You Haven’t Tried Colombian Food Until You’ve Had These Dishes
Colombian food doesn't enjoy the global popularity of Peruvian cuisine or Argentinean steak. At first glance, the country's gastronomy seems very simple, with most dishes consisting of rice, some sort of meat, an additional carb and a salad.
But the magic consists in making simple things delicious by using delicate flavors and unusual combinations of ingredients. In Colombia, rice is king, sweet and sour are a perfect match and there's nothing that doesn't go well with cheese.
Enjoy diverse flavors with the 30 best Colombian food dishes — as ranked by a Colombian.
30. Rice With Chicken
Let's start with a simple yet delicious dish you'll find pretty much at any festival or big family reunion.
To make arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), the tender meat is pulled apart into small pieces and cooked with rice and a variety of minced vegetables in chicken broth. The broth gives the white rice its signature yellow color.
29. Platano con Hogao
An appetizer that doesn't get the international attention it deserves, this dish is made with salted, deep-fried plantain. Though it's good on its own, what really earns it a place here is hogao, a tomato-based creole sauce that is flavorful and spicy by Colombian standards (which is to say, not spicy to the rest of the world).
The thin sauce provides the perfect contrast to the plantain's crunchiness, making for a great snack or starter.
Because of its position near the Equator and its dramatically varying altitudes, Colombia is blessed with more than 400 native fruit species and hundreds of imported fruits.
One of the best things about Colombia is the possibility of buying fresh fruit at street stands. But if you can't decide on a single fruit, go for salpicon. This refreshing snack is made with a variety of cut up fruit covered in orange or mandarin juice. There is also a variety that uses a Colombian soda, but that's too sweet and not as refreshing as the original juice salpicon.
You can find tamales all over Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. Colombia's take on the dish is made by stuffing a cornflour paste with meats and vegetables, then wrapping it in banana leaves and steaming it. There are a number of variations of Colombian tamales, with each region having its own preference for meat choice.
The banana leaves infuse the paste with a fragrant flavor, and the steaming ensures that all the ingredients are deliciously tender. Tamales are eaten year-round, and they're one of the most typical Christmas and New Year's dishes.
26. Hormigas Culonas
Hormigas culonas translates to "big-butted ants," and that is literally what this crunchy snack is. This big-bottomed species of ant is native to the region of Santander, where once a year, they come out of the ground and are harvested. The tradition of eating the ants goes back centuries and started with the indigenous groups of the region.
Even if you've never eaten a bug, you'll find these ants delicious. Grilled or fried and salted, they're like potato chips that have protein. When I was little, the only chance we had of eating these ants was if we did a road trip to Santander during the right season. But tourists are increasingly interested in trying this delicacy, so the snack is available in other places.
25. Arroz de Lisa
Typical of the Atlantic coast of Colombia, arroz de Lisa is a rice-based dish made with fish, coconut rice and vegetables. It is usually served on a leaf, garnished with avocado pieces and doused in aji, a very traditional hot sauce. (Though, again, what is spicy in Colombia is pretty mild everywhere else).
This isn't a dish that you'll find spread throughout the country, but if you're visiting Barranquilla (the hometown of Sofia Vergara and Shakira) or any other city in the department of Atlantico, this dish is a must-try.
Did you know that Colombia has two Caribbean islands off the coast of Nicaragua? San Andres and Providencia are unique in that their official language is English (though people mostly speak patois), and their inhabitants are a black ethnic minority called raizales.
These idyllic islands also enjoy a gastronomy that's different from the rest of Colombia, and no dish is as typical as rondon. Cooked in a large steel pot over a wood fire, the dish combines fish, seafood, potatoes, yuca, plantains and often other meats like pork tail and snails. The ingredients are boiled in soup and coconut milk and seasoned with a generous amount of pepper.
Served on top of fragrant coconut rice, it's at once extremely filling and tasty.
Unlike the Brazilian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon, the Colombian part of the jungle cannot be accessed by land. Because of this, many people — even Colombians — miss out on the delicious and unique cuisine of the Amazonian region.
If you're lucky enough to visit, make sure you try piracucu, the second largest sweet water fish in the world. It is usually fried and garnished with garlic sauce, cilantro and lemon. The best part is that you don't have to worry about pesky fish bones as you enjoy the tender meat.
