Colombian cuisine is as varied as its extreme geographical and climatic contrasts, which include jungles, prairies and deserts, mountains and valleys. Also unique to Colombia’s geography is nearly 3,000km of coastline on two oceans, Pacific and Atlantic, as well as the Caribbean Sea. And the combination of very different cultures coming together over the millennia is also an integral factor in the making of what we know of today as Colombian cuisine.
Hunter-gatherer indigenous people are believed to have lived in Columbia as early as 13,000 years ago, and by 500 BC villages were well established. Fishing provided an abundance of seafood for early Colombian cuisine, and agriculture had taken hold by then, with farmers producing vegetables and fruits such as corn, quinoa, plantain, potatoes, pumpkins, avocados and pineapples.
Corn, Plantain, and potatoes, the staples of the native “Amerindians” were, and still are today, the primary staples of traditional Colombian cuisine. This era of Colombian cuisine (Circa de 500 BC) had little meat included, there simply weren’t the kind of animals available that were suitable for livestock farming. The one exception would be the guinea pig, which was raised for meat in quite a few of the Andean areas.
With the Spanish landing and the establishment of European settlements in the early 1600s, Colombian cuisine took on a vastly broader inclusion of ingredients. Europeans introduced grains like wheat and rice, new vegetables including various beans, and new spices like cumin, cinnamon and oregano.
Also having a huge impact on the foods culture of Colombia was the introduction of livestock—the Europeans brought over cattle, sheep, rabbits, chickens, and domesticated pigs. Meat now became a major ingredient in Colombian cuisine, and the raising of livestock became a firmly established type of farming career for many people.
The 1600s are also when African slaves were brought into the culture, and they brought with them their favorite types of foods, peppers and vegetables—probably the most notable of which is vegetable, okra. Evidence of all three cultures: Indigenous Amerindians, Spanish, and African are obvious in modern day Colombian cuisine, but the influence of the Spanish is by far the most prevalent.
Much like their North American counterparts, Colombians, like most South Americans, eat three main meals a day. However, the times the meals are taken and the size of the meals—those can be quite different from the North American culinary habits.
Breakfast is still taken in the morning, of course, before going off to work or school, and it will vary in foods from region to region. Some regions it will be just some cold fruit, others maybe bread and eggs, and in some regions there is a potato and egg soup called Changua that is popular. But always, in every region, breakfast is taken with fresh brewed Colombian coffee—considered by many to be the best in the world.
In Colombia, lunch is the main, and largest, meal for the day. It will consist of a soup, a main course, often another side dish, a dessert, and of course, coffee. Lunch is taken between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m., and it is commonplace for businesses to close for a long lunch hour break so employees may have time to eat the main meal of the day with their families.
Dinner is not taken until between the hours of 7 and 9:00 p.m., quite a long stretch from lunch to dinner for working people, so Colombians often have a mid-afternoon snack. Dinner will again be a light meal, much like breakfast, and the types of meals served will differ between the regions.
In coastal regions, expect lots of seafood, dishes with a spicy Caribbean influence, in rural areas they eat a bit heartier, heavy on pork, beef steak, beans, plantains and fried eggs. In the jungle areas, probably the most popular dish of all is called Hormiga Culona and is a plate full of huge, fried ants.
If fact all Colombians enjoy hunkering down on some Hormiga Culona (the name translates literally into English as “big-ass ants”), to the point where the giant ants are in danger of being hunted and eaten into extinction.
Sorry, we won’t be offering a Hormiga Culona recipe here at Ethnic Foods R Us. Not because of being squeamish—I’d love to try some myself! But so far we have not found any supplier of the extremely rare and pricey cockroach-sized ant. Apparently, when they are in season (this species only comes out of the ground for a few days each year), if you have the connections within Colombia, you might be able to get some. And if you can get them, expect to pay about ten times the price of the best Colombian coffee!
But there are plenty of traditional and authentic Colombian cuisine recipes in store for you here. One that I particularly enjoy is the chicken and potato soup/stew called Ajiaco. So go ahead and peruse the list below, click on the recipe(s) that interest you, and enjoy your ethnic food adventure into the wonderful world of …
Arroz Atollado de Cangrejo (Classic Colombian crab and rice dish)
Bolitas de Yuca con Queso y Carne (Yuca root balls, stuffed with cheese and meat)
Pernil Asado (Colombian-Style Roasted Pork Leg)
Sancocho Trifásico (A very thick and hearty soup with three meats and lots of herbs and spices)
Sopa de Camarones, Coco, y Plátano (Shrimp and Plantain Soup with a rich creamy coconut broth)