Colombian Street Food & Christmas Lights: The Perfect Combination

Anyone who has ever spent time in Colombia can tell you that two of Colombians’ favorite things are street food and Christmas - not necessarily in that order. Munching on treats from street food vendors while enjoying the elaborate displays of Christmas lights is a much-loved pastime for most Colombian families. Medellín is the ideal city to take advantage of this tradition, considering it is the City of Eternal Spring and the fact that they take light displays to a whole new level! The local utility company, EPM, has generously adorned the city with Christmas lights for the past 61 years. Over the years, the displays have become increasingly more intricate and impressive, making it a holiday destination for local and international tourists alike. The alumbrados attracts over 4 million visitors during just five short weeks!

medellin holiday lights

Strolling through the complex display of 31 million LED lights works up quite an appetite, which is why street food vendors happily set up stands along the way to feed the hungry masses. You can find a large range of traditional Colombian street food, typical Christmas snacks and sweet treats anywhere you look. 

mazorca

One favorite Colombian street food is simple, yet delicious - grilled corn or mazorca. We’ve all seen corn on the cob, but not like this! The grandiose kernels are roasted to perfection over an open charcoal flame and slathered with fresh butter and salt for a finishing touch. Corn is a staple of Colombian cuisine and is normally made into masa to create another favorite - arepas. The roasted corn is a nice alternative for a way to enjoy this fresh corn treat. 

Buñuelos are a classic street food snack throughout Colombia, but come Christmas time you will almost always see it paired with natilla. The consistency can range anywhere between custard and flan and usually has a vanilla or arequipe flavor. You can’t spend a December in Colombia without encountering natilla, as it is the absolute essential holiday dish. There are variations of natilla depending on what region of Colombia you are in, but of course, everyone’s Grandma makes THE best version of it. 

natilla

For a sweet street food snack, hojuelas will hit the spot. This dessert has its origins in Spain, but Antioquia and Medellín has adopted it as a holiday favorite.

hojuelas

Under the glow of holiday lights, you will find street food vendors frying up their version of a Colombian funnel cake to serve to the many people waiting in line to get a warm, crispy treat, dusted with sugar like a fresh layer of snow with a hint of orange flavor.  Hojuelas are a favored holiday nibble in the neighborhood of Envigado, where we conduct our Medellín Street Food Tour

After taking in all of the Medellín Christmas lights, you’ll definitely work up a thirst. Canelazo is the perfect drink to wash down all of the street food treats. Canelazo is Colombia’s answer to spiked apple cider, and it's delicious! Made with cinnamon, aguapanela (water and unrefined sugar), aguardiente (Colombia’s national drink), and a squeeze of lime to finish it off, it will definitely warm you up. Some street food vendors may even add more festive flavors with spices and herbs, like nutmeg, cloves or fresh mint. In December, the streets of Medellín are filled with vendors offering canelazo to passersby to sip as they enjoy the holiday displays. It is also fairly easy to make, for those looking to create holiday cocktails at home.

canelazo

3 Holiday Colombian Rum Cocktails You Must Try

Now that Thanksgiving is done and and we enter into the holiday party season, we cannot forget what matters most - BOOZE! We do a good sampling of libations on our Foodie Dream Tours and beers, on our street food tours, but these cocktails add a sophisticated touch to any drink offerings and feature three great Colombian rums. These Colombian cocktails will keep your party guests happy and can be whipped up in two shakes, transporting you to the land of magical realism during the holiday season. 

BOGOTA COSMOPOLITIAN 

Bogotá Cosmopolitan is a Colombian take on a classic martini. It is the perfect balance between sweet and sour, making this cocktail refreshing and tangy. An added bonus - it's quite simple to make at home! Use Colombian Parce Rum to add this crowd-pleasing drink to your bartending arsenal. 

                     Bogotá Cosmopolitan 

                     Bogotá Cosmopolitan 

INGREDIENTS
2 oz dark rum
1 oz Fresh lime juice
1 oz Simple syrup

HOW TO MAKE
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice
Shake, and strain into a chilled Martini glass
Garnish with a lime wheel

 

 

CARTAGENA COQUITO

A Caribbean twist on old-fashioned egg nog is a coquito. This rich, spiced treat is a Christmas-time specialty in Latin America. It is the perfect drink for a winter soiree, since it satisfies a thirsty crowd. We host a Colombian Rum Tasting on our Cartagena Foodie Dream Tour, highlighting, the aged Colombian rum, 12 Ron Diplomático. This sweet treat also includes coconut milk, condensed milk with cinnamon sticks, nutmeg and a vanilla bean.

INGREDIENTS
1 can coconut milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 Vanilla bean
3 tsp Ground nutmeg
8 Cinnamon sticks
750 ml dark rum

HOW TO MAKE
Combine all the ingredients except the rum in a saucepan over medium heat.
Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly.
Remove from the heat, let cool and stir in the rum.
Transfer to bottles (making sure that at least one cinnamon stick goes into each bottle), seal and store in the refrigerator. Serve over ice in rocks glasses and garnish with cinnamon sticks.

