My Global Table: Colombia

My Global Table: Colombia
Photography by Brian Wetzstein | Food styling by Donna Coates and Linda Hall

Colombia may be known for its history of illicit drug trade, but that is a minimal part of this country’s story. Colombia is the land of El Dorado legend, coffee, flowers, emeralds, magical realism, exotic fruits, biodiversity and beautiful people. Its slogan, Colombia es pasión, means “Colombia is passion.” And passion is everywhere, including in the foods that are intrinsically linked to each region’s culture.

I was born and raised in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, located in the center of the country and in the middle of the Andean region. With an average temperature of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, flowers grow at their best, making Colombia the world’s second-biggest producer of flowers, after Holland.

Animals are pasture-raised because they are safe to stay outside year-round. It is nice to drive along the savanna looking at all the farms full of cattle, crops and flowers. Bogotá has many year-round farmers markets to which food is transported daily from farms. These farmers markets are the preferred source of food; supermarkets usually are more expensive, with food that isn’t as fresh.

The carnicería (meat market) is where people buy beef, pork, veal and poultry. Every piece of the animal is sold and used for different dishes.

Pigs’ feet are cooked with beans. Cows’ tongues are stewed with onions, peppers and tomatoes and served with yucca, potatoes and rice. Gelatina de pata is a gelatinous dessert made with panela (unrefined whole cane sugar) and cows’ feet. Lechona is roasted pig stuffed with rice and yellow beans, served with a side of arepas (white or yellow corn dough) and insulso (baked rice flour dough sweetened and moistened with agua de panela [sugar cane water] and wrapped in plantain leaves). Meat is part of each meal and often is served with green salad, rice and fried sweet plantains.

Colombia also is known for its exotic fruits such as curuba, pomarosa, granadilla, guama and zapote. Other more widely known fruits include pineapples, papayas, guava, mangoes, passion fruit and apples. Some exotic fruits such as borojó are believed to have superpowers; natives use borojó as a source of energy, food and medicine. Fruits are served at each meal, either in a bowl, fresh juice or desserts. And flowers are always present. We even have a recipe to make a dessert out of rose petals and orchids.

Milk sold in stores is pasteurized in 1-liter plastic bags; at farms, milk can be purchased raw. My father would buy five gallons of fresh whole milk weekly. My mom boiled the milk for a long time to kill all the bacteria. During the boiling process,cream and butterfat separate from the milk. We stored the cream and used the butterfat to make butter; that was my job. I learned at an early age how to stir the butterfat until the fat and water separated. My mom helped me remove the water to reveal soft, delicious, homemade butter that needed just a touch of salt to enhance its flavor before going in the fridge. My father meanwhile was in charge of making fresh cheese, yogurt and kumis (a fermented, sour and creamy drink rich in probiotics).

My father’s parents were from Túquerres, located in southern Colombia, one hour north of Ecuador. The country’s highest town at 10,000 feet, it is the land of volcanoes, some of which are active. This territory is rich in gold, silver, platinum and sulfur. The average temperature is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The foods most produced at this climate are potatoes, carrots and a variety of beans. My uncles and cousins used to take me out in the fields to help harvest greens, carrots and potatoes. These were the foods my grandma used to make soups and stews. My grandpa and uncles also raised guinea pigs and rabbits, which are considered delicacies and are roasted for special occasions. My family would talk, laugh and sing near the fire while roasting meat. The best family gatherings were always around food.

About two hours down the Cordillera Oriental from Bogotá, at 1,000 feet altitude, the climate is sunny, hot and dry with an average temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the temperature, the gastronomy here changes drastically. Staples include bananas, plantains, tropical fruits, sugar cane, yucca, rice, corn, coffee and palm oil. These foods are main components of dishes including arepas and sancocho. Salpicón is a drink that includes diced fruits in a natural juice. Because of the climate, cold juices and ices made of fruit juice are very popular. Several towns at this altitude are built next to rivers, and many people fish for a living. Typical dishes are fried and stewed fresh fish served with a side of green salad, white rice, plantains or yucca.

Near sea level is, of course, the freshest and most delicious seafood. Arroz con coco (coconut rice), made with fried fish and patacones (fried green plantains), is the main dish of this region. Favorite dishes are seafood chowder and arepa’e huevo (fried arepa with an egg inside), eaten for breakfast, a snack or at dinner. If you visit Colombia, don’t be surprised to find people on the street grilling or frying arepas to sell.

Colombia is a land full of magical elements. You can see snow at the tip of the mountains while standing on a hot beach. The gastronomic diversity is equally magical, and the flavors are so rich — Colombia is a party for your senses.


An Introduction to Kumis: Origins, Health, and Nutritional Benefits. Healthy Diet Base website. Published June 1, 2015. Accessed November 8, 2018.
Bogotá. Encyclopaedia Britannica website. Accessed November 8, 2018.
Borojó. EcuRed website. Accessed November 8, 2018.
Colombia es passion. Semana website. Published June 24, 2006. Accessed November 8, 2018.
Global Leaders In Cut Flower Exports. World Atlas website. Updated April 25, 2017. Accessed November 7, 2018.
Insulso (Región Andina). website. Accessed November 8, 2018.
Kumis Colombiano Casero (Homemade Colombian Kumis). My Colombian Recipes website. Accessed November 8, 2018.
Túquerres, Nariño. Municipios website. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Sandra Arévalo
Sandra Arévalo, MPH, RDN, CDN, CLC, CDE, FAND, is an Academy media spokesperson, nutrition consultant and the nutrition services and outreach director of Montefiore Medical Center's community programs.