22. Seafood Casserole
Though originating in the Colombian Caribbean, casuela de mariscos, or seafood casserole, has become popular throughout the country.
The casserole is made with a variety of fresh seafood and vegetables in fish broth and coconut milk. It is usually served with white or coconut rice and avocado on the side. If you have the chance, order this Afro-Colombian dish in Cartagena, where it is more heavily seasoned and made hearty.
Any traditional Colombian restaurant worth its salt will serve mondongo, one of the country's favorite dishes.
Made with cow tripe (called mondongo), the soup contains vegetables like carrots, corn and peas as well as potatoes. Other meats like pork and sausages are added, and cilantro is used for garnish.
Rice, yuca and avocado are served on the side.
20. Pollo Sudado
Another traditional dish from Barranquilla, pollo sudado means "sweated chicken." But don't worry, it is much tastier than the English translation would suggest.
The dish is made by boiling chicken, potato, red peppers, tomatoes and onions in a single pot. All the ingredients become so tender that it almost feels as if they will dissolve in your mouth. The dish is served over white rice, which is doused — or rather, drowned — in the flavorful broth created in the cooking process.
Pollo sudado has become popular around Colombia and is very frequently served for lunch or dinner in households throughout the country.
19. Aborrajados Vallunos
If you want something very simple that will wow dinner guests, learn to make aborrajados vallunos. Coming from Cali, a city famous for its salsa dancing, this side dish is made by stuffing sweet plantains with cheese and frying them.
Aborrajados can be served whole or made into smaller bite-sized finger foods. Either way, the end result is a crunchy exterior that gives way to gooey melted cheese as you bite into it. To say that they're delicious doesn't even begin to cover the experience of eating one.
It's somewhat difficult to find this dish in its traditional form outside of the department of Valle del Cauca. But you do have a chance of finding some variations that are also very good. In the most common variation, the plantains are stuffed with cheese and bocadillo (guava paste) and baked instead of deep-fried.
18. Fruit Juices
Huh? How can juice be a typical dish? Doesn't every country have fruit juices?
Sure, but very, very few have as much variety or give as much importance to fruit juice as Colombia. Virtually every single lunch and dinner in the country is accompanied by fresh fruit juice. We emphasize the fresh because we don't want you to think this has anything to do with the overly sugared juices that you can find in the grocery store. Neither are they smoothies, which are delicious but very different.
A meal in the country is not complete without fruit juice. And since there are an infinite number of fruits to choose from, every day is a new adventure. The juices can be made with either water or milk, and restaurants will always ask for your preference.
If you visit Colombia and feel like trying some fruit juices that you likely won't find in many other countries, I suggest going for curuba (in milk), feijoa, lulo, tomato de arbol (tree tomato, which is sweet!) and guanabana.
If you ever find yourself craving something sweet while walking down the streets of a Colombian city, look for an oblea stand.
This simple but oh-so-good sweet snack is made with two large, thin wafers filled with arequipe (dulce de leche). If you want something a bit more intense, you can also add blackberry syrup, coconut flakes or cheese (we told you, everything in Colombia goes well with cheese). Personally, I like the tried and true simple obleas.
You won't usually find this dessert in restaurants, as it is mostly a street snack.
Lechona is made by stuffing a whole pig with rice, vegetables, herbs and spices, and roasting it slowly until the skin is crispy and the inside is tender and juicy.
The dish comes from Spanish colonization, so you'll find it in other Latin American countries as well as in the Philippines. Every nation does it their own way, and each version is delicious.
Because it takes time and labor to make it, lechona is usually served during holidays or town festivals.
15. Arroz Atollado
Arroz atollado is another traditional dish that comes from Cali. It's an heir to Spanish paella, made with a variety of meats like chicken, sausage and pork ribs mixed with rice, hard-boiled eggs, peas and a small Colombian potato called papa criolla.
The rice is given flavor with hogao (the previously mentioned tomato sauce) so that it's never dry or bland.
Despite what ignorant Hollywood producers would have you believe, not all of Colombia enjoys hot weather. Cities and towns high up in the Andes are chilly year-round, including Bogota.
If you're in what Colombians call cold-weather land, nothing will save you from the crisp night air like a canelazo. This hot cocktail is made with aguardiente, Colombia's most important spirit, whose name literally means "burning water." To sweeten the drink, we add cinnamon (or canela, from where the cocktail gets its name) and panela (unrefined cane sugar). But because Colombians love contrasting tastes, we also finish with something tangy like lime drops or passion fruit juice.