                                                             Cartagena Coquito

                                                             Cartagena Coquito

MEDELLIN MANZANA  

Apple cider is a time honored crowd pleaser around the holidays. Why not spice it up with Colombian Hechicera Rum, cloves, cinnamon and allspice.  Colombian food and drink traditions are is well-known for featuring aguardiente as it's main spirit, but there is lots of amazign Colombian rum to go around! for it's love of This cocktail is a great alternative to rum punch and for entertaining large crowds. It's easy to make and serve and will definitely keep the fiesta going!

                        Medellín Manzana 

                        Medellín Manzana 

INGREDIENTS
1 apple
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 orange, thinly sliced
2 quarts apple cider
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon allspice
Pinch grated nutmeg
1 cup dark rum
Cinnamon sticks, garnish

HOW TO MAKE
Stud the apple with the cloves. In a medium pot, combine the studded apple and remaining ingredients except the rum. Slowly bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the rum. Discard the apple. Ladle into mugs and garnish each with a cinnamon stick. Serve immediately.

Getting an Education on a Street Food Tour

I looked up at the sky. I should have known better. When I left the house it was sunny, and just half an hour later the clouds had gathered quick and dark above me. But that’s typical of Bogota and its weather. During the rainy season, 15 minutes of sun and 15 minutes of rain can alternate all day long.

But I was promised that the street food tour by La Mesa Food Tours would go on rain or shine, so I had my umbrella in hand as I walked through the Parque de los Periodistas in Bogota’s La Candelaria neighborhood. Mt. Monserrate loomed over me, it’s head in the dark clouds.

I saw Margarita, my tour guide for the morning, and she smiled at me. But as I walked up to her, what caught my attention most was what she had in her hand. An enormous plastic cup with long yellow strips that twirled around themselves. Mango biche. Green (as in unripe) mangoes are cut into thin, long strips and dosed with salt and pepper and fresh squeezed lime juice. A healthy treat.

As we dig into the tangled strips of fruit, Margarita told us Colombians also like it with sweetened condensed milk oraguardiente and it’s a common treat along the coast of Colombia. I’d certainly had it often when I needed a snack, buying it from tiny green mango-shaped carts in parks and on heavily transited streets.

Why a food education?

But hold on a minute. Why was I, a food writer in Colombia, doing a food tour? Didn’t I already know all about food in Colombia?

Well, I do know quite a bit. But food tours are a great way to learn all about what you don’t know. Also, readers often write in to Flavors of Bogota to ask how they can get a true Colombian food experience – without any negative side effects. I need to know what to recommend.

You will see free tours around the city, but be prepared to be in groups of up to 30 people where you might not even catch a glimpse of your tour guide. I prefer small tours like this one, where a maximum of eight people makes the experience feel more like an extended family than the whole neighborhood tagging along.

The journey

From there we started out, walking up slight hills and narrow cobblestone streets. Short bursts of history lessons came in between mouthfuls of local foods. We learned about brave women that defied a firing squad and heroes of what was then a new nation.

We went from an arepa stand to a chocolate experience to fruits to restaurants. Cultural tidbits got mixed in with culinary ones as we admired street art that tells the history of a country and a diverse people. We saw Bogota’s past unfold in pictures dating back decades as we dug into soups that mix all the cultural backgrounds of Colombians. Frankly, I have never tried so many Colombian treats in one day – or even in one month – as I did on this street food tour.

We tried what is sometimes called “indigenous beer” that’s common throughout the region (my tip is to not smell it first – I assure you that the taste is pleasant). I was surprised by the amount of vegetarian and gluten free foods on the tour (although there were few vegan options).

At a local market we tried fruit juices with mixes I’d never heard of. If you’ve spent any time in Colombia or read enough about the country, you’ve heard about the fruit. Lulo, curuba, feijoa, pitaya, uchuva. All those exotic names – well, here’s your chance to put a face to them all and try them in just one sitting, as fruit or made into juice.

And the rain did come down. At times in an irritating mist, at times hard enough that we were glad we were in a cozy restaurant. But it never interfered with the tour.

And perhaps the rain and cold in Bogota are as culturally important as the food. It’s influenced the high boots and leather jackets popular in every social class as well as the knitted scarves and gloves that street vendors sell.

Similarly, much of Bogota’s culinary traditions were formed by the chilly temperatures people have been trying to beat for centuries. So in rain or shine, now you know which street food tour will give you an education in Colombian culinary traditions.

This story originally appeared on the website Flavors of Bogotá by Karen Attman. Be sure to check out her website to get all the latest culinary news from Colombia's capital city.

Breakfast in Guatemala - Desayuno Chapin!

