Our food culture is so diverse that can sometimes sound both immeasurable and geographically challenging: the depths of the Amazon jungles, the rains and wild waters of the Pacific coast, the warmth of the Caribbean, the majestic heights of the Andes and vast plains in the east, where the sun always rises; the silence of the desert wind on the Guajira Peninsula and the rugged landscape of the north-east. These ecosystems have nurtured skills, languages and customs, ways of seeing and living in the world which take form in what we call cultures.
Halfway between the abstract and the tangible, Colombian cuisine is the taste and the colour of abundance. The fertile soils of the American continent shaped pre-Colombian food cultures. Changes over the centuries have shown the influence of the Andes, running the length of South America, the Pacific coast extending for thousands of kilometres, and the glorious Caribbean, universally loved for its sunshine and warmth. And also for the Iberian tradition of sweet pastries, evoking both an Arabic culture and European monastic discipline, which enjoyed a new, somewhat picaresque lease of life in the new continent. Whilst staying true to the highest European standards.
FOOD AND CULTURE CURATOR, PRODUCER AND WRITER. PH.D. IN SOCIOCULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY FROM CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
The defining feature of Latin American cuisine is the pervading presence of maize, held to be sacred by countless native peoples, from northern Mexico down through Central America, along the Andes and into the damp Pampas of Argentina, in the south of the continent. Another key feature is the many rituals surrounding cocoa and coffee. The former, a native product symbolising the strength of the indigenous peoples, and the latter, a crop naturalised over centuries, which has been introduced from Ethiopia, its region of origin, via Europe.
Chilli peppers, whilst not taking centre stage throughout the continent, as they do in Mexico and Peru, play an essential supporting role and were a key component of pre-Hispanic diets, dating back much further than salt. In this scenario, we find a Colombian cuisine that is rural in origin and indigenous in essence, transformed by Spanish and African influence with the arrival of colonists and slaves. The country has a turbulent history of invasions, in which cultures blended, sometimes through force and at others of their own free will, further enriched by migrations of Arabs and Jews. More recently, migrants have arrived from Venezuela, whose contribution to this melting pot has yet to be seen.
EATING WITH YOUR EYES FIRST
This is a cuisine of regions and ecosystems that resists being simplified into a single menu and style. Choosing just a few dishes would fail to do it justice. But there are common traits and a range of sweet and savoury flavours that define it as Colombian: soups, sancocho (a type of thick broth), amasijo (non-yeasted bready foods), tamales wrapped in banana or maize leaves, biscuits, corn cakes, creamy cheeses, both fresh and half-cured, sweets and desserts based on sugar cane and fruits, fruit waters, fermented beverages, spirits and beers.
All these are commonly found around the country. There are also Colombian eating styles: a breakfast of eggs and corn cakes, hot chocolate, coffee or sugar-cane water (agua de panela), fresh cheese and fruit juices. Roasts comprising different meats, potato, banana, manioc, chorizo, guacamole, or Creole chilli. Frijoladas (bean-based dishes), lechona (grilled suckling pig), fried fish or encocados (fish or shellfish cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with herbs and hogao) are also shared in large groups.
On the streets, between breakfast and lunchtime, people eat empanadas with Chile sauce or arepa (flatbread) stuffed with cheese. And for the middle-afternoon meal, they can have cheese bread, puff pastries and mistelas, a drink that mixes aguardiente, aromatic herbs, spices or fruit syrup. The mood of this cooking is friendly, comforting. With slow processes, a careful and elaborated cooking.
But it is also fresh and easy because it means cooking whatever is available and serving food to nourish and enjoy with love and warmth. Marketplace diners, restaurants serving “home-cooked” lunches at a moderate price, cafés and bakeries and dozens of small businesses led by women invite us to remember and celebrate the sense of community in out-of-the-way places and their warm-hearted, resilient and hospitable people. And also the spirit of a country that, despite centuries of social unrest, is eager to find reconciliation by cooking and eating together.
The march of history and the unstoppable flow of information in the modern world have unleashed a torrent of innovation, and fresh interpretations of Colombia’s gastronomic traditions have been focused on creating authenticity. Chefs in larger and smaller cities are working with the culinary jargon to bring it to new audiences and at the same time to reinvent it, so as to expand what they offer with an attitude of openness to the avant-garde.
The creativity and eclecticism of urban landscapes, combined with the diversity of natural ecosystems, are helping to shape contemporary Colombian cuisine, with a cosmopolitan aesthetic and local flavours. Some of the essential raw materials are tubers and root vegetables from the Andes, wildflowers, quinoa, amaranth and maize, sago flour, and dozens of Amazonian and tropical fruits.
Some jewels to close this short tour and whet your appetite: cocoas and special coffees, pure sugar cane honey, titoté (caramelised pieces of cooked coconut milk, mambe (ash-roasted and ground coca leaves), suero costeño (thick sauce made from cow’s milk and rennet) or tucupí (a sauce or paste made with the extract of fermented cassava brava and a mixture of spices, insects and chilli peppers). Produce from a natural pantry that combines the rustic with the sophisticated, and the tangible proof of the savour and value of an identity that we hope to celebrate more and more, with thankfulness and togetherness.
“This is a cuisine of regions and ecosystems that resists being simplified into a single menu and style. Choosing just a few dishes would fail to do it justice.“