You'll find canelazo in many restaurants in places with cool or cold weather. In cities, it is often sold in the street.
13. Caldo de Costilla
Meaning "rib soup," caldo de costilla is made with beef and is accompanied by potatoes and cilantro. Unlike other soups, it only includes onion and/or garlic but no other vegetables, and the broth is very light and watery.
Despite its simplicity, Colombians call it levantamuertos, or resurrecter. That's because this delicious breakfast soup will help you rise from the dead after a long night of drinking.
Like much of Latin America, Colombians love their meat. We especially love combining many types of meat.
One of our best BBQ dishes is fritanga, also known as picada. Though there are an infinite variety of ways to make it, it always includes numerous grilled meats like steak, chicken, sausage and chicarron, or deep-fried pork fat (it's as absurdly delicious and unhealthy as it sounds). To accompany the meats, we serve a number of carbs and starches, like plantains, corn, potatoes and arepas.
Fritangas are meant to be eaten in a group and are best enjoyed during family holidays to the countryside or in roadside restaurants on Sundays.
11. Bocadillo con Queso
Many countries have cheese, and many countries have guava paste, but not very many countries put both together to make a sweet-and-salty sandwich. This is proof of Colombian culinary genius.
Both kids and adults love this dessert/snack, which is easy to make and always available. After all, no Colombian household that can help it is ever without either bocadillo or cheese.
10. Cheese Breads
There are various cheese breads in Colombia that are enjoyed for breakfast or as sides when drinking hot chocolate in the afternoon (we'll explain the hot chocolate thing later). Though the English translation lumps them all into one, they are all different in texture and taste. Pan de bono and pan de yuca are made with yuca flour and almojabana is made with maize flour.
They're all cheesy, but it's not really that they're stuffed with cheese. Rather, a very soft type of cheese called cuajada is mixed in small amounts with the flour. This makes the dough itself cheese-based. When biting into one of these pastries, you'll taste a hint of cheese as you bite into the hard shell of the breads to get to their soft insides.
Buñuelos are another type of cheese bread, though they are round and deep-fried. Traditionally, they were a Christmas-season snack but can now be found along with the other cheese breads at any bakery year-round.
Most of Colombian geography is dominated by the towering Andes mountains or the Amazon jungle. But in between and to the east of both are the great plains, Los Llanos Orientales.
This region has been particularly hard hit by the ongoing internal conflict, which has kept both national and international tourists at bay. Thankfully, that's slowly changing, and the great meat dishes of this cowboy region are more easily available than ever.
If you love meat, head to a llanero BBQ restaurant and order mamona. Made with veal grilled over a wood fire, this is one of the crispiest and most tender meats you will ever have. It's accompanied by the typical starches: potatoes, yuca and plantain. You can add aji to the meat for added flavor.
At its base, sancocho is made with meat, green plantains, corn and yuca. Each region has its own version, mostly differing in the meat used. But to get the best of all worlds, go for the sancocho trifasico. This ambitious sancocho doesn't pick a single type of meat, but rather goes all out by having chicken, pork and meat.
Because it's inexpensive to make, yet delicious, filling and generous, sancocho is a popular dish for large gatherings with friends and family.
Many South American countries have empanadas, and each place's version is different. Unlike Argentinean empanadas, Colombia's take on the dish is much more traditional. We don't go wild with creative fillings but rather stick to chicken or beef with peas and rice stuffing. In more recent years, the country has accommodated vegetarians by popularizing a cheese version.
A good empanada place will offer fresh deep-fried fritters that are crunchy and golden. Bite off one of the tips to let the inside cool down and add lime drops, aji or pink salsa.
You will find empanadas in every corner of the country. Traditional restaurants always offer them as appetizers but you can also find small stalls dedicated to this favored dish.
Look, what I'm about to describe doesn't sound very appetizing at first glance, but this is really one of the best things to ever come out of Colombia, so keep an open mind.
Changua is a magic soup that is guaranteed to cure hangovers, colds and even heartbreaks. It is made with poached eggs, cilantro and milk. (Yes, the broth is a mixture of water and milk.) But that's not all: A specific type of toasted bread is also added, and the soup is heavily salted.