If you ever travel to Guatemala you are bound to run into a curious sounding two-syllable word that is used to signify that something is specifically and definitively Guatemalan. The word is “Chapin”. Chapin in the singular, and Chapines plural, is a nickname given to Guatemalan people or things. The origin of the word refers to a type of sandal that was brought over by the Spanish in the XV century and was very popular in the newly founded Guatemala at the time. 

Why do I mention this? Well, in general I love all things Chapin, but particularly one of my absolute favorite dishes in Guatemala. It is most likely on every menu at every comedor (mom and pop restaurant), in markets, traditional restaurants and of course in every Guatemalan home. It is the very delicious Desayuno Chapin (Chapin Breakfast). 

Breakfast is hands down my favorite meal of the day and the Desayuno Chapin is by far and away my preferred breakfast. It is simple, humble, addictive, filling and incredibly tasty. It consists of 2 eggs either revueltos or estrellados (scrambled or fried), frijoles volteados (refried beans), plátanos (plantains), a slice or two of queso fresco (cheese) and a hearty stack of freshly made tortillas.  

Tortillas are perhaps the most important part of the experience for me. They are the blank canvas ready to be painted with whatever scrumptious combination your Chapin heart desires. I am a very sweet and savory type of person so my perfect combination is a thin layer of beans, eggs, queso, and perfectly browned slice of plantain... and a generous coat of red picante tomato sauce!  I promise whatever combination you come up with you will love! 

corn tortillas.jpg

Of course I couldn’t write about breakfast in Guatemala and not mention pan dulce (sweet bread). If a quick breakfast is your thing and you have a bit of a sweet tooth then this is probably right up your alley. Pan dulce can be found at any respectable neighborhood bakery or shop. Molletes, chirimuyas, besitos, lenguas, and champurradas are a few of the most traditional. My family is big on champurradas. They are long, thin and covered in sugar, making them the perfect shape for dipping in your coffee like my grandad used to do every morning.

For those of you used to a rushed breakfast in the mornings as you head off to work, this may sound a little strange but breakfast in Guatemala is truly an experience! And one that I hope you get to enjoy. It’s one of my favorite things about our beautiful heritage. So don’t wait any longer and come for a visit your tastebuds will never forget! 

And remember, no matter where you go in Guatemala always start your day with a Desayuno Chapin! 

Buen Provecho. 

A Guatemalan Christmas

I will never forget the smell of my grandparents’ house as I walked in on the 24th. The floors covered with a carpet of pine needles, the sweet smell of the manzanilla strung together decorating the inside of the house, the unmistakable scent of warm chocolate and ponche de frutas, and of course tamales and paches being pulled out of the hot boiling pot. Under the tree my grandma would set up her nativity scene. Proudly displayed and surrounded by sawdust stained with bright colors and green moss. 

Paches and tamales are the centerpiece of Christmas dinner. Usually my grandma and mom would spend a full day at the market buying all the ingredients. They would wake up early and begin the process of making enough of these carefully wrapped delicacies to feed an army. My grandma was very traditional, so she liked to use a stone grinder for all her peppers and seeds for the recado. Once the dough had been made, the recado prepared, the pork, beef and chicken lined up….the wrapping would begin! Layer by layer they would fill massive pots full of tamales wrapped in maxan and banana leaves .
 
Little by little family and friends would start coming in. My grandparents’ home would begin to fill and all that could be heard were laughs, people talking and of course my grandad’s favorite music playing in the background…...marimba! 

In Guatemala the real celebration doesn’t start until midnight and it’s a sight like no other! My grandparents’ house was on a hill, so we would climb to the top and watch as the whole city would light  up at once with fireworks. It was incredible! For 20 minutes like a scene out of Disney's Fantasia with colors dancing through the skies. We would all hug, say Feliz Navidad and go inside for a wonderful Christmas dinner.

While we were all outside looking up at the sky in the commotion of all the fireworks and warm hugs…..Santa would sneak in and leave all the presents under the tree. Well…..not under because that was were the nativity scene was and grandma would probably have a few choice words for Santa if he damaged it. 

Presents were opened after dinner and the music, food, and fun would continue deep into the night. Christmas in Guatemala is really an incredible experience. We hope you can visit us and experience all the magic! 

Feliz Navidad!

Colombia's Machu Picchu (only older!)

While our focus is almost always on the amazing world of food, let’s take a brief break and talk about some of Colombia’s other national treasures. My two brothers and I recently did a trek to the Lost City of Colombia – known as the ‘Ciudad Perdida’ in Spanish or to the local indigenous community as ‘Teyuna’ – in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the northeastern city of Santa Marta. My youngest brother was getting married, and we thought a bachelor adventure would be a great way for the three of us to hang out, talk and bond… and of course walk. We did A LOT of walking. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning.

