By Amanda O'Brien, Unsettled Medellín August 2017
The idea of actually living in, rather than just visiting, a new country, was one of the greatest factors in my decision to join Unsettled in Colombia this month. I loved the idea of having an apartment, walking to work, joining a gym and having the basis of my London life in Medellín.
Food is always a critical part of my life, so I was also looking forward to having some space and time to cook more.
Alas, cook I did not. With such a rich mix of flavors, textures, and fusion of cuisines across Colombia, after a few days it seemed crazy for me miss out on all the opportunities for sampling.
And that's where the cheese comes in.
Whether día or noche, whether starter or dessert, there will almost always be one crucial question when it comes to ordering Colombian food – “¿Con queso?” Would you like cheese with that?
Yes, corn is certainly a staple. But it is the queso that truly reigns supreme in Colombia. With a fairly neutral flavor, and tasting closer to milk than camembert, it works its way into every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert – particularly when paired with one of the best flavor sensations in Colombia, my beloved arequipe, or caramel. More about that later…
In an attempt to catalogue and chronicle a month of gorging, here’s my beginner's guide to a Colombian culinary adventure, and how take full advantage of everything this beautiful country has to offer:
1. The Street Food
Street food is literally everywhere. The most common form, in fact, the staple of Colombian cuisine, is the arepa– a spectacular mixture of corn and... cheese!
Now, the arepa takes several forms. Those in Bogotá claim that the classic form of arepas are arepas de chócolo – literally corn flour and cheese made into a dough and then fried on a grill (frying is by far the preferred Colombian cooking method) – belongs to them. This is the ooey-ist and gooey-ist form of the arepa.
In Medellín, the style is a bit different. The base arepa is corn only, and quite thin. It is then topped with lightly fried cheese and then salted – the arepa con queso.
The arepa also has some more modern incarnations and comes served with chorizo, champiñones (mushrooms) and many other options at the wonderful Mercado del Rio in Medellín – home of Medellín upmarket market eating.
One of my other favourite arepa toppings was condensed milk – this is something you’ll want to try.
The oblea is a wafer-based snack. The basic format has 2 wafers cemented together with arequipe. But it doesn't stop there. The best 2nd addition is blackberry jam. Next up... more cheese, of course! This tends to be in grated form. And, hey, why not add some cream? There so many options...
My favourite example of Colombian marketing actually centres around the oblea. Legend has it that when the Rolling Stones visited Bogotá, Mick Jagger fell in love with obleas. Medellín may have the paisas (a friendly nickname for the locals), but Bogotá has some slick marketers. Overnight, every wafer vendor became the “official provider” of Mick Jagger’s new favourite street food.
Walk by any vendor’s cart, and you’re likely to encounter a poorly photoshopped image of Mick Jagger with an oblea.
Get ready, because I’m about to introduce you to one of the best things you will ever eat in your life. Seriously.
Imagine slices of the ripest mango you’ve ever tasted, sprinkled with salt and fresh lemon juice. These little delights come in a plastic cup, covered by a plastic bag. Once the salt and lemon juice have been added, you flip the cup upside down (college games, anyone?) and eat the mango from the plastic bag. This ensures that the slices are properly coated. It is pure heaven.
For the best possible salty-lemon-mango experience, go and see Maria outside San Antonio metro station in Medellín. Maria may not be famous (yet), but she should be. Let’s make that happen. I would say she has the best version of mango y limon y sal in Colombia. But then again, once I ate hers I couldn’t go anywhere else, so that is just a fairly safe assumption on my part.
There are other fruits on offer if you must. The locals seem to prefer their mango unripe but also with salt and lemon. This was ok but to me not a patch on the ripe option.
I am giving popsicles their own category, due to my deep love for them and for the fact that they combine both dulce and fruit.
For me, the home of the Colombian popsicle is Cartagena.
Multiple stores are dedicated to popsicles with at least 40 varieties (also very Instagrammable). Having said that, the single best popsicle I enjoyed in Colombia (this is based on a very large sample size) was at Mercado del Rio in Medellín. There I enjoyed a maracuyá and dark chocolate popsicle that was insanely good. Hard dark chocolate cracked against the tartest, sweetest passionfruit you can imagine. Heaven.
