Good old arepa. How such a basic food could become such a source of excitement and joy is a testament to Colombian optimism. To most visitors the very idea of eating a flat cornbread once, often twice, a day would prompt an exasperated sigh and a slump of the shoulders. Yet Colombians, especially those from Antioquia, see the arepa in a different light. Whether it’s laden with ground beef, avocado, and cheese, or coated in butter and sprinkled with salt, its appeal never diminishes — so much so that consuming the thing three times a day is seen as a normal practice.
Wandering through the fruit section in a Colombian grocery store for the first time is like watching a freak show. You find yourself grabbing onto the person next to you and pointing at strange things in horror. “What the hell are those green spikey footballs?” you shriek. After calming you down, the shopper will say “They’re just guanabana, they won’t hurt you.”
Then you recoil in horror and later delight in cracking open a granadilla and sucking out the sweet frog-spawn interior. Soon you become addicted to these strange exotic fruits. You find your shopping cart bursting with multi-colored lulo, maracuyá, pitahaya, tomate de árbol, mangostino, brevas, and guayaba.
As well as being optimistic eaters, Colombians are also incredibly inventive when it comes to cheese. Who would think of sprinkling cheese onto ice cream? Colombians, that’s who! And they don’t stop there. A chunk of cheese is often plopped into a steaming cup of hot chocolate. And plantains are often roasted and seasoned with, you guessed it, cheese.
Yes, Colombians revel in their sweet mangos, but they also hold in high regard the unripe version (called mango biche). Stringy spaghetti-like bits of green mango are often peddled by street vendors and used as an accompaniment for drinks in bars. The usual soft, slippery texture of a ripe mango is replaced with a hard crunch and a bitter taste that gets offset with salt and lemon used as seasoning.
Things happen in Colombia that you never before thought possible. You buy a popsicle from a street vendor and think the transaction is over. Think again. Before wishing you a good day, the street vendor holds out a small packet. “Sal?” Yes, he has just asked if you want salt with your flavored ice. Thinking he’s being sarcastic, you laugh and say, “And some pepper, too, while you’re at it.” Except he doesn’t laugh. He reaches into his sack and hands you a small sachet of pepper.
“Is that all you’re eating? Just a soup?” you say to a Colombian dining companion. She smiles knowingly. “Just wait till you see it.” The ajiaco ‘soup’ which arrives contains chicken, three types of potatoes, corn, and a local herb called guasca. Instead of bread its sides are a mound of rice, avocado, capers, and cream. It’s a meal in itself, and a good one at that. And it’s not the only one. Sancocho is a thick soup cooked with various root vegetables, herbs, and different types of meat, also accompanied by rice and avocado. Other wholesome offerings are mondongo, cuchuco de cebada and sopa de patacón.
Often after a menú del día, a set three-course meal usually at lunch time, you will be given a dessert. When I say dessert I mean a matchbox-sized candy. You wonder how this can be labeled ‘dessert’, until you nibble at the end and jump out of your seat with a sugar rush akin to downing two cans of Red Bull. The candy or dulce comes from the much-used sugar cane, or a mixture of fruit and sugar. A raw version of sugar cane called panela is also widely consumed, mixed with hot water. This aguapanela is believed to have great healing powers which professional Colombian cyclists have used to improve their performance.
You might think oysters and chilies are the best aphrodisiacal foods, but not in northern Colombia. Here locals believe a certain type of ant contains the same properties needed to boost your sex drive. Hormigas culonas — “fat-bottomed ants” — are fried and sold by street vendors, especially during rainy season. They’re also given as a wedding present to make sure the marriage gets off to the best of beginnings.