The Lost City was built by the Tayrona tribe around 750 AD but largely abandoned during the conquest of the Spanish in the late 1500s. It was ‘discovered’ by a group of Colombian archaeologists in 1976 after hearing stories about a lost city in the jungle and finding artifacts for sale in local markets as evidence that the place existed. The indigenous community, though, had never actually lost the city, but rather used it for religious ceremonies and other special occasions. At its height, the city was most likely the political and economic center of a network of villages across this mountainous region, and had a population of more than 7,000 people. The city remained a secret to the outside world for so long as it is deep in the mountains and can only be accessed via a steep climb up 1,200 stone steps surrounded by dense jungle. While the area was also once strongly affected by the Colombian armed conflict, it is now a safe area for the indigenous communities and tourists alike.

The terrain is absolutely breathtaking, and the trek is like traveling back through time. First is a drive from the city of Santa Marta to Machete, a small typical Colombian town where you have lunch before setting off on your walk. The first day you pass through a number of small farms dotted with houses here and there that become progressively simpler. As you move deeper into the mountains, you begin seeing small communities made up of thatched-roof huts with very few signs of modernity. People here seem to be living largely as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, surviving on subsistence farming and selling some of their goods at local markets near the coast.

Getting to the Lost City is not for the faint-hearted. The shortest trip is a four day trek (there are five and six day options as well) through rugged terrain climbing up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then… you get the picture. (If you’re looking to sweat off a few pounds, this is the trip for you!) Your reward for making it up another steep hill is fresh tropical fruits and an incredible view across the lush green landscape. Luckily a good part of the trek winds through the mountains following a fresh clear stream, which you have the chance on occasion to strip down to your skivvies and dive right in. It’s amazingly refreshing and gets your body ready to strap on that backpack and get going once again.

20150401_110733.jpg

The end of a long, hot, exhausting day is signaled by coming over a ridge and seeing your little rustic camp in the valley below. Waiting for you is a cold beer, a hot meal, and a chance to rub down those legs and relax. Dinner is a typical Colombian meal such as Ajiaco (chicken soup) served with corn, rice, avocado, and of course fresh home-made arepas! Everything is done over an open fire, and perfect for your ravenous appetite after a long day on the trail. After dinner and a little conversation with your fellow trekkers, there is only one thing on your mind - sleep! The bunk beds come with a thin foam mattress or you can choose a hammock, but the level of comfort doesn’t really matter as you collapse into a deep sleep and dream of flat ground. 

On the third day you finally reach those precipitous 1,200 stone steps that guard the ascent to the Lost City. At the top, the place that awaits is simply amazing. Words cannot do it justice, so I will leave it at that. The feeling might have to do with the amount of effort you exerted to get there, but it may actually be just that remarkable. You’ll have to experience it yourself to find out…

If you’re thinking about tackling the trek to the Lost City, a few words of advice:
-    Do the four day trek. While it’s tough, the five or six day takes the same path and after a while you just really want a hot shower.
-    Shoes, shoes shoes! Bring good comfortable shoes that are already worn in. The girl in our group who wore her old Chuck Taylors had to be put on a mule the last day her feet were so torn up. Not pretty.
-    Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all included, but bring some money for a few beers and a Gatorade or two to rehydrate. The food is not gourmet, but truthfully, after all the exertion pretty much anything they put in front of you is going to taste delicious.
-    Just keep walking. Knees and joints start to hurt, your back aches, and it’s hot. Take it easy with a good leisurely pace. There are no prizes for getting there first, and the whole point is to enjoy the experience!

Empanadas - The Pinnacle of Colombian Snacking

Colombia’s empanada sits proudly on our top 10 list of essential Colombian foods (link) and is arguably the most popular and inescapable food on the nation’s streets. For those with lighter wallets and in need of a quick snack, the empanada is a perfect and delicious way to get through the day. 

Colombians coolly lean against street stalls with empanadas in hand watching the world go by at most hours of the day throughout the country. A first bite into the snack’s hard exterior allows you to then pour in chili sauce through the resulting hole. Each crunching bit that follows acts as the consistent percussion to the soundtrack of a walk through Colombia’s busiest streets.

The term empanada literally translates to "wrapped in bread,” a particularly broad definition which has created an endless list of local recipes across Latin America. The ease in which a basic empanada can be made makes it a cheap and versatile food; it can be stuffed with almost anything and sold almost anywhere. For this reason, its use can range from a cheap hit for a yearning stomach during a long bus ride to a more elaborate and substantial meal at a top-tier restaurant. 

Northern Spain’s “galician” empanada, a much larger pie which is often sliced into individual squares, was brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors several centuries ago. Latin America’s empanada gradually evolved over time to become what it is today; a mostly hand-held snack available in countless varieties which is almost indistinguishable from the original recipe. 

In Colombia, the empanada is a palm-sized cocoon of crispy, turnover-shaped fried dough which envelopes a mixture of meat (usually ground beef, often chicken,) potatoes and onions. The empanada’s texture invites the use of sauces, as the liquids are able to seep and blend into the tender insides while being supported by the hard outer shell. A chili sauce called aji containing chili, tomato, onions, cilantro and vinegar is usually preferred, with guacamole occasionally used as a substitute or alongside the hot sauce.

