Perhaps more significant than the new dishes were the new plants and animals the
Europeans introduced to Colombia.
Although hundreds of plants and animals were introduced to the region by the Europeans,
a few of the most important of these were wheat, rice, pigs, chicken, and cattle.
Others were also introduced and are now common in Colombia, although they differ
in terms of popularity and importance. Some of these include onions, cilantro, garlic,
black pepper, limes, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples,
Since the late 1800s the food in Colombia has changed in
a number of ways, but most importantly in terms of production, transportation, and
availability. Due to advances in technology, better transportation and storage techniques
have allowed for the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods and better preservation
methods have increased the shelf life of foods as they now have access to foods
that are not in season. Despite the technological changes, few people have truly
altered what they eat so much as they have changed how they eat and what they eat
In recent decades the people's diet is again being added to, although the traditional
foods have not changed much. The base diet in the country is nearly identical today
as it has been in the past, but in the past couple centuries a number of ethnic
restaurants have been opened in Bogota and other large cities or tourist cities,
giving the country more diversity, although few people ever eat these foods and
those that do rarely eat them regularly.
When & Where to Eat
The first meal of the day in Colombia is breakfast, which
is often small as it consists of a small amount of food as well as coffee or tea,
but little else. Mornings are often times interrupted by a small snack served with
additional tea or coffee.
Lunch is usually the largest meal of the day in Colombia
and it tends to last from about noon to 2:00 or 3:00 pm as during this time many
people go home to eat, meaning shops are often closed. Lunch almost always consists
of a soup, a meat (or seafood), potatoes, rice, and other fruits or vegetables,
including fried plantains or cassava. It is often finished with coffee or tea and
in some places a siesta, or nap. Most people still eat lunch at home, but
in some places, especially in the larger cities, this is slowly ending as people
eat at work, from street vendors, or in restaurants in order to avoid the long mid-day
Because of the large lunch, dinner tends to be a bit smaller and is not usually
served until 8:00 pm at the earliest. More commonly dinner is served at about 10:00
pm and at large gatherings, parties, or business meetings it may begin even later.
If eating dinner in the home, it tends to be a rather small meal, but for parties,
large gatherings, or business dinners it can be a huge feast.
Beans: beans are served with numerous dishes as a side
Bread: breads are served with many meals
Corn: corn is used to make a number of dishes
Plantains: perhaps the most common side with Caribbean-inspired
Potatoes: a common side dish, usually potatoes are not served with
Rice: a common side dish that replaces quinoa, usually rice is
not served with other starches
Suero: similar to yogurt and sour cream, this Middle Eastern
food is now a staple along the Caribbean coast
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Ajiaco: this, one of the national dishes, is a potato
soup with chicken, corn on the cob, avocado, and numerous herbs
Bandeja paisa: this national dish has it all, including
beans, pork, meat, plantains, rice, chorizo, and more
Changua: soup with eggs, potatoes, garlic, onions, and
cilantro in a rib-based broth with milk
Patacones: twice-fried plantain patties usually served
as a side; this can also be stuffed with cheese and other ingredients
Tamales Tolimenses: found in Tolima, the corn-dough is
filled with rice, chicken, pork, potatoes, peas, carrots and other foods and spices
If you're lucky enough to be invited to a Colombian's
home, which is more common than it is in many South American countries, be sure
to come with a gift such as wine, chocolates, or a cake. Also dress nicely if you're
meeting locals in their home or are meeting business acquaintances. If you are simply
eating at a restaurant with friends the dress is a bit more casual, but you should
still wear nice clothing.
When meeting locals for a meal be sure to arrive about 30-45 minutes late and up
to an hour late for a party. Greet everyone when you arrive; men generally shake
hands, while women may kiss each other on the check, but this varies based upon
the relationship. As you begin socializing avoid sensitive subjects like religion,
politics, money, or even business, although you may be at a business meal (let your
host bring up business prior to discussing this).
When you are directed to the table, let your host seat you as they may have a place
for you; be aware that men and women generally sit on opposite sides of the table
and the hosts will often sit at the heads of the table. Stand beside your chair
until your host sits, then let women sit first. From this point on you are stuck
at the table as getting up during a meal is considered rude. In a restaurant you
may be seated at the same table as other people; politely ignore them, although
some people may engage you in conversation if they notice you are foreign.