Ready for breakfast? Why not combine some cheese and corn and deep fry it? Great idea! Welcome to the humble buñuelos. I have no idea how this has happened but it appears to ALWAYS cost 500 pesos all over Colombia like some massive buñuelos-maker price collusion. Anyway, they are quite tasty and omnipresent.
To be honest, I am not a big fan of empanadas. However, this made me very unique in my Unsettled group, as I usually see at least 5 Unsettled amigos enjoying one of the multitude of empanada options in Medellín every day. This is a decision you will need to make for yourself.
2. The Classics
Once you leave the big cities of Bogotá and Medellín, your food options will narrow down to the Colombian classics. You can and will find some great options for classic fare in the cities as well (check out Mondongos in Medellín for a great example) but it can be good to save your classics stomach for when you have no other options!
I’ll have patacones with my cheese please...
This stuff is everywhere. Made from plantains, patacones tend to come flattened out and deep fried and about the size of my hand span. They are served with everything. There is then a banana-centric version which has like a sugary crème brulee type crust which is a sensation. The flattened patacones to me are wasted calories. But hey, that’s just a personal opinion.
Ajiaco is the classic Colombian sopa – apparently its home is Bogotá but it’s eaten throughout Colombia. It is delicious white soup containing chicken, 2 or 3 types of potatoes, sour cream and lemon. It is served with rice and avocado on the side. It is a meal in itself.
Ah chicharrón! The tastiest, chewiest, crunchiest, artery-clogging little pork sensations that have a home in Medellín. These can be served on their own or combined with pretty much anything else savoury. Although Medellín is the home of chicharrón, the best pork belly I ate was in the dodgiest looking little restaurant in Cartagena as part of a street food tour.
The Bandeja paisa (Paisa platter)
Starving? Not for long if you order the classic Paisa platter. It is perhaps easier to say which foods DON’T appear on the Paisa platter – it is one heaving dish! Pro tip: Don’t order this if you’re vegetarian. It generally contains: rice, plantain, arepa, chorizo, avocado, mince meat, black sausage, something pork and an egg on the top.
Yes, it is Peruvian but in Colombia the home of ceviche is Cartagena. To enjoy the classic version head to La Cevicheria – made famous by Anthony Bourdain. It is famous with good reason and it is delicious.
You can also get some fantastic ceviche in some of the fusion restaurants in Medellín – La Causa is the best (see below).
3. The Fusion
Not quite as fun but oh-so-tasty is the explosion in fusion cuisine in Medellín and Bogotá. There are some brilliantly inventive restaurants in Medellín where you will get a word class meal for a tiny percentage of what you would pay in London or a US big city.
One of the highlights of fusion cuisine is the fact that it still manages to make cheese a central feature – often the interesting application of a very sweet cream cheese that features in everything from breakfast as a spread, or with sushi.
Here are my top 5 in Medellín:
- Carmen – the top end of exciting Colombian fusion cuisine – get the tasting menu and book ahead.
- La Causa – ceviche and sushi and a slightly revolutionary feel. Taste sensation.
- Ocio med – the newest hottest restaurant in Medellin. I would have gone there three times even if it wasn’t a 30 second walk from my apartment.
- Mundo Verde – healthy fusion lunch to offset indulgent brunch and dinner.
- Al Alma – the ultimate fusion brunch – bring on the cream cheese and the avocado and pop a European style sausage on top of the sweetest bread that isn’t brioche that you have ever eaten.
*This post is intended to act only as an introduction to the vibrant and delicious Colombian food scene. There is so much more to taste and enjoy. Make sure you do some kind of exotic fruit tour – there are fruits in Colombia that I had never heard of and they are delicious! I have barely touched the sides when it comes to dessert – not have I even gone near all the amazing bebidas (drinks)! Head to Colombia with an empty stomach and an open mind!
Amanda O’Brien runs the travel blog, The Boutique Adventurer. After 20 years in marketing and visiting over 80 countries in her 5 weeks off each year, she decided to combine her skills with what she loved and start a travel blog. The blog focuses on adventurous activities and destinations but usually ends up in a hotel with a high thread count on the sheets. The blog is designed for travelers who are over 35 and is often focused on solo travel. You can also check her out on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.