Unknow spices, odours, cooking tools, fruits and vegetables you have never seen before and cannot pronounce properly – what a fascinating and exciting way to explore a different culture. Watch people how they eat, when they eat and where – with whom, how much and how fast. My advice is: dig in, try as much as possible and enjoy whenever and wherever!
I was warned to not eat any street food, but Colombia offers so much of it – I couldn’t resist (and my stomach was fine). It’s part of the culture to stroll along Carrera 7 in Bogotà on a Sunday, munch on an arepa and sip on a sugary Jugo de Guanabana, have some sliced mango afterwards with lime juice and salt while watching all the great and all the not so great street artists do their thing. Oh those Sundays in Bogotà…
…oh and all those challenges as a vegetarian. I should have known: meat is a thing in Southamerican cuisine in general. And: you are weird if you don’t eat meat..
As a vegetarian with limited Spanish skills I had to learn pretty quickly how to ask for something meatless, what to ask for and understand that pollo is a popular meat served in numerous ways. If only pollo wasn’t chicken. Ironically people would sometimes suggest I could eat pollo, because they thought that’s okay for a vegetarian to eat. It’s funny how similar the reactions are around the globe – chicken was the most mentioned alternative for a meatless meal in Japan as well.
But by looking at my 2,000+ photos there is no sign of malnutrition. There has never been a risk of not finding anything and only having jugo naturales to drink every day and survive of that. Of course I could have opted for self-catering and cook myself the dishes I would cook at home. But it’s so much fun to walk around and follow your appetite!
And those caring Colombians really made sure I ate enough. A very common dish is bandeja paisa. It’s a huge plate with steak, rice, sausage, beans, avocado and patacon – a kind of fried banana-potatoe. The name of the dish says it all: countrymen (big) plate. I would never be able to eat that much – not even after a marathon. But I found a lot of places that would serve a variation of bandeja paisa as dish of the day including a soup. So instead of meat, most of the times the rice portion was doubled and three instead of two patacons placed on the plate. Sometimes I would even find fries as well whenever I politely declined the meat. But how often can you eat a triple carbo dish? – Surely not everyday, especially not without proper exercise.
And how many eggs are okay to eat – daily? Maybe I’ve read too many health and fitness magazines and maybe my knowledge regarding amount of eggs per week is obsolete, but I really thought 2-3 eggs a week is more than enough. In Colombia I could have eaten 2-3 eggs a day. Either scrambled or fried or boiled, plain, as an omelette or spiced up with onions, tomato and salt and pepper. E V E R Y D A Y…
If you’re more of a flexitarian or pescetarian who will eat seafood once in a while you should be fine, especially along the coast. Ceviche – apparently a Peruvian dish – of raw fish, marinated with lime and herbs, is very popular. But sadly not so much my thing. Too meaty for my taste and having had 2-3 seafood dishes brought me to the conclusion that I will quit eating seafood as well.
Surprisingly I was even served a meat substitute once or twice in places I didn’t expect they would have anything close to tofu and similar – and I didn’t even ask for it. And I never saw them when grocery shopping. Although, the big grocery stores provide everything you can find in European grocery stores – so if you are a pasta lover or are longing for – let’s say – some whole wheat bread with cream cheese, you won’t have to wait for homecoming.
One thing is for sure – Colombian cuisine is not haute cuisine. But I would never go as far as saying the food is terrible, like some other travelers moaned. Ingredients are most of the time regional – all the imported stuff is super expensive, dishes kept simple, large and filling. I enjoyed going to markets and buy as many fresh avocados and mangos and papayas as I could carry and eat until I changed location again. Or have the best fruit salad at San Gil market – it is indeed muy rico y muy, muy, muy delicioso!
What really struck me, was lack of spices. Spicy food is scarce – but funnily spicy sauce is part of every table setting, for all those foreigners to spice up their pollo con arroz. But in the end – sauce will only sophisticate a simple dish. And spicy sauce will make any dish taste…well, only spicy.
Not to forget the rich culture of postres. Colombians really love sweets and deserts. And one thing I wanted to try from day one but only managed to eat once was an oblea con arequipe. Arequipe is a kind of caramel sauce and this obleas are often found at food stalls on markets and streets.
At the end of the day, it’s not too hard to survive as a vegetarian in Colombia. You might miss out on some typical dishes, but you’ll get an idea what the cuisine is like when glancing at other people’s (huge) plates. I enjoyed exploring the tastes of Colombia – a lot!