Editor’s note: This post was updated by Dillon on March 1, 2019. The original post was published on January 30, 2012 by Dave Lee.
It’s safe to say that indulging in new flavors and pampering your palate is one of the most exciting aspects of travel. Diving into foods with names you can hardly pronounce, tasting new spices that make your eyebrows raise, and potentially feeling the after-effects on your stomach — it’s all part of the process, and culinary tourists wouldn’t have it any other way.
For one reason or another, Colombian food doesn’t normally top the lists of internationally renowned cuisines, and many people would be hard-pressed to name one traditional Colombian dish.
We’re here to shatter some stereotypes. Believe it or not, Colombia is jam-packed with foods ranging from hearty and salty to sweet, gooey, and cheesy. Built on a foundation of European and indigenous influences including meat, potatoes, beans, corn, and rice, Colombian cuisine is known for its stomach-filling staples — but don’t be surprised if you get blindsided by a new flavor.
There are tons of sayings surrounding food in Colombia, but a popular one goes as follows: Desayunar como un rey, almorzar como un príncipe, y comer como un mendigo. “Eat breakfast like a king, eat lunch like a prince, and eat dinner like a beggar.” In other words, breakfast and lunch tend to be the main meals of the day, whereas dinner tends to be more of a snack.
Without further adieu, let’s dive into the 10 traditional dishes to try when visiting Colombia.
Let’s jump straight to the point — there is nothing more Colombian than the arepa. A circular bread made from fresh cornmeal, arepas are the foundations of many meals, and often times they’re eaten alone.
Toppings can range from simply butter and cheese to heaping piles of meat and vegetables, so they’re as versatile as they are delicious. Anyone visiting Colombia will surely be an arepa expert by trip’s end.
2. Bandeja Paisa
Colombia’s national dish, without a doubt, is the bandeja paisa. Reigning from the Antioquia region (where Medellín is located, and where natives are referred to as paisas), the bandeja paisa is a feast that is not for the faint-hearted.
On one plate you’ll normally find steak, ground beef, chicharrones, rice, beans, an egg, avocado, an arepa, and plantains. We repeat: on one plate. There are a few different variations (and often it’s a point of dispute among Colombian culinary hardliners), but the bottom line is that it’s an extremely delicious and hearty plate that will leave you in a serious food coma.
Sancocho is hearty stew that’s popular all throughout South America with a few regional variations. As far as ingredients go, the Colombian sancocho usually includes everything except the kitchen sink. Jokes aside, you’ll often find a sancocho with a few different kinds of meat, plantains, potatoes, corn, and yucca. It’s also served with a side of white rice and a few slices of avocado.
Sancocho is an integral part of Colombian culture. It’s normal for families to gather over the weekends and have a sancocho, which is best compared to the kind of backyard barbecue you may find in other countries. If you see plumes of smoke rising from the trees, chances are it’s just a sancocho cookout and not a serious fire danger.
Sancocho (photo: David Lee)
Empanadas are Colombia’s de facto street food. Found on virtually every street corner, these deep-fried pockets of goodness are a perfect quick breakfast or late night snack. Derived from the Spanish word empanar, which means to wrap or coat in bread, empanadas are essentially small, fist-sized foods packed with any number of ingredients.
Depending on where you are in Colombia, you can find empanadas filled with chorizo, beef, chicken, or cheese and spinach in the more vulnerable communities.
5. Menú del Día
While a menú del día isn’t a specific dish per sé, the “meal of the day” is the most commonly found lunch item throughout the country. For a very discounted rate (usually anywhere from 8,000 COP to 15,000 COP, or $2.50 to $4.50 USD), you are served soup appetizer, a fresh juice, and the main course meal.
The soups are usually either beans, tomato soup, or some kind of creamy vegetable. The main courses include one kind of protein, a portion of rice, a plantain, and a tiny little dollop of lettuce, which can barely be considered a salad (vegetables aren’t a priority in Colombia). The most common juice in Colombia is guarapo, which is their take on lemonade made with panela, or sugar cane.
Another popular street food and an unmissable staple during the holiday months of November and December, buñuelos can best be described as fried dough balls that are somehow simultaneously sweet and savory. You can find some filled with cheese, but the Colombian version is fairly plain and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
7. Mondongo Soup
Popular all over the Caribbean and Latin America, Mondongo is a filling soup made from tripe, or the stomach lining of a cow or pig. While it’s often served as the small appetizer soup in your classic menú del día, it’s also a stand-alone dish that can be extremely filling.
In Colombia, mondongo is made with tons of cilantro and vegetables such as peas, carrots, and onion with a base of the chicken stock.
Originating from the Tolima region just west of Bogotá, Lechona is another wonderful staple in Colombian cuisine. However, those with sensitive stomachs should beware — this dish consists of an entire pig (face and all) stuffed with rice, onions, peas, and spices. It’s then tossed in a clay oven for up to 12 hours, and voila, you have an entire roasted pig sitting on your dining room table.
Alongside mondongo and sancocho, Ajiaco is one of the emblematic stews of Colombia. With ingredients like chicken, two or three types of potatoes, corn, capers, avocado, and sour cream, you’re bound to end up full and satisfied.
The most telling ingredient that separates a Colombian Ajiaco from others in Spain, Cuba, and Peru, is the guasca, which is an herb commonly considered to be a weed in other countries throughout North America.
To be clear — Ajiaco has a very distinct, almost acquired taste. Whether you like it or not, you’ll definitely be able to tell it’s ajiaco!
10. Cazuela de Mariscos
With coastlines along the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, you’d imagine that Colombia knows a thing or two about seafood cuisine. For your first foray into Colombia’s seafood, we highly recommend a cazuela de mariscos.
The cazuela de mariscos is a thick, hearty soup that can include lobster, shrimp, white fish, and vegetables, all bathed in a broth of creamy coconut milk. It’s considered to be an aphrodisiac, but we’ll leave it up to you to see if the facts hold true.
Special Streetfood Shoutout: Mango Biche
We couldn’t leave you hanging without mango biche. Forget everything you know about mango, and dive into one of the most commonly available street foods in Colombia.
Mango biche is essentially just unripe mango. It’s naturally green, and it’s doused with salt, pepper, and lime. It is very possible that your first bite of mango biche may have you blaspheming the fruit gods, but we promise it will grow on you. It’s sour, salty, and incredibly refreshing.
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About the author: Dillon is a travel-hungry outdoor enthusiast originally from Encinitas, California. He’s been to 26 countries, traveled around the world on a boat, lived in a tent in the woods for 6 months, and currently lives in Medellín, Colombia. Besides writing, Dillon can be found playing soccer, drumming, cooking, and doing his best impression of a salsa dance.