Colombia’s empanada differs from Latin America’s arguably most popular recipe, the Argentine variety, as the dough is fried as opposed to baked as well as being relatively smaller in size. Furthermore, Colombian empanada dough is made of a white or yellow cornmeal, as opposed to white flour. The cornmeal used is not the same as that on the bottom of your pizza, as it has to be ground more finely and is pre-cooked. The closest relative of the Colombian empanada is its Venezuelan cousin, a similarly fried corn flour recipe.

As with almost all Colombian food (or really all food everywhere), there is no universally-accepted recipe and certain areas of the country invariably prefer different local concoctions, which just means more for us to taste! 

La Mesa Food Tours Top 10 Must-Try Colombian Foods

Colombia’s cuisine does not yet have the reputation of some of its Latin American counterparts – Peru comes to mind – and thus remains something of an unknown entity in much of the world.

By no means does this imply that it’s inferior, there’s just more to explore!

For this reason, we’ve devised a crash course in Colombia’s top 10 “must try” foods. It’s our attempt at helping guide you through Colombia’s rich and intriguing gastronomic history. Of course, in order to truly experience it you’ll need to visit and come to your own conclusion. But trust us, Colombia offers something truly delicious and intriguing for everyone. Here we go…

1- Arepa

La Mesa has previously covered the ubiqitous arepa. Colombia’s most popular staple food, it is served mostly at breakfast but is not out of place at any time of the day. The arepa is a circular flatbread composed of maize and flour kernels, probably best described as ‘corn cake’ or ‘corn bread’. It is eaten as many people would eat bread, with butter or a variety of other toppings.

2- Bandeja Paisa

Originating in the “paisa” region surrounding Medellin, this colossal meal is sufficient to render any self-proclaimed big-eater absolutely comatose. The platter is available in various guises, but usually composed of steak, pork crackling, chorizo, generous wedges of avocado, brown beans, a fried egg, fried banana and a bed of rice and red beans. Chicharron (see number 5 below) is added in the Antioquia region as an essential element.

3- Sancocho

Sancocho is another hearty dish found across South America. While many people might crave the greasy spoon after a few too many drinks, Colombians swear by this thick brothy stew. Based off the Spanish dish Cocido, it will usually contain a meat (mostly on the bone), sweet plantain banana, yuccas, corn on the cob, and rice on the side. It’s the kind of dish that warms you up and gets you going for the day.

4- Empanadas

Empanadas are likely the most readily available and cheapest street snack in Colombia. Available throughout the continent in various recipes, styles and sizes, the Colombian empanada is a palm-sized deep fried treat that resembles a miniature turnover. Potato and meet stuffing (usually chicken or beef) are surrounded by a fried outer shell of fried dough deliciousness. Usually eaten with chili sauce and occasionally guacamole, most of Colombia’s main streets will be lined with vendors selling the tasty snack.

5-Chicharron

Colombia’s version of this popular dish is usually made of deep fried pig skin with pork meat and fat, although this can occasionally be replaced with chicken. It is eaten either freshly cooked, succulent and juicy, or as a dryer, more mature snack. Chicharron may not be all that good for you, and I wouldn’t suggest eating it every day, but wow is it delicious.

6- Ajiaco

This is a popular lunch dish originating from Bogotá, but now found all over the country. The soup usually contains chicken, various forms of potato (of which there are many!), corn on the cob, capers, avocado and topped with sour cream. It is often complimented with a side of rice. The South American herb guasca is an essential component of the dish, giving it a unique flavor. Talk to any Colombian about the dish they most loved from their mother, and ajiaco is almost always at the top of that list.

7- Buñuelos

Buñuelos are a fried dough ball which are popular not only in Latin America but also in Spain and parts of Europe near the Mediterranean. Fried golden brown, these heavy balls are often filled with a type of cheese, making for a gooey and white center. A slither of fruit is occasionally added, providing a contrasting hint of sweet to the saltiness. The fist-sized treat is a fatty, dense snack which packs a punch to easily satisfy a grumbling stomach. The balls are fried in large metal containers of hot oil, usually on the sides of streets. During Christmas time they are traditionally served with the sweet Colombian cake natilla. 

8- Tamales

While vaguely similar and utilizing some of the same ingredients, Colombian tamales largely differ from the tamale found across Mexico and the southwestern US. Colombian tamales are a steamed meal wrapped in long banana leaves. Leaves are laid out flat and covered by a wet, soft, yellow dough, and then usually filled with a combination of pork or chicken (sometimes both are blended together) and then wrapped up tight to be cooked. Carrots, corn and various other vegetable chunks can also be found within the tamal’s dough. In general, the tamales are far larger than the Mexican tamale and are eaten as a full meal.

