WHAT IS COLOMBIAN FOOD?
I wrote about a totally inauthentic Colombian ceviche quite recently, and if you read it, you might remember I mentioned an online talk about Colombian cuisine. The talk was given by Antonuela Ariza and Eduardo Marinez of Mini-Mal and had been organised by the Colombian Ambassador in Ireland. If you’ve not heard of Mini-Mal (I hadn’t) it’s a fascinating project and is worth you knowing at least a little bit about it.
Mini-Mal is a collective of creatives with a passion for biodiversity, cultural diversity, food, and art. They have put their heads together and have created a restaurant and design shop which reflects the values they share. They push their ethos of local food as far as it goes and try and teach that approach as much as they can. I found their talk really interesting and I reached out after the zoom call to find out a bit more about Colombian food in general. Because, honestly, until that day, I’d never thought about it, I’d never had a particular appetite for it. And at a push, if I’d thought of it, I would have presumed a meat-heavy, stews and pulses diet and I would have been so wrong. Ignorance is a bad look, people!
A massive thank you to Antonuela Ariza and Eduardo Martinez for taking the time to talk to me and answer all my very excited questions and follow-ups! This came on top of a busy period and from a faraway time zone, so their patience, knowledge, and enthusiasm were fantastic to work with.
As it turns out, modern Colombian cuisine, much like its Irish counterpart is a return to the terroir and using local seasonal food in a simple fashion. That works for me.
So here we are, all you didn’t know you wanted to know about Colombian cuisine!
What is traditional Colombian cuisine?
Colombian food is a real melting pot where the foreign influx met regional traditions, ingredients, and techniques. This is why we think that, in Colombia, there is not one national dish but many regional and very important dishes that express the diversity of the landscape.
But if you had to pick a typically recognised dish then, let’s talk about empanadas. Empanadas are corn dough fritters filled with all sorts of ingredients depending on where, in Colombia, you may be. They are one of our most popular street food snacks and you will find them absolutely everywhere. In the Caribbean, they are filled with eggs, whereas, in Bogota, they are full of beef and potatoes. In the south, we stuff them with lentils, rice, and beef, and other places will have stuffed them with fish and shrimp.
What is modern Colombian cuisine?
Joy is one of the most important values in Colombian culture, this is expressed in our modern cuisine through the pride we feel for our peasant roots. Our cuisine reflects the producers’ work. We buy local and cook with local ingredients only. We get to know our suppliers and share their stories.
Our modern cuisine is rediscovering Colombia’s geography.
How does Colombian geography affect the way people eat?
In many ways, it determines what everyone eats and it inspires every dish and regional cuisine. Our geographical landscape is rich and varied and means that you can have completely different fresh fruits from region to region as with varied landscape can come very varied climate.
Our mountain ranges make transportation very difficult, and it is natural that some ingredients are only available in the place they are grown.
Locally sourced ingredients are used for home cooking instead of selling them because it is too expensive to send them.
Regional unique cooking techniques and conservation methods are different depending on where you live (again the difference in climate is really important here).
And what are your biggest import and export?
Our largest import is grains and cereals and our most popular food-related exports are coffee, spices, bananas, rice, cocoa beans, and nuts.
In what way do people shop for food? Markets, large supermarkets or small indy shops? Do they grow much themselves?
Farmers’ markets are everywhere and popular. It’s then a choice between supermarkets and small neighbourhood stores. People will grow their own food if they live in the countryside.
Do people eat out a lot and what are popular cuisines?
Yes, in Colombia you can find, for example at farmers markets, very good fresh meals at fair prices, so many people eat lunch there every day. They include a bowl of soup, a dish with rice, protein, cooked vegetables, fresh greens, a glass of fresh juice. These meals are very popular, the best ones are at farmers’ markets, but you can find them in small neighbourhood restaurants too.
What foreign cuisines inspire you?
Asian, Middle Eastern, Other Latin American countries with their cooking techniques.
You mentioned acid being a varied range of things to play with in the kitchen. Can you please tell me a bit more?
Since we have so many different fruits, we have a wide range of acidic flavours, like sour, sour and floral, sour and hot, mildly sour, sweet-sour, earthy-sour, this means you can use a fruit to give some acidity but also flavour and aroma, sour-delicate, we use them to add some complexity to common flavours.
What are the most commonly used spices and herbs used in your cuisine?
In our kitchen, we use a lot of spices and herbs. Spices are cinnamon, allspice, pepper, coriander and cumin. Herbs are fresh coriander, wild oregano, wild mint, purple basil, mint, nasturtium, marigold, pineapple sage, lemon thyme, sawtooth coriander, melissa, verbena, lemongrass, guasca, guaca.
In Colombian cuisine, the most common spices used are cumin and pepper and the herbs are fresh coriander and sawtooth coriander. In the Caribbean, it would be purslane and bleo, in the Pacific, it would be basil, wild oregano, and wild mint and in the Andes, they would use guasca, fresh coriander, mint, melissa, verbena, lemongrass, and Canelón.
What herbs and spices do you think are underrated?
Pipilongo (long pepper), some basil varieties, Wild Oregano, caraway, marjoram, Santa María de Anís.
You will find that, in Colombia, many herbs are only used as medicine and we haven’t tried many of these for cooking yet.
Tell me of one Colombian dish we should all eat before we die.
Antonuela: One soup and one amasijo everywhere you go. (Amasijos are different breads, tamales, and steamed doughs made of corn, rice, plantain, manioc, sagú, potato)
Eduardo: Tucupí (Amazonian Black Chili)