mix and match arepas, yuca and patacones for the potatoes and banana, but always white, garlic-free rice).
This is what makes eating in Colombia so bad — the monotony instead of variety and lack of flavor in the few items you eat every day. That’s why everybody drools over the juices in Colombia. The juices are the same throughout the continent, but in Colombia the juice was the best part of the meal!
After eating ACPM every day, I started thinking about why I was suffering. Why is Colombian food so bad? What could make it better? I came to experiment in my own cooking more than ever before. In the end, I realized that I have to THANK Colombia for teaching me to learn and love food … by taking good food away.
I had lived in the United States and Peru, where there is more variety and flavor than you can handle. You can eat good food every day without really trying. You take it for granted.
But in Colombia, I had to focus. Strategize. Learn. In hindsight I ought to thank Colombia. I owe Colombia for starting the process of my becoming a foodie, which was borne out of necessity given the lack of good food there.
See my article on the most frequently suffered Colombian staple, the arepa.
The most damning case is made by the arepa experience an American expat told me. He went out of town. The day of his flight, he and his girlfriend were running late. They didn’t have time to eat the meals their empleada prepared for them. They left them on the kitchen table as they ran out the door to catch their flight. When they returned a week later, they found that ants had eaten every morsel of food on each plate – except the arepas. In fact, the arepas were completely intact. Two whole arepas remained, and nothing else.
After hearing this story I extended the logic to gringo expats and tourists in Bogota with a riddle. If you threw this arepa out in the street (instead of the trash as you usually would), who would eat it first? Let them guess a few times.
Dogs won’t eat them (I’ve tried). Ants won’t either, according to the anecdote. I doubt a horse would, but horses don’t pass very frequently (but they do).
Answer: a HUMAN. One of the thousands of bazuceros / indigentes / vagrants that prowl the streets would be the first (and only) living thing to eat your discarded arepa.
While I don’t like the other items on this list, I can at least finish them if I try. Patacones, on the other hand, are often so dry, hard, and flavorless that I can’t get them down even if I want to. Colombians lay a little salt on them, but that’s not enough for me. I’ve tried lime juice to no avail. Avocado / guacamole are the best bet. Better to just leave the patacon alone.
Here’s my true story to illustrate how awful patacones are. When entertaining tourists in Bogota, I’ll always bring them to one of the black folks’ fish houses (“pescado pacifico” in Spanish). While the standard black folks’ fish plate is one of the best things to eat in Colombia, it will unfortunately come with a patacon disk.
When the gringo tourist tried to eat the patacon, I tell him it’s not supposed to be eaten. Its purpose is for safety. In case a fish bone gets lodged in your throat and you begin to choke, you’re supposed to bite off a piece of patacon and chew, which in turn will cause a gag reflex and you’ll cough up the fish bone. They serve it with every plate out of part safety, part superstition.
Do you live in Colombia? When you bring tourists to eat fish, tell them this with a straight face. You’ll be amazed at the number of people who believe you. And even if they don’t, they won’t eat the patacon.
Panela is evaporated sugar cane “juice” sold in brick form by the penny. Two bits buys ten pounds.
“Brick” isn’t an exaggeration. You can’t cut panela with a knife. Colombians use a special rod or the blunt side of a big knife to hit the panela brick until it cracks. You break off smaller rocks of condensed sugar solids that are sticky in your hands. It needs to be melted down, usually done in water/juice (agua de panela), the milk of arroz con leche, or directly in the mouth. It’s common to eat panela in cube form, as if a large, condensed sugar cube.
The toxicity of sugar aside, panela wouldn’t bother me so much if people didn’t make the claim that it’s healthy. Not only Colombians, I’ve heard gringos claim that it’s “natural” and has vitamins. I’m going to set the record straight for you . Remember this forever:
Panela is to sugar cane as corn syrup is to corn.
Easy to remember, and it will help you look past the pretty name. Before you make a health claim about panela, first test the statement by substituting the words, “high fructose corn syrup.” For example, if you wouldn’t say “high fructose corn syrup has essential vitamins and minerals” or “high fructose corn syrup is good for you because it’s natural,” then don’t say it about panela.
One thing they say which is true and passes the corn syrup test: panela is good for energy. As is honey, molasses, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Snickers bars, etc.
Buñuelos and Pandebono
There are many interesting customs for breakfast in Colombia. Hot chocolate with cheese in it is great in my opinion.
But these flavorless balls of bread with the texture of play-dough are not great. Buñuelos are fried; pandebono baked. Both are always light on cheese, heavy on starch, void of flavor. The best description is maybe a glazed donut with no glaze, no sugar. Just plain.
I’ve seen groups of Colombians — professionals in a corporate headquarters up north — get all excited when a box of these got brought in. They were rubbing their hands together in anticipation of eating the plain donut balls. ¡NO GRACIAS!
Tamales are often held up as an example of delicious Colombian cuisine. I would only suffer my way through one if I was flat broke. Tamales are great if you need to fill your belly for 4000 pesos. Or maybe with several years in Colombia and your taste buds have come to resist bold flavors.