I don't know what it is, but something about the combination of salted milk with toasted bread that gets soggy just really works. Unlike most soups, changua is almost exclusively a breakfast meal.
Venezuelan arepas enjoy wider international fame than Colombian ones, and I don't blame anyone — they're amazing. But Colombian arepas are also definitely worth trying.
In general, arepas are made with corn or maize dough and are round and fried. But it's hard to describe what they taste like because there are around 40 different types of arepas in Colombia. We don't tend to stuff them with multiple ingredients the way Venezuelans do, sticking instead mostly to cheese as a filling.
Some arepas are plain and small; others are buttered and salted; some have cheese on top and others inside; some are grilled and others are deep-fried; some are meant to be meals and others only side dishes. Some I like, others I can do without. But all in all, arepas are a food item that defines Colombian culture as few other things do — and most are amazingly good.
If you want the arepa that will fill you the most, go for arepaehuevo, a thick deep-fried arepa stuffed with a fried egg.
Colombian culture is very much against waste, which is how this mouthwatering dish came to be. Calentao (calentado, if you want to be correct) means "heated up" and is made by putting together in a large pot all the leftovers from the night before.
Before globalization, leftovers typically consisted of rice, beans and meats, so these are still the most common ingredients for a calentado. While heating everything up, one or two eggs are cracked and added directly to the leftovers, so as to prevent dryness and to add some texture.
For a dish so simple, calentao is very satisfying. It is popular on Sundays when people need a strong breakfast after a night out (as you can see, Colombians drink a lot, and aguardiente is unforgiving). But the meal has become so popular that you can find it in many traditional restaurants or roadside food stands — and, no, at restaurants it is not made with leftovers.
3. Chocolate con Queso
When foreigners hear about the Colombian tradition of drinking hot chocolate with cheese, they are usually grossed out — but still curious. Traditional Colombian hot chocolate is bitter rather than sweet, so, it's not like you'll be drinking a Starbucks hot chocolate with cheese. It's also never spicy as Mexican hot chocolate can be.
The most typical form of this drink is made by boiling pure chocolate tablets in water. You can make your chocolate in water or milk or, as I prefer to make it, in half-water, half-milk. The base depends on how bitter or sweet you like it to be.
To make hot chocolate as it should be made, you need a specific pot called an olleta and a wooden frothing spoon called a molinillo. For it to be authentic, the milk (or water) is allowed to boil three times. When it does, you have to vigorously move the molinillo to bring it down. Doing this thrice is the secret to a perfect froth.
Once served, pieces of a cheese called queso campesino are added (though mozzarella or Oaxaca cheeses do the trick) and allowed to melt a bit. You then scoop out the cheese with a spoon and eat it. Colombian hot chocolate is very important to the country and is the centerpiece of the onces, which are the equivalent of the English afternoon tea.
The second most delicious Colombian dish is also the country's absolute best soup dish.
Hearty and thick, ajiaco uses three different types of potatoes, along with pieces of corn, shredded chicken and gallant soldiers. Once served, milk cream is added to make the soup even thicker.
Ajiaco is always served with avocado and rice on the side. If you want to know whether the restaurant you've chosen is legit, look at the plate: The soup should always be served in a black clay bowl that is placed on top of a woven straw base.
This dish is so important that it was even featured in "Encanto" during the proposal dinner.
1. Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja paisa is Colombia's national dish and by far our most famous and popular one. Don't even dare to think it's overhyped; it's every bit as good and decadent as its reputation suggests.
I once had a friend say that bandeja paisa was terrorism against the body. He was right, but oh, how good can an unhealthy meal be! This gut-bursting dish is made with beef, blood sausage, sausage, chicharron (the deep-fried pork fat), rice, beans, an egg, a small arepa, sweet plantains and an avocado. And the portions are huge.
The platter comes from the coffee region (whose people are called "paisas") and was meant for workers who needed a hearty meal before heading out to toil in the fields all day. But the undeniable appeal of overindulgence quickly made it popular with people of all regions and all walks of life in Colombia. Word to the wise: If you order this dish, share it with one (or two) other people.
Just how good is bandeja paisa? While writing this, I couldn't resist the temptation and went out to have one for lunch. You may not be able to stand up after it, but it will all be worth it.