Colombian cuisine or comida criolla combines influences coming from the indigenous peoples and Spain, the old colonial master whose influence has never been as strong in Colombia as elsewhere, while the Afro-Caribbean influence is a result of historical trade routes.
Staple Foods and Culinary Influences
Most of the country‘s population lives in the mountain highlands, where coffee, chocolate, dairy, tropical fruit, and carb-heavy dishes are eaten. Fish and plantains are staples on the Caribbean and Pacific coast, while fresh and inexpensive vegetables and meat can be found throughout Colombia. The dishes are simple and straightforward, with fewer spices and seasoning than in most other countries, although chili peppers and garlic are used in moderation.
In the past, the tribes of Tairona on the Caribbean coast and the Muisca in the highlands extensively planted maize, cassava, potatoes, chili peppers, squashes, malanga roots, and beans. The Tairona enjoyed seafood, manatees, tortoises, tapirs, and fruits such as papaya, passion fruit, and soursop. The colonial period brought Spanish ingredients and techniques to Colombian cuisine, such as chicken, beef, pork, and cheese, as well as imports from other areas of the empire, such as carrots, rice, and sweet potatoes, while plantains were imported by Portuguese missionaries from Southeast Asia. The Afro-Caribbean influence is evident in the Raizal cuisine of the Colombia-owned Providencia and San Andres islands, where cooks make rondón, a dish made with breadfruit, sea snails, fish, plantains, and cassava boiled in coconut milk.
Nowadays, Colombia‘s largest crops are bananas and coffee, and they are both grown more for export than local consumption, so don’t expect a great cup of coffee in a Colombian cafe - the best beans are usually exported. The country also exports beef and cheese, mostly cottage cheese, soft farmhouse cheeses, and the crumbly queso fresco. Potatoes are grown in the mountain highlands, while shrimp, lobster, mussels, and fish such as tilapia (mojarra) are available throughout the country due to Colombia’s extensive road system. Catfish is the most popular freshwater fish, while barbecued cuy, a type of guinea pig, is a prized delicacy in the mountains. Besides the native herb guasca, which is similar to basil, Colombians often use chives, cumin, annatto seeds, and cilantro. The national bean is called cargamanato - big, red with white flecks, and high in protein content.
Colombian Eating Habits
A typical Colombian meal will have a soup, corn or rice, and fruit or fruit juice. Fried Colombian empanadas made with a mixture of wheat flour and corn are sometimes served as appetizers, and they‘re usually filled with chicken and onions, cheese, or beef. The famous arepas (cornmeal cakes) are eaten with almost every meal, whether grilled, baked, or fried. Plantains also make a regular appearance on the appetizer plate, either cut or fried or mashed and fried when making patacones. Soup is always served as the first course, and the most popular ones include mazamorra and sancocho de gallina, made with a whole hen and an array of vegetables. On the coast, fish, rice, and coconut milk-based soups are popular. Following the soup is the seco, the dry, non-soup part of the meal, such as rice and beans with roasted meat or grilled seafood. To finish things off, simple desserts based on fruit, milk, or coconut milk are often served at the end of a meal, while caramel or chocolate-covered hormigas (large ants) can also make an appearance as an unusual after-dinner palate cleanser.