Rice, salsa and a fake size zero: Why I secretly love Colombian food

I‘m the first to admit Colombian food is not that flavoursome. If you put even a decent ajiaco or an authentic bandeja paisa against a tasty treat from, say, Thailand or India, you’re always going to have a loser on your hands. As cuisine goes, it can be a little bland.

Colombians are defensive about their food and I am defensive about Colombia, but you can’t win ’em all. I roll my eyes when Colombian friends demolish patacones (deep fried plantains hammered into pudgy discs) and say “Mmmmmmm delicious”… Honestly, if you have to shower something in salt and slather it in ketchup before you can eat it, is it really delicious? It might be cheap, comforting, hot, homely, more-ish and satisfyingly bad for you, but delicious? Really?

I am not one to talk. I am British. And while my country gave the world amazing music, decent literature and an island that somehow contains both benefits and City Boys, we do not shine in the culinary stakes. Irritatingly, we have to hand that one to the French. Fish-and-chips is our equivalent of the ‘delicious’ patacon.

Now some stiff-upper-lippers like to blame the war and rationing for the victory of hot-and-hearty over flair-and-flavour in Britain’s kitchens, but I’ve never bought it. You only have to look at the United States. Place names and Protestantism were not the only traditions that jumped on board with the pilgrims – bland food went too and morphed into the form of burgers and hot dogs.

(I always dread the food in the US and my visit to Louisiana last week was no exception. I was amazed, therefore, to discover the delicious jambalayas and rich shrimp sauces until I remembered the French got there first. Fortunately, in this case)

Of course I’m being flippant. Both Britain and the US have benefited hugely from immigration. It’s no coincidence the humble curry was Britain’s favourite dish for years nor that we have a huge fondness for Chinese. Both cuisines have long since been Anglicised, though – just like tea, we’ve made them our own.

But I can hardly say I’ve missed British food – I’ve replaced greasy fry-ups with huevos pericos, arepa and hot chocolate. I’ve grudgingly given up the beef and yorkshires for bandeja paisa and, more importantly, I’ve lived on the everyday Colombian fare of grilled chicken, tiny cuts of beef, mounds of rice, kidney beans, salad and plantain for almost two years now.

What a difference it has made to my body.

At first, the gin-and-tonic and apple-crumble weight I shouldn’t have been carrying, simply disappeared. I don’t do any more exercise here – more dancing perhaps, less spinning – and they still have Dunkin’ Donuts. The only difference then, is the everyday food. I’ve started to wonder if I ever ate real food at all.

In Colombia, chicken looks like chicken. It can be a bit scrawny or slightly off colour and no two bits look the same. Just like chickens. Think about the uniform plumpness you see in Britain. Don’t you think that’s a bit weird?

The same goes for fruit and vegetables; tomatoes here are different sizes and colours, bananas can bend a multitude of ways and don’t get excited about the strawberries. I have a Colombian friend who swears he stopped living in the United States because he started having nightmares about the uniformity of fruit.

So I am slimmer and I think the US might be going the other way – based on my trip to the ironically-named Banana Republic at least. I tried on a size two dress in the Miami store, then collapsed in giggles as I asked the Peruvian assistant to grab me a size zero. No amount of rice and salsa could turn this 6ft sugar addict into a genuine size zero, which can only mean they are making the clothes there bigger. Terrible eh?

Still, it was probably why, despite the Louisiana loveliness, I came back desperate for real Colombian food and my dear boyfriend, now very used to hanging out at El Dorado airport, immediately swept me off to our local cafe for a 7,000 peso special – rice, beans, soup, chicken, the whole shebang.

The plates were huge and everything, as expected, was comfortingly familiar, but he couldn’t help noticing the envious glances I was sneaking at the plates of other diners.

“Are you alright?” he asked eventually. “What’s missing?”

“Oh nothing,” I replied grumpily.

“I was just really craving a patacon.”

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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15 Comments

  1. Tigre

    Your witty observations are fantastic! Although I find a lot of Colombian food – while simple – to be very tasty and interesting. Of course, comparing it to Asian cuisine is not a fair fight. Comparing it to other Latin American dishes at least puts them in the same ring – or on the same table. I am from the States and found making sound and healthy food choices a daily challenge. It got the point that I dreaded lunch time. And, I never ate fruit because it was either too green or rotten or some combination of both. All shiny and bright, but not worth a bite. I won’t even begin to talk about eggs, poultry or beef! I, too, thought that all of the starches in a typical Colombian meal would cause me to blow-up, but the opposite happened. I can only contribute this to the freshness of ingredients, and the fact that I am walking so much more here.

    For a delicious taste of traditional Colombian dishes with a modern touch try La Herencia in Quinta Camacho. Truly wonderful!

    Happy eating. Mmmm – patacones with hagao…..

