street food

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

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.

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.