The first of three parts on an oft-neglected topic of pieces on Colombia: Food.
Food. The cyclist’s greatest nemesis, and greatest friend. It’s no secret it’s a subject of great interest for much of the pro peloton – often, the saying is muttered “Eat to ride, ride to eat”. Why do I take such a big interest in food, cooking, and the techniques that follow? Bike racing is hard. Humans aren’t designed for intensive aerobic output for 24 hours-plus a week. It will suck the life out of your withering carcass without proper care. Before I started racing, I had creative outlets – photography, writing, design, et al. I found crushing myself on two wheels, and those fell by the wayside (see: lifesucking). Something functional to my newfound passion – but still stimulating – took their place. Cooking. Discovering others’ cooking. So, without further adieu, an initial introduction to la comida of my temporary (and beloved) home – Colombia.
Eating habits differ substantially from Americans. Like many Latin and European countries, priority is on lunch, typically the largest meal of the day. Many nutritionists say the American fondness for skipping lunch with a heavy supper is a source of our waistline woes. Following lunch, breakfast (Desayuno), tends to take some form of precedence. amongst racing cyclists in Colombia, a substantial waking meal seems to be standard.
Breakfast. If not in your own home by your Abuela or Mama, expect to find it almost anywhere with its doors open. It’s not uncommon to find six restaurants or cafes in one block in Medellin, all with open-air patio dining. Most will have a similar menu for breakfast – so similar that a written menu is the exception, not the norm. The staple standard breakfast is Calentado or Calentao. Literal translation? Reheated. It amounts to last night’s rice and beans, warmed over, accompanied by an arepa, a slab of fresh cheese, an egg or two (scrambled or fried, your choice), carne (if it’s completo or ejecutivo), and hot chocolate. Go ahead, ask for coffee – but you’ll still get an epic bowl of some of the tastiest hot chocolate you’ve ever had. Calentao done right is downright delightful – there’s nothing like leftovers that belong together and have had a chance to let their flavors marinate in unison overnight like newlyweds. Throw a runny yolk in the mix, and slap it on top of the tortilla’s meaty cousin (aka: arepa) with a chunk of queso fresco? Heaven. Options on the calentao abound, and one can omit the rice/beans for a sencillo (an arepa, cheese, and egg – the Egg McMuffin’s delicious Latin cousin). Expect to pay between $3000COP and $8000COP for a standard Colombian breakfast (depending on the exchange rate, roughly $1.50 to $4 USD).
Addressing regional cuisine: Colombia is a big place. 50-million people strong, geographically diverse, and outside of major cities effective transportation infrastructure is mediocre at best. Regional differences in food, culture, and social habits range greatly from locale to locale. In Manizales, where I spent my initial time here a year prior and 200km away (a minor distance in the US) from Medellin, food receives a markedly different approach. In Bogota, Colombia’s vast urban capital, there’s yet another unique take on culinary preparation. Cali, Colombia’s third largest (and warmest) metropolis, places a heavy emphasis on seafood and Pacific-influenced dishes mediated by the hot climate. Think jumping from New York City to Nashville. Or Los Angeles. Much the same, but entirely different. Bogotanos often imbibe in Caldo de Costilla for breakfast, a brothy soup built around a hunk of beef shortrib. Tamales de Tolima (a specialty of the department of Tolima) were not uncommon in Manizales. In short? It varies, but the arepa, egg, and cheese is always a sure bet – the standard eggs and toast of Colombia. Omnipresent sandwich bread is always available, but how it’s applied is never the same. Don’t expect to find pancakes, waffles, fancy omelets, or crepes. Here, they’re novelties (the subject of high-end pseudo-feminist restaurants, and they aren’t that awesome). Juice is usually reserved for lunch (and another piece). That said, breakfast from the local Panaderia is not uncommon for the few hurried Colombians in existence. A pastry, buñuelo, or pandebono accompanied by a quick coffee is normal.
The coffee talk needs to happen, especially in the realm of breakfast. I drink more coffee than many Starbucks in the US dispense in one day – my standard serving every morning is a liter of hot black love. Ask my wife – I’m incoherent before at least two cups of cafe tinto. I grew up Mormon, but then the bike messengers took hold of my soul, please don’t blame my parents. I’m a coffee snob (read: aspiring hipster), and Folgers, or even the ubiquitous ‘Bucks need not apply – “artisan” local roasters only, and the more facial hair/farmer’s market appearances, the better. Hence, Colombia, one of the leading exporters of coffee on the planet, would be heaven for a connoiseur like myself, yes? Nope. Like most other Latin destinations, Colombia subscribes to the gospel of Nescafe with a vengeance. The best coffee here is exported to Japan and the United States, in that order (Caffe D’Bolla, are you listening?). Coffee culture beyond a social setting is nonexistent. Moseying up to the local Juan Valdez or Oma (Colombian ‘bucks) and asking for anything more complicated than an espresso, cafe, or cappucino will result in a blank stare, confusion, or at worst, offense (my request for a shot-in-the-dark was met with the latter). More often than not, a request for a coffee will be met with a cup of the worst instant possible. If the mistake is made to order a standard cafe instead of tinto, you’ll receive what is known in the US as a cafe con leche, except it will be a smidge of aforementioned coffee drowning in hot milk. Tinto is black coffee. Depending on the venue, sometimes laden with sugar. Compounding everything, coffee is served in the smallest size possible, and in the most inopportune vessel for a hot beverage. Like a plastic Dixie Cup, to not only supply one with a healthy dose of carcinogenic BPA, but third degree burns on your hands. Most places I frequent become used to my renowned penchant, and end up slinging my tinto in bowls – un tazo. My solution to the coffee issue? Drink it. Happily buy the 200g jar of Nescafe at the local Exito (Colombiano Wal-Mart), and appreciate that it takes little more than water to create the magic of terribly-tasting caffeine. Everything else about Colombia? Totally worth it. Editor’s note: Carrying a plastic cup of tinto to-go on the streets of Colombia WILL garner weird looks.