  2. akismet-bcad7494af251fe6ae45cfb71e31ba95

    Interesting posts!
    Its one of my first time reading your articles and all I can say is that they are wonderful.
    I moved back to Colombia about a year ago with 40+ pounds of over weight after living in the US and Canada for 14 years. I am now healthy, energetic without doing much more than eating a lot and walking just as much.
    I too have to say that the freshness of the ingredients is to blame to the change. I don’t even own a fridge (yet), instead I have a store one block from me where I get meat, veggies, fruits and milk daily.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I love this because I also lived without a fridge for six months, it’s just too easy to eat out here and buy fresh. The only irritation was milk – I started off with powdered milk which was so disgusting, I started drinking my tea black… and now I drink black tea even though I have a fridge, which is weird for an English girl. It also meant you ate leftovers at once (“I don’t want these cakes/this cheese going to waste now,”) which counteracted the effect of the fresh, non-chemical food!

  3. Jorge

    Loved your post! I am Colombian but have been living in the US for a decade now. After being exposed to a wider range of cuisines that I even knew existed I have to agree with you: as much as I love ajiaco and bandeja paisa, as much as I make expensive trips to colombian grocery stores to buy kumis, queso campesino and frozen “real” corn, yuca and papa criolla, there is no arguing that our food is really bland. I used to think colombian “picantes” were hot and avoided them like hell. Oddly enough, now I gravitate with gusto towards Thai and Indian spice. Mexican, the old gold-standard, just does not cut my new found love for spice anymore. I even used to like colombian fish dishes until moving to the New England coast where I discovered how much more can be donw with fish.

    Colombian meats and produce do taste better than anything I can get here. The difference in taste between US beef and colombian beef is undescribable. If you want to taste anything close here you have to be willing to spend a bunch on imported Argentinian beef.

    And you do lose weight just by getting off the plane in Bogota! Two-week trips easily take 4-5kg off me while eating more than I eat here.

    BTW, who doesn’t put ketchup on their ketchup?

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I saw an “I put ketchup on my ketchup” t-shirt in New Orleans, I should have bought it! And maybe we’re onto something here, perhaps travel agencies should start ‘Colombia weight loss trips’ – come to Bogota, enjoy our rumba, overdose on our culture, stuff your face with our food and STILL go home skinnier. It would probably be a big hit, now who wants to invest? 🙂

  4. brighidtc

    I carry Amazon hot sauce in my purse…but I totally agree about fruit and chicken! Even with all the carbs and ice cream I think I’ve lost weight here as well, probably from chasing high schoolers all day 🙂

  5. Javier

    Hereje!!! Ketchup in patacones??? You need some hogao for them! 😀
    I love the post -as usual-. I’m writing this after eating two tamales vallunos, somewhere in the US Midwest… and craving some patacones as well 🙂

    Next time you go to Cali let me know. I can probably arrange you to get some very good taste of the Pacific cuisine.

  6. Hugo Zapata

    Patacones are meant to be neutral , they are not a good representative of Colombian food flavor =P.

    I liked this post a lot.. Few people are really conscious about what they eat, and the difference a healthy diet can make to their lives… going to the states is depressing because of that, everything is so artificially perfect that you know it’s going to be bad for you.

    I also love Peruvian cuisine.. Chilean and Argentinean food didn’t have much variety in my opinion. ( beaf is great but you get tired of it )

  7. backpackerina

    Oh I can’t believe you casually omitted mentioning all the fruit you can get in Colombia. I honestly think it’s an amazingly unique trait of the country! But of course, everything else is also delicious. And true, America tries to make you feel better about eating junk by putting an “S” on a M-sized piece of clothing. It worked for my self esteem 😉

  8. A P Duncan

    Civilization and pepper arrived late to the Colombian highlands … you have to go to Cartagena for Colombian food with flavor. Try the Bouillabaisse Cartagenera recipe of Cartagena de Indias en la Olla and see for yourself.

    The ajiaco is completely tasteless and the bandeja paisa is borderline dog food.

  9. Mauricio Abello

    I have enjoy your article, but I must said something that the Colombian food, itself have a very special taste, so why? Try to makeup it with sauces and crèmes. I am agreeing about Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian and we can continue with endless tastiest foods from the East and why not to mention Lebanese, and so on… But the beauty of our food is the freshens, you could buy any chicken anywhere in Colombia and it taste nice, we have made a great improvement on the handling and the processing of the meat, for that reason is so good now., if we talk about vegetables they are very tasty, and about our fruits they are the ice of the cake apart of the enormous variety and the incomparable freshness.
    I am a BogoLondonEnglishman and after living in England for a long time you will learn to appreciate certain small pleasures of life. I must said that we always managed to get good products in London and big varieties of them and the quality was excellent, always shopping at Waitrose, but the freshness are irreplaceable. I like the appreciation for my Country and I like your blogs I think that they are funny in the good sense.
    Mauricio

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