The host will often begin the drinking with a toast, generally just the word "salud"
and he or she will serve you, as a guest, first, but don't eat until your host
indicates you may begin with the words "buen provecho." If you
are drinking and wine is the beverage of choice, try to avoid pouring wine as there
are a number of rules when pouring, two of the most important being that you should
only pour wine with your right hand and you always make sure that when you pour
it the bottle is facing forward.
Before eating or drinking, place your napkin in your lap, keep your hands on the
table by resting your wrists on the table, and never place your elbows on the table.
Eating is done in the continental style, meaning the knife should remain in your
right hand and the fork in your left; get used to this style as everything but bread
and sandwiches are eaten with utensils, including fruits among others. The bread
should be placed on your plate or on the table itself as bread plates are rare.
You should try everything offered to you and if you enjoy something compliment the
host and you will be quickly offered more; if you are offered additional food, initially
turn it down then accept it after your host insists.
When you are done eating leave a little food on your plate then place your fork
and knife together with the tines down pointing right to left. Once everyone is
done eating expect at least a half hour of conversation either at the table or elsewhere.
Your host will dictate the location, but don't get up or excuse yourself until
your host does and invites you to do the same. The end of the meal may also be accompanied
by a beverage, such as coffee or cognac.
If you're eating at a restaurant, call the server over by making eye contact
and saying "mozo;" if you need the bill you must specifically
ask for it. The host is expected to pay for everyone present, but guests should
offer to assist, something that will likely be turned down. If a local host does
treat you to a meal, try to reciprocate by taking him or her out at a later time.
If you're the host, be ready to pay for the entire meal and add a tip of about
10% for good service; sometimes this is already included in the bill as a service
charge, but if not tip at your discretion.
Celebrations & Events
The celebrations and events in Colombia are extensive and
diverse as nearly every city and town has festivals. However, unlike some countries,
there are few foods strongly tied to certain holidays. More than anything holidays
are filled with favorite foods, not foods reserved for certain holidays or events.
The most common of these foods and events is called lechona, which is a
whole roasted pig stuffed with vegetables and rice. Traditionally villages would
eat this every Sunday and even now many people maintain the tradition by eating
pork with rice and vegetables on Sundays.
There are a couple religious holidays that offer numerous foods. The biggest of
these is Carnaval, which takes place every year on the Tuesday prior to
Lent (and for three days prior to Tuesday), a day that usually falls in late February
or early March. The city of Barranquilla is the best known city in
Colombia for this festival of over eating and over drinking and it is only
surpassed by Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for
South America's largest Carnaval festival.
The time around Christmas is also a popular time for eating too much. From Christmas
Eve to New Year's there is plenty of food in Colombia
as Christmas offers families intimate dinners, but New Year's gets people out
eating and drinking. Many towns also host a festival during this week with the Feria
de Cali in the city of Cali hosting one of the largest festivals, including
beer and food on many street corners.
A final festival of interest is the Congreso Nacional Gastronomico, which,
as its name would suggest, is a culinary festival in the town of Popayan. However
as many chefs arrive from abroad these foods aren't always authentic to
In Colombia you can find all the popular international
drinks, such as tea, coffee, juices, and soft drinks, but there are also some more
unique specialties. Well, perhaps not too unique, but Colombian coffee is world-renowned
for its high quality and the Colombians regularly drink this beverage. The country
is also known for its chocolate and during the winters hot chocolate is popular.
A final non-alcoholic drink that is quite popular is aguapanela, which
is made from panela (a kind of sugar) in water; often times lime juice
or cheese is also added.
Colombia offers nearly every type of alcohol, including
beer, wine, and hard liquors, but for a taste of something local stick with the
local hard liquors. Chicha is a fermented drink made from corn, which was
invented by the Incans and was regularly used in religious festivals. Although illegal
for some time, today it is again legal and has some groups of followers. Aguardiente
is another local liquor that is made from sugar cane and is similar to rum; it is
very popular in mixed drinks. There are other local liquors as well as wines and
beers, some of which are local, but foreign imports are also easily accessible.
Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in the large cities of
Colombia, but not safe in more rural regions. Either way, check with locals
before consuming the water and if you do decide to drink the water, remember that
many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly
be different from what your system is used to.