In the Colombian Kitchen

Colombia’s food is meat-heavy: wide platters of chicharrón; packaged salchicha dominating the deli section in supermercados; and shredded beef prepared in the street, sandwiched between burger buns, lathered in orange sauce and cole slaw, and piled with papas fritas. The traditional Bandeja Paisa dish native to the Antioquia region includes carne molida, chicharrón, chorizo, and frijoles con tocino (beans prepared with pork): a triple-threat in the meat department.

I like how the words for Colombia’s foods roll of the tongue with liquid attitude, twirls of the r and accented os. But more often than not, these words describe cuts of meat that I’m not so ready to eat.

Five months in Medellin has meant lots of shared meals, questions for servers, bellies full of fruit juices, and piled-high almuerzos. I’ve grown accustomed to the sweetness of plátanos fried in olive oil and the simplicity of heating up an arepa at any time of day; sifting solids out of fresh jugo de maracuya and leaving frijoles to simmer on the stove.

Here’s what I’ve been eating:

I start almost every morning with avena– oatmeal. Although the texture of hot oats cooked in water repulses my roommates, it’s the one constant food that I can find almost anywhere– a morning routine I can maintain anyplace I wake up. And at the side is an oversized cup of instant coffee. I was surprised at first, to realize that most Colombians in Medellin prepare instant coffee at home, if they drink it at all. Many prefer agua panela con limón, a beverage served either hot or cold, prepared with panela (solid, unrefined pure cane sugar; the product of the sugar cane plant).

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Lunch almost always includes an arepa. They’re sold in packs of 10 or 20 in the refrigerated section in the grocery store, and fresh ones are always available on the street. Arepas are like thick corn tortillas, and it’s so easy to heat one up over the stove that we won’t even bother calling it “cooking.” Many people will top a hot arepa with butter and cheese for breakfast. I like my lunch-time arepas covered in aguacate con sal y limón. Avocados are everywhere in Colombia. It’s basically a national obligation to eat them all before they turn bad.

And juices accompany almost every meal. With a page-long list of native fruits to try, and many sold in packs of three for only 1,000 pesos (less than 50 cents), drinking juice is a basic household responsibility. (Not everyone cares for a coffee machine, but I have yet to meet a paisa who doesn’t own a blender.) Mix the fruits of your choice with agua or leche, strain it into a pitcher, and share with anyone who stops by. It seems it’s custom that when someone walks in the door, the juice pitcher pops out.

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Because the traditional Colombian lunch is the plato fuerte, dinner tends to lean on the smaller side. I like to sauté a few vegetables and a pile of plátanos in olive oil, pile them into a bowl and call it a night. There are more than six or seven types of bananas and plantains in Colombia, four different avocados, and new mysterious fruits that seem to appear every day. I have yet to find one I didn’t like.

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