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. 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 say it. It’s almost unanimous. This guy grew the collective ire of Colombia with his article, 10 Things to Hate about Bogota. From the article:
Food: Guide books will often talk about the great food options in Bogotá: you can get great Italian, Peruvian, Brazilian, French, etc. Notice a pattern there? None of those options are Colombian. Colombian “cuisine”, if you can call it that, consists of unseasoned meat that is fried, or grilled, to within an inch of charcoal, usually. Arepas, those starch-laden, inch-thick answer to the tortilla, are like eating cardboard. The idea of spices is a completely alien one. I once went to a major supermarket and asked for black pepper. They didn’t sell it. Most of the food consists of potatoes, rice, arepas and a paper-thin churrasco of chicken breast or beef (which is usually horribly fatty and gristly.) In truth, there are a few tasty dishes, which I will laud in my next post, but overall, it’s a bland, tough slog through a traditional Colombian meal. No wonder they like juices with every meal: they’re the only things on the table with some flavor.
Enough intro, let’s get into the awful foods of Colombian cuisine.
Photo credit: MasterChef Colombia
(most typical meal in Colombia, except the beef would never be that thick or free of fat and gristle, that was the chef’s touch)
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 very little variation is what is eaten in Colombia every day (sub arepa for potato, yuca for rice, etc.).
This is what makes eating in Colombia so bad — the monotony.
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 a love of food, by taking good food away. Living in the United States and Peru, there is more variety than you can handle. You can eat good food every day without 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 (what else would you do with it?), who would eat it first? Let them guess a few times. Dogs won’t eat them. I’ve tried. Ants won’t either. I doubt a horse would, but horses don’t pass by much. Answer: a human. One of the thousands of bazuceros / indigentes / vagrants that prowl the streets would be the first (and only) 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 (sometimes called ‘pescado pacifico‘). 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. Once the gringo tourist attempts 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.
Are you 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 and unique culinary customs in Colombia. Hot chocoloate with cheese is great (in my opinion). But I couldn’t eat these flavorless balls of bread with the texture of play-do without hot chocolate or coffee. Buñuelos are fried; pandebono baked. Both are always light on cheese, heavy on starch, void of flavor.
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 looking to get fed for 4000 pesos. Or maybe with several years in Colombia and your taste buds have come to abhor bold flavors.
Peruvian tamales are better, and Mexican tamales are the best 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 OK. But most Colombian tamales you eat will have a chicken thigh inside a mold of rice and cornmeal. Minimal cost, minimum flavor, miserable living.
Colombian ceviche is shrimp in ketchup with saltine crackers. What you see above is served with saltines. Shrimp. Ketchup. Crackers. FAIL.
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 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.
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 eateries, what is presented as ketchup and served in a red bottle contains no tomato. It’s red, it’s the texture of ketchup, and it’s 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 quality – Fruco, San Jorge, Pampero – and isn’t a 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. I have a theory about “rosado” sauce (mentioned above). I believe they pre-mix ketchup with mayo to reduce the probability that you realize there is no tomato ingredient in the sauce.
Colombians are proud of their soups, which I can only explain by thinking most have never left 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 love Ajiaco, especially when it’s cold and rainy in Bogota, but it’s not good enough to make the menu of the hip “Nuevo Latino” restaurants in the States. And my Peruvian wife actually spit out the Sancocho I prepared (due to her strange aversion to bananas in soup). I know many gringo expats disagree, but I think Colombian changua is interesting.
Unfortunately neither Ajiaco nor Sancocho is what you eat most days in Colombia. For your daily almuerzo corriente, Colombians go really bland, as in sopa de arroz. You read that correctly, rice soup, pictured above but without the cilantro or any morsel of chicken. I’ve also had pasta soup and the worst one, plantain soup, which never has plantains but some kind of green leaves. I wonder if they are plantain tree leaves.
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.
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