9- Natilla

Arguably the most popular food eaten exclusively during the Christmas season, natilla is a sweet cake which resembles more of a pudding. Harder and slightly rubbery in texture on the outside, it is gooier on the inside. It is made from milk, brown sugar, panela, cinnamon sticks and flour or cornstarch. Natilla is usually white or a caramel color and is most-often complemented with the buñuelo. I’m not sure how much natilla is consumed during the holidays, but based on my experience here it has to be a ton. It is much loved by Colombians.

10- Lechona

Lechona is – and there is no other way to put this – a stuffed whole pig. Packed with various ingredients, including spices, onions, peas and rice, the pig is cooked for a minimum of eight hours and often as long as fifteen in a large brick oven. A crispy skin is crucial to a flavorsome lechona, so that the crunchy outer punch is balanced with the tender meat and slowly steamed insides. Lechona is not an everyday thing, but cooked for special occasions and large family get-togethers.  And it’s much more than a meal, it’s an experience.

Aguardiente: Colombian “fire-water”

After spending some time in Colombia it is impossible to escape the ubiquitous and unavoidable “aguardiente,” Colombia’s quintessential alcoholic beverage. In a country of  great socio-economic divide, aguardiente grew and prospered in the small common ground between rich and poor and acts as the nation’s lubricant for daily (and nightly) life. 

Colombia’s unofficial national drink, aguardiente is guzzled across all regions, classes and ages. Colombia’s aguardiente, or “guaro” as it’s known locally, is an anise-flavored liqueur derived from sugarcane usually containing between 25-30% alcohol. Guaro is most often packaged in a cardboard box, milk-carton style, and consumed as a shot from either a small plastic cup on the street or a specific flare-rimmed shot glass in bars. It’s also not considered unseemly to just tip the bottle over your head and let the liquid go straight down – depending on your company!

Warming to the clear liquid – and it certainly warms your insides – will endear you to locals and make Colombian life that little bit easier. Smiling strangers will offer you countless shots in streets, parks, bars and homes, rebuking any denial with a playful ‘come-on-you-know-you-want-some’ grin. During festivals, bottles are literally tossed around like a game of hot potato. Friendships are formed over the drink and given its potency and frequency of consumption occasionally broken. 

Taken literally, the etymology of the word “aguardiente” stems from “fire-water.” Practically, aguardiente simply means a strong alcoholic drink created through an initial fermentation process and the distillation of sugared or sweet musts and/or vegetable macerations. Thus, “aguardiente” is drunk all throughout the Spanish speaking world in various forms and guises.

Colombian aguardiente is distilled in a process involving sugar cane molasses, anise essential oils and water. Recently, manufacturers have begun to offer sugar-free varieties to those more prone to, or wary of, throbbing hangovers or undesired body fat. Though beware the teasing you might just get if you don’t down the true guaro, for many Colombians there’s no debate as to which is better.

As for the taste, the licorice flavor of pastis or sambuca would probably be the most comparable flavor familiar to many people. Your opinion of guaro will be undeniably linked to your opinion of anise. If you don’t mind it, the drink is surprisingly smooth and light, allowing for the colossal volumes consumed by Colombians. If the thought of anise makes your toes curl, then this is most likely just not the drink for you. While it’s alcoholic content is significantly less than the average rum or whisky, that cannot be said of its impressive smell. The odor of aguardiente is detectable and alluring, and acts as the notes emanating from the Pied Piper’s pipe calling you to the table to indulge.

The quantity of aguardiente drunk undoubtedly spikes during the festive season in December (as with most things, given Colombians use of the month as a non-stop fiesta). It will be seen accompanying anything from formal family meals to a sit-down chat in the street. For many Colombians, Christmas time smiles are synonymous with copious shots, and bottles, of aguardiente. A divisive drink amongst the foreigners here, we implore you to at least give it a ‘shot’. And on our Street Food Tour we ensure that as a final gesture we make a toast to celebrate new friendships and drink a parting round of aguardiente.  

As Colombia’s cheapest and most widely available alcoholic drink, acquiring the taste for guaro will undoubtedly create countless truly “Colombian” experiences. You’ll find yourself in situations of comradery and festivity and making unique memories from your travels. Or, if you just can’t get used to the taste, practice your post-shot poker face after the inevitable gifts of guaro keep rolling in. We did warn you after all that it’s called “fire-water” for a reason.

Real Colombian Salpicón

Colombian Street Salpicón

Colombian Street Salpicón

The term ‘salpicón’ in Spanish means medley. Depending where in Latin America, ‘salpicon’ can address different dishes, which are usually salty and include meat. But generally speaking, it is a mix consisting in several diced or minced ingredients soaked in some type of sauce.

Colombia is the only Latin American country which refers to ‘salpicón’ as a sweet snack. It is the marriage between a fruit salad and a smoothie, making the best of both worlds. I’ve seen the most popular Colombian ‘salpicón’ recipes on the internet and they don’t really represent the local recipe here in Bogota. They have thick cuts of grapes, apples, pineapple and other fruits, something which is not in the local recipe.

