What I eat in Colombia
My favorite breakfast: fried arepa and cafe con leche
Colombia is famous for having the best coffee in the world. Unfortunately for me most of the good stuff is exported. Every morning I heat a mug’s worth of milk in a small pot on the stove, then put a tablespoon of ground instant coffee and a little sugar in a mug. Add heated milk and stir. We call it cafe con leche. I like it a lot but I definitely miss my coffee maker from home and my iced coffee habit in Boston.
Some mornings I eat a few saltines, occasionally I’ll have cereal or an apple. When I’m very lucky my host mother is awake early and is feeling hungry so she makes us arepas. Corn flour mixed with water and vegetable oil and sometimes cheese. Patted or pressed into flat cakes that are then fried in an ever-present pot of oil on the stove for 2 or 3 minutes. Delicioso!
I am a very lucky girl to live with the host family I got. Manuela, the woman I live with is an excellent cook and makes me lunch most days I have school. We eat nearly the same thing every day, but I enjoy what she makes and dislike cooking for myself so I’m very happy in this arrangement. We generally go to the grocery store once or twice a week and I use the money from my stipend to pay for a portion of the food. Making the list and then going to the market together has been the biggest things that has helped me form a relationship with Manuela.
Meat: Beef or pork thinly cut and cooked in a skillet. Seasoned with garlic, salt, and lime. We also often eat chicken but that is boiled and then pulled. Manuela then adds peppers, green beans, and onion to make a sort of tossed chicken salad but without the mayonnaise. Sometimes we also eat ground beef prepared in a similar way to the chicken salad.
Rice: It wouldn’t be Latin America if we didn’t eat rice everyday. White rice cooked with onion and garlic for flavor. The coast is famous for a dish called arroz con coco or coconut rice. It’s white rice cooked with coconut milk, water, sugar, and often raisins. We eat coconut rice on occasion, but it’s more difficult and expensive to prepare so it’s more a dish for the weekend.
Vegetables/Salad: Often the meat is cooked with sautéed onions and tomatoes and we eat them with the meat. Other days we have a salad with our meal. Leafy greens aren’t part of the Colombian diet in the ways Americans are used to. Salad here consists of shredded carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, red and green bell peppers, and sometimes sliced apple or mango. The whole mix is then tossed lightly in oil and salt. The other common vegetable we eat at home is lentils. These generally replace the plantains and rice that day as they are very filling and heavy.
Plantains: Plantains are by far the most important staple in my diet. There are two types: amarillo the yellow sweet ones, and verde the starchy green ones. I eat tajadas, plantains cut like in the photo above and fried, almost every day with lunch.
More Starch: In addition to rice and plantains, there are a few other starches eaten at lunchtime here. Manuela generally only makes the rice and plantains, but occasionally we change that to fried or boiled potatoes, yuca (a root vegetable that is pretty plain tasting), or bollo (mashed yuca boiled in leaves and served with cheese).
Juice: What would Colombia be without jugo? One of my favorite parts of living here is the wide variety and quantity of fruit. At home we make juice with mango, guava, star fruit, watermelon, or tomate de arbol. The juice is made with water in a blender then strained and served with ice. When I’m out of the house I also can get juice made from guanabana, lulo, granadilla, nispero, papaya, pineapple, or zapote. Almost any restaurant and countless stalls on the street will have a selection of jugos naturales, just pick your fruit and then specify milk or water and it’s made fresh right then and there. Most juice is made with lots of white sugar added, but if you ask for sin azucar or menos dulce the juice is still delicious and sweet.
The Spanish word for watermelon is sandía but in Cartagena we use the word patilla
With such a big meal in the middle of the day, dinner is a lot less important here. Honestly I much prefer my life this way. Moving the majority of my calories to the middle of the day has made me feel much healthier and gives me more energy in the afternoon.
More Plantains: Tajadas for lunch but of course I eat more plantains for dinner, we just cook them a little differently. There are also patacones which are green plantains cut into inch long pieces, seasoned with garlic and salt, then fried. When they are nice and crispy you take them out of the oil and smash them with a press or a spoon into round cakes. Fry again and eat with suero (a type of sour cream special to the Caribbean coast) Another method of cooking green plantains is simply cutting them into quarter-inch thick discs before salting and frying. This makes them into little chips that are also eaten with suero.
Eggs: Fried or scrambled with salt and onions.
Arepas: Either the same plain type I eat for breakfast, or there is a fried egg added in the middle. Sometimes there is a lot more cheese added which makes them very savory and gooey.
Empanadas: Same dough used to make arepas is flattened into round very flat disks and folded over pre-prepared ground beef or left-over pulled chicken. The little dumpling is then fried to perfection.
Pizza: There is a cheap and very tasty restaurant near our house and sometimes we just buy slices and bring them home. Oddly, the most popular variety of pizza I’ve encountered is Hawaiian. Most people then add additional sauces to their pizza, either garlic mayonnaise or a pineapple sauce.
Manuela serving food on a night we had guests over.
Of course I eat food out of my house as well. Mostly I end up eating the same types of food I eat at home. At cheaper restaurants they have set menus in which you choose which type of meat or fish you’d like and it’s served with rice, beans, plantains, and salad. All that and a glass of juice typically come to $10,000 or $12,000 pesos ($3.30 or $4)
I also love to eat salads from a restaurant chain called Crepes & Waffles or a wrap from a chain of middle eastern shawarma restaurants. These options are a bit pricier ($10,000 or $15,000) but a wonderful indulgence. About once a week I’ll get a coffee from Juan Valdez, the Colombian coffee house that’s similar to Starbucks in how it’s set up. I’ve had a few nice meals out, one on my birthday weekend at the Bogotá Beer Company where I had a fancy glass of honey beer and shared a huge plate of nachos with a friend. Recently I went to a very nice Italian restaurant for brunch where I had mimosas, coffee, and three plates of food.
At the beach I love to get fried fish. It’s the entire fish, seasoned and fried, served with all the bones and the head still on. At first I was a little thrown by this, used to eating just filets at home. I’m still horrible at eating the fish without making a mess or getting bones in my mouth, but I’m getting better with every attempt. Just like the set meals the fried fish comes with arroz con coco, salad, and patacones. Best consumed with a cold beer.