Peruvian and Mexican tamales are better because neither uses rice. No extra filler crap. But given how utilitarian Colombians are in the kitchen, they use rice.
The Tolimense tamales that have beef or pork inside are actually not bad — almost “good.” But most Colombian tamales you eat will have a chicken thigh inside a mold of rice and cornmeal. Minimal cost, minimum flavor, miserable living.
Colombians are proud of their soups, which I can only explain by thinking most have never left Colombia. Whenever you’ve cornered them about how there is so much flavorless foods and the few good items aren’t really that good, they’ll throw out their soups.
And I assume they’ve never been outside Colombia, never tasted chili, gumbo, clam chowder, beer cheese coup, French onion soup, minestrone, or the Arequipan heavyweights, chupe de camarones and adobo.
Colombians can be proud of Ajiaco and Sancocho in my opinion. I liked Ajiaco when it was cold and rainy in Bogota, but it’s not good enough to make the menus of the hip “Nuevo Latino” restaurants in the States.
And my Peruvian wife actually spit out the Sancocho I prepared one night when she tasted the banana. Then she called her mother to tell her that I had made a soup with banana in it! She added that this soup was from Colombia, which most Latin American women equate with cocaine and hookers. They wonder if there is something wrong with me. Does it mean I’m going to leave her for Colombia? Then they hang up and the mother calls her sisters to tell them that I made soup with banana in it. I really don’t think it’s that bad.
I know many gringo expats disagree, but I think Colombian changua is interesting. And Caldo de Costilla, yeah sure because there’s nothing else with protein for breakfast worth eating, you know?
Unfortunately Ajiaco, Sancocho, Changua and Caldo combined don’t make Colombia’s soups as a whole “good.” They are OK before being dragged down by the much more common soups you get with your daily lunch.
For this the Colombians go really bland, with stuff like sopa de arroz. You read that correctly: RICE SOUP. Pictured above but imagine it without the cilantro leaf or any morsel of chicken. Others include PASTA SOUP, but the worst is PLANTAIN SOUP. It’s not bad because it has banana in it, it doesn’t. It has some kind of green leaves, which I assume are plantain tree leaves.
So when you consider them all, Colombian soups are not average. They FAIL.
Colombian ceviche is shrimp in ketchup with lime and onion, served with saltine crackers. What you see above is served with saltines. Shrimp. Ketchup. Lime. Onion. Crackers. ¿Donde es el restaurante peruano, por favor?
Colombian Hot Dogs
The Colombian hot dog is the worst imitation of American cuisine I’ve seen in all the world. The problem is there’s about 1/8 pound hot dog which would never be all beef. It’s put in a one-pound hot dog bun and topped with another pound of sauces: ketchup, mustard, mayo, “rosado” (ketchup mixed with mayo), pineapple sauce, fried onion crisps. In this image it’s topped with a quail egg, which is actually an improvement.
The result is a hint of hot dog with a couple pounds of bread and condiments. This wouldn’t bother you much if it were like the hard-to-find Colombian ceviche — see no evil, taste no evil. But the Colombian hot dog comprises 90% of what’s available late night. Every gringo rumbero in Colombia has suffered one of these.
You’re thinking, “Come on, Colin, you’re going to criticize the ketchup?” Yes, I have to, it’s indicative! It shows you what you’re dealing with here!
In most of Latin America, “ketchup” is translated to “ketchup” in Spanish. In Colombia, however, they ironically use “salsa de tomate.” It’s ironic because in most Colombian eateries, what is presented as ketchup and even served in a red bottle contains no tomato. It’s red, it’s the texture of ketchup, and it’s a little sweet … but no tomato whatsoever. You have to taste it to understand.
In Cartagena all the ceviche vendors had their ketchup bottles prominently displayed. I realized the idea was to show off their name-brand ketchup – Fruco, San Jorge, Pampero – these guys are showing off their authentic ketchup bonafides as opposed to the false ketchup commonly found in Colombia.
I didn’t know which is worse, that Colombian ceviche uses ketchup or that they proudly display their brand-name ketchup to show off that it’s not fake ketchup.
The fake ketchup industry in Colombia – that’s an investigative article I’d like to read. But before we get ahead of ourselves, what kind of country would have a fake ketchup industry? What is so fucking expensive about ketchup that you have to falsify it? And ketchup is not that great to begin with — only for burgers, dogs and fries — so any false ketchup would taste so bad that nobody would eat it, right?
Because Colombian food sucks …
… and Colombians don’t seem to mind.
Good Colombian Food?
Again, this is a critical article about Colombian food. To see a positive article about the Colombian dishes I miss, see 10 Things to Eat in Bogota.
UPDATE: I originally wrote this post to drive traffic to the Kickstarter campaign to fund the writing of a book about Christopher Kavanagh, in Irishman who did three years in La Modelo prison and has been teaching English in Bogota ever since. The book is written. Check out Mad Outta Me Head: Addiction and Underworld from Ireland to Colombia.
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