 

Salpicón menu with fresh papaya above

Salpicón menu with fresh papaya above

The real local street ‘salpicón’ consists of very ripe papaya, banana, watermelon and mango diced into pieces no smaller than 1 centimeter and bathed in a puree of what seems to be watermelon and papaya. Everything is so mixed and thinly cut that you can’t tell what is what and the fruits all melt in a delicious blend on the tongue without hardly any chewing. Not to mention the fruit are so ripe and sweet it’s hard to believe no sugar is added. Like I said, perfect combination of a smoothie and fruit salad.

I’ve seen other street versions with peach and strawberry added to the mix but they are usually more watered down and flavors don’t melt together as well.

The sweet blend is offered several ways:

  1. Instead of using solely fruit puree to bathe the fruit they will replace it with Colombina soda.
  2.  Different toppings are on offer including cream, cheese, ice cream or all three if your heart so desires.
Colombian salpicón fruit shop

Colombian salpicón fruit shop

I like mine as plain as possible and ‘au naturel’ without any toppings or soda. Although you can get yours on portable street carts, I found the tastiest blend to belong to a specialized ‘salpicón’ place in my neighborhood. So for $2,600 pesos I relish in a large portion of fresh fruit in its own juice. It makes for an amazing breakfast, midday snack and/or dessert.

This story originally appeared on the website Realistic Healthy by Jade Longelin. Be sure to check out her journey of trying to live healthy amongst the meat-ridden, fried cheesy carb filled specialties of the region. 

An Arepa for Every Meal

The arepa tops the list of Colombian foods most loved by locals and yet maligned and misunderstood by visitors. Offer it to many foreigners and they'd prefer to eat the plastic packaging it comes in before the contents inside. And if you've been offered the wrong variety, such as the flat, tasteless, sandpaper discs sold cheaply at supermarkets, this choice actually seems reasonable. (Here is one husband's reaction to his Colombian wife introducing him to the wide world of arepas).

Coming to terms with the arepa, in its array of guises, tastes and recipes, is crucial to appreciating Colombian food; it is the undeniable staple of the local cuisine. Dry and flavorless in one form can transform into moist and succulent in another if you dare to delve a little further into the ubiquitous food's history and recipes. 

The arepa is a circular flatbread composed of maize or flour kernels which is mostly eaten with breakfast but available at almost every meal. "Corn cake" would be the easiest term in the English speaking vernacular, but it is often described as the Colombian version of the tortilla. The term arepa is derived from "erepa," meaning corn bread in the language of the Indigenous people of Colombia.

Over many centuries and following Spanish colonization, the original indigenous recipe was adopted by the newcomers and evolved with the introduction of European ingredients to become what it is today; an extremely popular food available in many unique, local recipes. The Colombian arepa's history is deeply tied to the agricultural workers and indigenous people of the nation's past.  It was eaten daily, often multiple times, and provided crucial sustenance and energy for the intense and sustained manual labor required on Colombian farms.

Once prepared through an arduous and monotonous process of cooking raw maize, "instant" flours and ready-made arepas make the process much easier for today’s fast-paced life. Yet every Colombian will tell you that the arepas their grandmother used to make were the best in the world – there’s just no substitute for home cooking no matter the food.

Of the countless varieties, let's highlight three that we think are the most interesting and delicious types of arepa available in Colombia today.

arepa de choclo

Arepa de Choclo

This variety of arepa is sweeter and thicker than the typical household arepa, and has the moistness and texture of a freshly baked cake. Sweet maize is utilized to give the arepa a sweetened flavor and a deep, yellow tinge. Often cooked on a grill pancake-style, a hefty chunk of white cheese, creamy and soft, is placed atop the arepa to balance the meal’s texture. Small arepa de choclo food stands are ubiquitous around the city, and locals enjoy them hot off the grill as they just melt in your mouth. Don’t even think about taking a single step before taking that first delicious bite.

The arepa de choclo has found its way outside of the Colombian borders, as it’s relatively easy to find in places such as Miami and New York. One company, Doña Arepa, has been dishing out arepa de choclo state-side for over 25 years. Our walking street food tour features a mouthwatering local street-sold arepa de choclo, a wholesome Colombian snack perfect as grub on the go or just an afternoon stroll through the plaza.

arepa de huevo

Arepa de Huevo

This arepa was born on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and is a wildly popular street food in the tourist hub of Cartegena. The arepa de huevo or ‘egg arepa’, naturally has the defining feature of containing egg inside. Salty, yellowish maize dough is originally fried with hot oil in order to toughen it up to a harder, more durable texture. Following this, an incision is made into the fried dough and raw egg is carefully poured inside so that it does not leak through the now fried outer shell. The arepa is then fried for a second time, ensuring that the egg is not only cooked but that the outer layer of corn dough is nice and crispy. Additionally, different types of meat may be added to the egg mixture for added flavor and volume. Depending on where you are, every city, shop or house has a favorite way of preparing theirs.

