Colombia - the land of corn, coffee, fruit, fútbol and friendly people. We were fortunate enough to experience a little bit of it all even while spending most of our time in one city: Bogotá. A few days of cold rain at the start of our trip meant taking Ubers everywhere, but the sun and warmth on our last few days meant spontaneous stops for buttery arepas from street vendors or tasty coffee at outdoor coffee shops. Here are some of our edible highlights; we'd love to hear yours, in the comments.
Colombian food can be... bland. With corn being a prominent ingredient and a lack of spices, yea, it errs on the side of food you want to eat when you're sick. But comfort food is exactly what you want in a city like Bogotá, where, year-round, the high temperature doesn't often reach above 70 degrees.
We spent a couple of mornings at La Puerta Falsa, a tiny restaurant in the neighborhood of La Candelaria that has been open since the early 1800's. Like the space the menu is small, and locals and tourists alike pile in for its famous tamal. Different from Mexico's smaller versions wrapped in corn husks, here they are made with plantain leaves wrapped around corn dough, chickpeas, vegetables, chicken and pork belly, then steamed for several hours so that when you unwrap the leaves you're facing a big pile of delicious mush. If only for the experience, don't forget to order the chocolate completo, which is a platter of a mug of hot chocolate, cheese slices (to be dipped in the hot chocolate), a buttered roll and almojábana (a bread made with cheese), usually ordered alongside your tamal. A tamal will give you the energy you need to explore La Candelaria, which is made up of never ending cute cobblestone streets, but eating both dishes in one sitting may leave you craving a nap.
On our very first morning we ate arepas, stuffed with egg and cheese and drizzled with spicy sauce, from a little hole in the wall that we stumbled upon. The memory is fond, but the taste was nowhere near as good as the handmade plain arepas being cooked in loads of butter on the side of the street a few days later by a one-man food cart, which we ate on our way to the José Celestino Mutis botanical garden.
Several restaurants serve plain yellow or white corn arepas at the start of the meal with different salsas and you can also find stuffed versions, messy but flavorful, at restaurants throughout the city. The bottom line is arepas can be as plain or as jazzed up as you want them and are easily accessible whatever your preference.
Ajiaco is another favorite dish that we tried. I first had this chicken, corn and three-potato soup when living in Argentina with a Colombian roommate and immediately fell for it, even attempting to replicate the real thing back in the states, following my roommate's recipe. It's served in a cast iron bowl at Casa Vieja along with capers, avocado, cream and cilantro for do-it-yourself toppings. Perfect for a cold and rainy day, which is when we ate it, and recommended after a visit to the nearby Museo del Oro or Museo Botero.
Another soup that Prem tried, which gets mixed reviews, even from locals, is sopa de mondongo, a soup made with tripe. He claims it was delicious...
We spent a lot of time eating fruits and still didn't get to try all that Colombia offers! We spent a whole morning wandering Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao, a labyrinth of fruit, vegetable, meat, flower, dairy and food stands, making friends with fruit vendors and trying different varieties.
Read more about the fruits we tried in this post. We also ate breakfast at the market that day; how to choose the least-unhygienic seeming food stand out of them all was tough, but we sat down to a friendly waitress and quick service to eat sanchoco — a traditional stew — and a simple plate of rice, potatos and plantains.
We didn't eat many Colombian sweets, but when the wafer cookies and arequipe came out, I enjoyed my fair share. Arequipe, similar to dulce de leche, is spread between two very thin wafers for a sweet and sticky snack.
Three less traditional restaurants stood out to us. Leo, Cocina & Cava, run by chef-owner Leonor Espinosa, was named one of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants this year and we can see why.
Each dish was innovative in its own way. We enjoyed reading history lessons in the menu about lesser-known ingredients and the explanation of their role in the country. For example, the atta laevigata, large ants from Santander that are traditionally given as wedding gifts since they are believed to be an aphrodisiac, which were in the seared tuna dish.
We also shared a painting-like plate of seared octopus. "Coconut" and "rice" were all I needed to decide on the steamed fish in plantain leaf over coconut rice; Prem devoured his beautifully burnished leg of lamb.
El Chato leans more to the "hipster" side, which made us Brooklyners feel right at home. This recommendation came from our friend's cousin, who is a chef, so we figured we couldn't go wrong. The space felt homey and comfortable and we chose to sit in the closed-in patio, full of greenery and sunshine. Over a local beer (Prem) and white wine (me) we enjoyed our inventive meal of a shared beet salad with husk cherries, quinoa and ricotta; Prem then ate Codillo de Cerdo — spiced pork knuckle with beans, apple puree and pickled vegetables; while I enjoyed Cordero — tender lamb with coconut rice, roasted cauliflower and tapioca pearls. Everything we ate was incredibly delicious.
Our flight back to New York didn't leave until 10PM, so on our last day in Colombia we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and wine at Rafael, a Peruvian restaurant in the neighborhood Zona G. We sat in their sun-drenched enclosed back room and enjoyed excellent service by our waiter Santiago who has been working at Rafael for several years. He went above and beyond throughout our meal and even let us visit the kitchen. We had to resist drinking the sauce right from the bowl of the fresh ceviche we started with. Prem continued with sea bass with lentils and rice, which he very much enjoyed, and I ate a traditional Peruvian dish of lomo saltado — sirloin cooked with tomato and onion in pisco and dark beer, along with roasted potatoes.
Colombia is known for producing some of the best coffee in the world, but unfortunately locals don't always get to enjoy the homegrown beans at their full potential. There are a few cafes in Bogotá that are changing that. "Porque Colombia se merece su major cafe", reads the sign at the Azahar counter. "Because Colombia deserves it's best coffee" is such a simple philosophy, but one that is full of meaning and incredibly obvious when you think of it in this way. Why shouldn't the people of Colombia get to enjoy the beans from their own land prepared with the same love and dedication as they are prepared in the far away places they're exported to, such as North America and Europe.
Amor Perfecto and Cafe Cultor are two other cafes embracing this philosophy. Every day we saw the passion and knowledge that goes into making a cup of coffee at each of these shops. The different origins of beans, their storage, the diverse preparation devices, and the various final products that these factors all result in are new to a country that has been producing coffee since the 1700's (commercially since the 1800's).
Due to proximity to our AirBnB rental and it being the only coffee shop of these three that had an indoor space, we drank the most coffee at Amor Perfecto, as noted in our Maker Series on them, but enjoyed good coffee and conversation with staff at each of these three shops over our time in Bogotá. Of course, we didn't leave Colombia without purchasing local beans to enjoy here at home.
Somehow between all this coffee drinking we managed to fit in several visits to Taller de Té, an adorable little tea shop around the corner from our rental apartment. The exterior blends in with the homes on this residential street and in fact, when you enter, you feel as if you're in someone's home, what with the mash up of chairs and couches and the open kitchen right in the middle of the room. The staff was so friendly and helpful, and in the cozy setting with a warm cup of tea, it was hard not to spend hours there reading or writing. I stuck to a simple blend of freshly grated ginger, lemon and honey while Prem tried a couple of different green and black teas. Check back for our Maker Series on the owners.
On a cold and wet visit to the top of beautiful Monserrate that had us feeling lethargic, Prem stopped at one of the vendors for a té de coca and was left feeling reinvigorated. Made with decocainized coca leaves, which is the only legal form of the leaves in many South American countries and in the US, steeped in hot water, it's often used as a pick-me-up, similar to tea or coffee, or for medicinal purposes, including altitude sickness.
Bogotá, it took us some time to get used to your cool temperatures and high altitude, but we felt welcomed by your beauty, friendliness, history and of course, food.