From snow-covered volcanoes and towering mountains to tropical beaches and vast grasslands, Colombia is a stunning country filled to the brim with beautiful vistas. While visitors come from near and far to take in the vast country, many are surprised to learn that Colombian food culture is just as fascinating as the landscapes.
Throughout the country, you’ll find freshly prepared arepas, hot soups any time of the year, freshly baked pastries, and the overflowing bandeau paisa, one dish that could feed the entire family.
Influences from Indigenous people, Africa, Spain, and the Americas allow Colombian food culture to be packed full of variety. Just when you think you’ve tried it all, you’ll stumble across a new favorite. Kick back and enjoy these nine standout dishes that define Colombian food culture.
No Colombian food culture list would be complete without the beloved arepa, so we thought we’d showcase it straight away. This iconic food is like tortillas in Mexico, rice in Japan, and french fries in the United States – they’re simply served with everything. Made with maize flour or cornmeal, on their own they’re quite bland. However, Colombians have turned this simple dish into a delicious staple.
The use of arepas dates back to pre-Colombian years when the indigenous people relied on corn as the main foundation of their diet. Initially, making arepas was a long, drawn-out process that only a few were able to conquer. Once pre-cooked corn flour was invented in the 20th century, everything changed. Arepas became easy to prepare, and word of their deliciousness and versatility quickly spread across the Americas.
Today, the variety of how arepas are used is staggering. Try the arepa de huevo, an arepa stuffed with a fried egg, for breakfast. Or, opt for the decadent arepa de queso, an arepa stuffed with layers of cheese. Even so, at most traditional Colombian restaurants, they’ll stick with arepas served with butter or cheese and served as a complement to a meal or eaten alone.
2. Bandeja Paisa
This overflowing dish is more like a platter, and in fact, bandeja does mean platter in Spanish. You’ll be served steak, ground beef, chicharrones, red beans, rice, an egg, avocado, an arepa, and plantains – all on one plate. Of course, throughout the many regions of Colombia, the exact ingredients change slightly, but the idea remains much the same.
The national dish of Colombia, this one is sure to fill you to the brim and leave you in an absolute state of food coma. And if you’re visiting Colombia, you certainly cannot call your trip complete without at least trying bandeja paisa once.
Finding bandeja paisa on the menu is easy; just look for the most expensive item. However, this wasn’t always the case. Its origins can be attributed to the Andean state of Antioquia when field workers would have one large meal in the morning to keep them full of energy all day. Hence, be prepared to pile a day’s worth of calories into your mouth with just one plate.
If your stomach is grumbling and you just can’t wait for the main course, do as the Colombians do and enjoy an aborrajados for an appetizer. You may not think this weirdly sweet yet savory food will hit the spot. But we promise, after the first bite, you’ll be convinced.
Aborrajados are made with slices of plantains that have been stuffed with cheese. In traditional Colombian food culture, the cheese is likely to be pepper jack to give the dish a bit of a kick but can be made with your cheese of choice. For even more indulgence, you may decide to try aborrajado con chicharrón, which includes chicharrón (fried pork belly) or aborrajado con bocadillo, when guava paste is added to the filling. These tasty balls are battered and deep-fried until you have a perfectly crispy outside and gooey cheese inside.
While Colombians do lay claim to this tasty dish, if you ask a Venezualan, they may have a different idea. In Venezuela, they are known as yo-yos or sleeping kids but are made with nearly the exact same ingredients.
The chontadura may be a fruit, but it’s such a well-loved and integral part of Colombian food culture, it deserves its own spot on this list. Also known as the peach palm fruit in much of the world, this is another food that may surprise you upon first bite. Unlike their name counterpart peaches, chontaduras are dry in taste and starchy, similar to sweet potatoes.
However, once chontaduras are cooked and served with salt or honey, they become the perfect street food. Costing only US$1 for a few chontaduras, you’ll settle your hungry stomach without calories that come with the more deep-fried and fatty street food alternatives. Plus, chontaduras are packed with protein, and it’s even claimed they are an aphrodisiac.
To find these perfect snacks, keep your eye out for street vendors that look like they’re selling bright yellowish red tomatoes. These chontaduras will have been cooked for up to five hours, giving them the ideal texture, and served in a bag with different seasonings and topping to bring out the fruit’s flavor.
Start your day off the Colombian way with a carimañola for breakfast. These deep-fried fritters are stuffed with cheese or shredded meat fillings and will give you the ultimate kick to start the day. Think a mix between a meat pie and an enchilada, these torpedo-shaped delights are packed with flavor and are a staple in Colombian food culture.
It’s still very much up for debate where carimañola originated from, and it especially depends on who you’re asking. It’s thought that the word carimañola comes from the French word carmagnole, which means a short jacket – as the filling is wrapped in what could look like a short jacket. Other theories suggest it comes from South Africa, but either way, the Colombians have embraced this dish and have certainly made it their own.