arepa rellena

Arepa Rellena

The arepa rellena is the arepa’s version of “animal style”, overflowing with ingredients and looking like a gourmet burger. A heartier meal often known as the “arepa with everything”, it definitely serves as a main or a satisfying snack.
Colombians will have you believe it spawns from the Cauca Valley, and is thus extremely popular in the city of Cali, but you will find these arepas across northern South America and particularly in Venezuela. The arepa rellena is stuffed (rellena means stuffed!) with a large variety of ingredients depending on the region and therefore has the least consistently used recipe of the arepas that we have covered. It will usually consist of a primary meat, such as a beef patty, chicken or ham, and be dressed with salad, generous wedges of avocado, cheese and a sauce.

The arepa is extremely important to the Colombian diet, and as you can see, comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, flavors and recipes. To try your hand at some delicious arepa recipes, definitely check out Erica Dinho at My Colombian Recipes. And if you are unlucky enough to have your first bite of arepa be less than satisfying, do not give up hope! Taste on, there is a perfect arepa out there waiting for you. 

A Perfect Flower Arrangement: the U.S. & Colombia

Whether you’re lying in a candle-lit bed of immaculately arranged roses on the most romantic night of your life or receiving a single, limp Walmart carnation from your awkward work colleague this Valentine’s Day; have you ever wondered where these flowers come from? Well, the chances are very good that your special gift arose (ahem) from Colombia.

The South American nation sends over a billion dollars’ worth of roses, carnations and mums to the US every year. Since the 80’s, Colombia has been the largest supplier of cut flowers for the US, accounting for over 75% of all flower imports. In an ideal world, Colombia’s reputation in the U.S would be more blossoms than drugs.

The U.S affinity for Colombian flowers has the most humble and curious of beginnings. It started with a man named Mark Cheever, who wrote a paper in 1967 while at Colorado State University. If Mark was anything like myself, there’s a decent chance this was written with a hangover and almost certainly turned in late, but this little paper became the genesis for the now billion dollar flower industry. Cheever’s paper identified Bogota’s savannah region as the perfect place to grow and export flowers to the U.S. The clay-rich soil and matrix of wetlands covering the Andean plain stand 8,700 feet above sea level, just 300 miles north of the equator and within close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.  These conditions create a temperate year-round climate, with consistent exposure to 12 hours of light and little temperature variation. Furthermore, Bogota is just a three hour flight from Miami; even closer to East Coast customers than the U.S.’s top flower producer California. Cheever entered the Colombian flower market a few years later, not wanting to sit back and watch his ideas exploited by others, and soon thereafter Colombia boomed into becoming the world’s second largest flower exporter behind the Netherlands.

The relatively cheap cost of labor in Colombia combined with ample U.S. aid continued to fuel the market over the following decades. Today, the Colombian flower industry directly employs over 90,000 Colombians with another 40,000 employed indirectly along the supply chain. The industry is a crucial employer of low-skill, largely female labor often taken from low-income areas surrounding Bogota and Medellin. Bogota’s savannah now accounts for close to 75% of all Colombian flower production, with Medellin’s Rionegro valley taking up close to 24% and the remainder scattered throughout the country.Nowadays, over thirty flower-filled Colombian planes stream into Miami each and every night, often returning empty the following morning. These numbers are significantly amplified leading up to Valentine's and Mother’s Day. Flowers are now the most important cargo item at the three major international airports in the supply chain; Miami, Bogota and Medellin. Approximately 150 companies, mostly located in the Miami area, currently import and distribute Colombian flowers in the U.S.

flower festival.jpg

Flowers have played an important part in Colombian life even before the industry’s boom. Medellin’s Flower Festival is over 50 years old and has turned into one of the most vibrant, joyful and important social dates on Colombia’s calendar. Held every August, the festival is the ideal excuse to head down to Colombia and experience the Colombian rumba’s famous parades, dancing, drinking and smorgasbord of cultural activities.The industry is not without controversy however. The American flower industry bemoan their reduced competitiveness due to lower labor costs and the environmental impact of flying the flowers overseas. On the other hand, the treatment of local employees and the industry’s use of various pesticides and chemicals that are banned in the U.S has also attracted scrutiny. Regardless of these issues, the Colombian flower industry essentially embodies a free market; the development and success of a new producer based on its ability to supply a good in demand in the most cost efficient, profit-maximizing manner.

There is no doubt that Colombia’s flower industry has established a spectacularly successful relationship of mutual benefit with the U.S. Colombian flowers have helped create infinite moments of joy and gratitude, from the romance of receiving your first middle school rose to the humble gratefulness of buying a bouquet for your mother. Valentine’s Day is the perfect excuse to cherish and spoil the one person who matters most in your life. There is no better way to remind someone of all the little things that make you love them than with a bouquet of beautiful, alluring flowers – all the way from Colombia.