Anyone who loves to travel knows that one of the best parts about visiting a new country is experiencing the food! From the difficult-to-pronounce names through to unique spices and seasonings, traditional Colombian food is the best way to dive headfirst into the culture of Colombia.
Many people often forgo Colombia in favor of nearby South American countries like Brazil, but this beautiful country is a thriving hotspot for culinary tourists!
What Flavours Are In Colombian Food?
Unlike popular tourist countries like France or Germany, Colombian food rarely features on ‘foods you must try’ lists. However, this little-known cuisine packs a mighty punch of flavors, with some that you won’t have tried anywhere else.
Heavily influenced by European flavors, Colombian food uses native ingredients to put a unique, often spicy twist on semi-familiar dishes. Traditional Colombian food is designed to comfort and is incredibly filling, so make sure you take your time!
Staples like meat, rice, corn, and beans are common in typical Colombian food, usually with a spicy seasoning made from paprika, chili, and garlic. Similar to many European nations, Colombians will also focus on breakfast and lunch as their main meals of the day, with light dinners to finish off.
Traditional Colombian Foods You Must Try
The choices of Colombian cuisine can be overwhelming – it can be tough to know where to start! We’ve put together a list of some of the best foods to help you navigate all of the deliciousness that Colombia has to offer.
Menú del día
Before we dive into dishes, one of the best things to know when eating in Colombia is the menú del día option.
Meaning meal of the day, menú del día is one of the most common lunch foods in Colombia. This traditional Colombian food is a kind of South American meal-deal, and is often incredibly cheap from street vendors and cafes around the country.
Usually consisting of a soup, juice, and protein-based main meal, menú del día is a filling and nutritious midday meal for busy workers and locals – and of course, hungry tourists. Vegetarians rejoice – the soup appetizer is usually vegetable-based, with beans or tomato being the most common option. While the main meal will most likely contain meat, you can always ask to swap it out for cheese or beans.
The most unique part of the menú del día is the juice – Colombians love guarapo, a kind of sweet lemonade made from fresh sugarcane. Sip this deliciously sweet nectar as a great pick-me-up during warmer weather.
One Colombian food that you may have heard of is arepa! Made from cornmeal instead of flour, this flatbread is used in many Colombian dishes and is incredibly hearty.
Because of its neutral flavor, arepa is very versatile and often accompanies both savory meals and Colombian desserts. Street vendors usually pile on shaved meats, delicious vegetables, and cheese to create this comforting traditional Colombian food.
Hailing from Colombia’s Antioquia region, the bandeja paisa is a strong contender for the title of Colombia’s national dish. This enormous feast brings a little of everything to the table and should be tackled on an empty stomach.
If you order this traditional Colombian food, be prepared for the amount of food! Steak, ground beef, rice, beans, eggs, arepa, avocado, and plantains are all piled onto a single plate and not intended for sharing! For those who don’t have a huge appetite but still want to try this Colombian dish, we recommend bringing a friend to help share the load.
While the sheer amount may be too much, you’ll definitely agree that this pinnacle of Colombian cuisine is nothing if not delicious. Wash it down with a cold beer, then settle in for a nap – just as the locals do!
If you’ve ever visited a South American restaurant, you’ll have seen empanadas on the menu. A quintessential Colombian street food, empanadas are the food of choice for locals for a quick breakfast on the go.
Luckily, these deep-fried Colombian dishes are everywhere, with every street vendor boasting a different take on this classic street food.
The name comes from the Spanish word empanar, and is heavily influenced by Spanish flavors and seasoning. Meaning ‘wrapped in bread,’ empanadas contain anything you could possibly want. The most common ingredients are beef, chicken, or chorizo, though these days, many vendors offer vegetarian options like cheese and spinach for those wanting to avoid meat.
There’s one thing we can promise: you won’t stop at one!
Colombia is known for its delicious street foods, and you’d be crazy to miss out on buñuelos! Sweet and salty, this Colombian street food consists of fried dough balls similar to donuts, and is popular during the holiday season in November and December.
Buñuelos can be as complex or as simple as you like. Some versions are filled with cheese or fruit jams, but powdered sugar is the all-time favorite topping. Buy these delicious Colombian treats in bags of three or four, and feel them melt in your mouth while exploring the delightful Christmas markets.
By now, you may be thinking that Colombian cuisine isn’t particularly vegetarian friendly – this next dish proves you right! A South American take on the spit-roasted pig, lechona is an entire pig stuffed with spiced rice and peas. Colombians roast the animal in a traditional clay oven for hours, then remove it for some of the most succulent, juicy meat you’ll ever eat.
The scent of this Colombian dish is as wonderfully decadent as they taste, and will stay with you for years to come. Animal lovers or squeamish eaters may want to avoid this traditional Colombian food – staring at an entire roasted pig can be confronting!