To enjoy a carimañola to the fullest, be sure to ask for a side of suero if the dish doesn’t already come with it. This fermented milk-based condiment may not first strike you as a necessity, but its tangy flavor goes perfectly with the garlic and spices of carimañola.
6. Carne Oreada
Coming from the mountains of Santander, carne oreada is a tasty jerky-like dish that is through and through Colombian. This dish is special because of its rich history and the use of only a few ingredients and mother nature to ensure the perfect texture. History claims that day workers in Pantanal invented the unique method in the 19nth century when livestock needed to be moved long distances over the rainy season.
Workers needed a way to preserve food, so they turned to mother nature. After beef is cured with lime, salt, and beer, it’s put under the scorching Santander sun for several days until its consistency is similar to beef jerky. Or, for a less jerky-like texture, some Colombians prefer to put the beef out at night, so the strong wind can work its magic without the sun taking away extra moisture.
Unfortunately, traditional methods of cooking carne oreada are slowly disappearing as electricity, and modern techniques take over. So if you see traditional carne oreada served with potato, yucca, salad, rice, and sweet corn on a menu, be sure to give it a go.
So far this list has been all about the meats and cheese, so it’s time to switch it up with the Colombian food culture classic, roscón. This ring pastry can be found in almost every bakery in Colombia, especially around the holidays, and many Colombians agree it is their national dessert.
Like many dishes of Colombia, roscón originated in Spain and has a rich history that dates back as far as the 1700s. Its official name, Roscón de Reyes, translates to ‘kings cake’ and refers to the fact that this delicious cake looks like a jeweled crown. Rumor has it that King Philip V took a liking to the cake and decided it’s a must-served dessert among monarchy around the holidays.
When visitors to Colombia first bite into roscón, they’re often surprised that the cake isn’t nearly as sweet as it looks. It’s made with a lightly sweetened yeast dough filled with bocadillo and guava jelly. Then, candied fruit is added to the top, giving roscón its jeweled crown-like appearance.
One of the most loved dishes in Colombia – the iconic empanada. These tasty snacks are found absolutely everywhere in Colombia and are a staple of the street food scene. As empanadas are found all around the world, you’ve likely enjoyed one or two of these in the past, but no place does the flavors quite like Colombia.
Depending on where you are in the country, you’ll find a variety of fillings. The most common are chorizo, beef, chicken, and cheese, but keep your eye out for new fillings hitting the market. You may come across street vendors who sell empanadas stuffed with pineapple, aijaco (a chicken and corn dish), and sweet guava.
In Colombia, there are no rules about when or how to eat empanadas. They’re simply an any time of the day snack, and if you decide to eat a few empanadas or pair it with sides, it becomes a delicious meal. Just be sure to thank the Spanish settlers for bringing this perfect hunger fixer to Colombia.
After the classic empanada, buñuelos have to be the second most popular street food. These somewhat sweet and somewhat savory fried dough balls will firstly confuse your taste buds then delight them. Buñuelos can be found at street vendors at any time of the year, but around Christmas, their numbers grow exponentially, and it may seem like the only food Colombians eat at this time of the year.
In other parts of the world, Buñuelos tend to be filled with cheese, but Colombians keep the dish simple with only plain flour and powdered sugar sprinkled over the top. As the dough itself is sometimes flavored with anise or small curd white cheese, the unique taste does take some getting used to, but before long, you’ll be hard-pressed to walk by a stand without indulging.
Even though Colombians now claim buñuelos as their own, these golf-ball-sized treats didn’t originate here. Instead, it’s believed buñuelos came from Spain when the Muslim Arabs ruled the country in medieval times. Luckily, they made the journey across the sea and now are a staple of Christmas in Colombia.
Colombian Food Culture FAQ’s
What is the traditional food in Colombia?
The national dish and most traditional food in Colombia is bandeau paisa. This filling dish is a heaping platter containing beans, rice, arepa, chorizo, egg, plantain, avocado, and carne en polyo. Bandeau paisa’s origins date back to when farmworkers would enjoy one hearty meal for breakfast that would give them energy for a full day of work.
Why is food important to Colombian culture?
Food is a very important part of Colombian culture. It’s a way for families and friends to connect, sit down and enjoy time together. This is especially true of lunch, which is the most important meal in Colombia. Dinner, on the other hand, is a more casual affair and much smaller portions than lunch.
What is a typical breakfast in Colombia?
There is no set go-to breakfast in Colombia. Instead, Colombians will eat anything from changua, a soup made from milk, to cereal. More traditional breakfasts can consist of calentao (rice and beans), smashed green bananas with salty cheese, or an arepa. Coffee or hot chocolate also accompanies breakfast in Colombia.
What makes Colombia’s food unique?
Colombia has influences from all across the world and regional influences, making Colombian food culture diverse and full of unique dishes. Plus, Colombia’s nutrient-rich land makes it a great place to grow fruit and vegetables, which find their way into nearly all traditional dishes.