What We Ate and Drank in Colombia

I haven’t written anything here for a very long time, and so have to admit to myself that blogging will probably not turn into a habit as hoped for. However, Arran and I are currently on a plane flying home from Colombia, and since the original inspiration for this blog was travel food, this seems like the perfect time for a post.

Fruit vendor in Bogota who was generous with samples

Fruit vendor in Bogota who was generous with samples

Although Colombia may never be a foodie destination, we were repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by what we were fed. First of all I’ll mention the street food, which largely consisted of arepas and empanadas. Empanadas are not exactly novel, we’d eaten them many times before, and they are more closely associated with Argentina than Colombia. They were, however, available everywhere and usually excellent. Once, while we were people watching on a bench in the plaza in San Gil, I bought a couple from a vendor passing by with a cooler full. These were stuffed with chicken and rice, warm with a crumbly crust, and absolutely delicious. Buying the empanadas from this guy had been a spur of the moment decision, and I vowed then and there that I would never turn down empanadas if they were offered. The second most memorable empanadas we had were at a small hole in the wall (literally) in Bogota that was recommended by our guide following a city bike tour. This empanada guy played up the Argentina connection, and offered two varieties: beef or chicken, both with potatoes. Smaller and lighter than the ones we had in San Gil, his empanadas were also excellent. Especially with the spicy homemade chimmichuri salsa he offered.

Arepas are more Colombian-specific, thick corn meal patties often stuffed with cheese and/or egg, and deep fried or grilled. We had good arepas and bad arepas, and I had a hard time predicting which way they would go. At their worst they were in desperate need of salt and flavor. My favorite were served for breakfast with a runny yolk fried egg at a hostel (Casa Loma) in Minca, and my least favorite was cold, gummy, and bland, bought from a street cart in Cartagena. We did have fair luck buying packs of raw arepas at grocery stores and cooking them ourselves in hostel kitchens.

Smothered and covered Arepa from tiny and touristy restaurant in Cartagena

Smothered and covered Arepa from tiny and touristy restaurant in Cartagena

When we ate at restaurants, most of the time we would try to find a popular local place that served comida tipica at low prices. Most of these restaurants would offer a set plate (almuerzo del dia) for about 6,000 pesos ($3.50). This would typically come with a hearty bowl of soup, grilled meat, rice, beans or lentils, a “salad”, and a fried banana or plantain. They soup was often excellent, made from great stock. The meat might be fish, carne asada (beef), pork, or chicken, and was usually hot and flavorful. The rice would be well seasoned (with coconut milk, on the Caribbean coast), and the beans were usually quite nice. The salad was almost always forgettable, in the manner of most Latin American salads, and a fried banana is a fried banana (personally I love them, but your mileage may vary). At one point we had three excellent set plate lunches in a row: with fish at a cute 2nd floor place in Cartagena named El Balcon, and then with chicken and carne asada at two different spots in Minca. Minca is where I discovered my new favorite type of bean: bola roja (literally “red ball”). These beans are huge, round, and meaty in flavor; I really hope we can find them for sale online or at the Latin grocery store at home. The worst almuerzo del dia that we had was at a mid-journey bus stop somewhere between Mompos and Bucamaranga. The chicken was the only edible component of that particular meal. The watery soup was mostly memorable for the whole chicken feet floating in it (no judgement, I’ve cooked with chicken feet myself, but this soup was awful).

Set lunch with delicious fried fish from El Balcon in Cartagena

Set lunch with delicious fried fish from El Balcon in Cartagena

We spent one day at a beautiful, quite, colonial town named Barrichara, which the Lonely Planet described as a foodie paradise. And it might very well be, though we wouldn’t know as we had a hell of a time finding restaurants that were open. I still don’t know how we were so far off from the local’s dining schedule, but it started to become very frustrating. When we finally found a place serving dinner, we were the only customers, but the lady running the place was very nice. She seemed pleased when I ordered the local specialty: cabrito (young goat). I was astounded when she brought my plate out heaped with enough goat meat to serve four dirty backpackers, but did my best to get halfway through it. I almost always enjoy goat meat, and this was good if not great. The meat had that nice, mildly gamey goat flavor, but the cut was rustic and quite fatty.

Me wrestling with a giant hunk of roasted baby goat in Barichara

Me wrestling with a giant hunk of roasted baby goat in Barichara

Other than typical Colombian fare, we enjoyed several other special meals, including at a fancy Mediterranean place in Santa Marta named Ouzo, where we ate grilled octopus (I’ve never had pulpo that was so tender) and a seafood orzo dish. At a bizarre and wonderful restaurant in Mompos owned by an very friendly and reportedly eccentric (we didn’t notice anything amiss) Austrian woodworker we had authentic Naples style pizza cooked in a beautiful brick pizza oven.

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Me hanging out in the beautiful kitchen at the pizza place in Mompos.

In San Gil, feeling a bit homesick, we had massive and legitimately American style hamburgers at a place called Gringo Mike’s. Mike also serves Mexican food like burritos and nachos, which was nice to see. Tortillas were in short supply in Colombia, when available at the grocery stores they were priced way too high. One more place that served American style food was called Brunch and was in Salento in the Zona Cafetera. The name alone is an effective way of luring in travelers homesick for for breakfast food served later than 7 am. We enjoyed excellent pancakes here.

Welcome American style food in Salento: pancakes and a tuna sandwich

Welcome American style food in Salento: pancakes and a tuna sandwich

As Alaskans, we did our best to get our fill of good fruit before we headed home to a produce wasteland. We regularly bought mangoes to cut up for evening snacks, as well as pineapple, citrus, and various delicious things I never learned the names for. Oh and the fruit juices were to die for! Street stands served up incredible passion fruit juice, which we had at every opportunity, as well as blackberry and orange juice. More surprising were the carrot juice and tomato juice, which were both wonderful and sweet. The tomato juice apparently is made from a special variety of the fruit (we saw it called tomate de arbol) and it may have been my favorite.

Mangos, glorious mangos!

Mangos, glorious mangos!

Surprisingly fantastic carrot juice (I'm guessing a fair amount of sugar was added, but who's complaining?)

Surprisingly fantastic carrot juice (I’m guessing a fair amount of sugar was added, but who’s complaining?)

A short word regarding beer: the widely available varieties (Poker, Aguila, Club Colombia) are the typically Latin American light lagers that have very little flavor but can still taste fantastic if it’s hot enough outside. Club Colombia is available in a couple other varieties (Roja, an amber, and Negra, a dark beer) that were a small step up in flavor and quality. In Bogota, however, there is a chain of microbrew pubs named Bogota Beer Company that offers a bit of variety and some beers of the quality one might expect at a fair brewpub in the States. I was most pleased with their red ale, and the IPA wasn’t bad either.

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Club Colombia Negra

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