FLAVORS AROUND THE WORLD
Traditional Colombian Food: Soups and Stews
Colombia’s warm weather may not immediately make you think of stews and soups, but sancocho throws this belief out the window. This hearty Colombian stew is rich, spicy, and unlike anything you’ll find in Western countries.
Sancocho has a reputation for being an ‘anytime, anywhere’ dish that uses any ingredients on hand. From scraps of meat to potatoes and yucca, this Colombian food is traditional comfort food popular with locals of all ages.
You’ll find sancocho at street markets and in restaurants, but the best versions of this traditional Colombian dish happen in the homes of local families. If you’re invited to a sancocho cookout, make sure you taste this delicious stew – served with rice and avocado, of course!
If you’ve traveled around Latin and South America, you may have come across mondongo soup. This Colombian food is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re feeling adventurous and like strong flavors, make sure to give it a go!
Vegetarians, look away now – this popular Colombian dish is a type of tripe soup! Cilantro offsets the strong umami taste of the stomach lining and is mitigated by a rich chicken and vegetable broth.
You won’t need to look far to find mondongo soup. A common fixture in street markets and restaurants, this Colombian food has a very distinctive smell that will lead you straight to it!
Cazuela de Mariscos
Colombian cuisine is heavy on meat – but what about seafood? Bordered by the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, shellfish and other kinds of seafood are also common in many Colombian dishes and are prized due to their freshness and high quality.
Like a seafood bisque, Cazuela de Mariscos is a thick, creamy soup containing white fish, shrimp, and other shellfish. Instead of butter and cream, coconut milk is the base for this traditional Colombian food and adds a fatty, sweet taste to the salty fish.
Cazuela de Mariscos is most common in coastal cities and towns, so take a trip to the beach and visit a marketplace to get a cup of this delicious Colombian dish!
With a history of scarce food availability, many typical Colombian foods follow a ‘waste not, want not’ principle. Ajiaco, a Colombian stew, contains leftover ingredients from other meals during the week. Common additions to this traditional dish include potatoes, corn, and chicken, resulting in a creamy and filling stew sure to satisfy!
Versions of ajiaco exist in Spain, Cuba, and Peru – however, this Colombian food is set apart by liberal serves of guasca and cilantro, which provide a herbaceous, tart taste to cut through the sour cream broth.
Sweet Traditional Colombian Food: Desserts
Arequipe is a type of thick caramel popular in Colombia and other South American countries. This Colombian dessert is so much more than just a topping. Beloved for its creamy, sweet taste, locals often enjoy arequipe on its own, and street vendors will sell this sweet treat in small cups on the roadside.
Because of its simple nature, there are many different variations of arequipe around Colombia. Some common additions to this South American caramel include chocolate, coconut, or fresh fruit to add texture and tang. You’ll find arequipe anywhere you go in Colombia – wherever there’s a sweet shop or market, arequipe is sure to follow!
One of the most popular versions of arequipe is infused with coffee. Rich, semi-bitter with a buttery taste, this delicious variation of a classic Colombian dessert is great on toast, drizzled on desserts, or simply eaten out of the cup with a spoon.
Colombians love their arequipe, and obleas is a perfect way to indulge your sweet tooth while on the move. Obleas refer to thin wafers that have a similar taste and texture to waffle ice cream cones. These caramel-filled wafer sandwiches are popular with school children and make a perfect treat when you’re after something sweet.
You’ll find obleas all over Colombia, and as with many of these desserts, the best ones are from street vendors! Depending on the seller, you can even add toppings like sprinkles, chocolate, or freshly shaved coconut to take this Colombian dessert to the next level.
Arroz con Leche
Plentiful and cheap, rice is another staple in Colombian cuisine. It shouldn’t be a surprise that even the desserts are often based around this starchy ingredient.
Arroz con Leche, or ‘rice with milk’, is a Colombian rice pudding that differs from region to region. The rice is cooked until soft, then soaked in rich evaporated and condensed milk to create a creamy, comforting dessert that is delicious hot or cold.
While different regions have their own take on this traditional Colombian dessert, you can count on your Arroz con Leche containing cinnamon and raisins and being unbelievably filling.
Lovers of fresh fruit, rejoice! Mango biche is one of the most common Colombian street foods and is sure to make you an addict!
This Colombian dish is straightforward – sour green mango slices are coated in fresh lime juice, then rolled in salt and pepper. The taste of mango biche is sour, salty, and spicy, and also just perfect for a warm-weather energy boost!
Some may find the combination of flavors weirdat first. However, mango biche is one of the most famous street foods in Colombia for a reason – after all, 51 million people can’t be wrong!
These are just some of the typical sweet Colombian food in a whole bunch of Colombian desserts that locals like to indulge in.
Discovering Traditional and Typical Colombian Food
For anyone who loves to explore new foods, Colombia is a must-visit. This list doesn’t cover everything that this beautiful South American country has to offer, but it’s certainly a good start for your culinary adventure. Try to avoid the familiar and experience some of the delicious Colombian cuisines on your journey – you won’t regret it!