Colombian cuisine combines ingredients from the mountains, rainforests, and oceans that surround it. This culturally diverse country has Indigenous, African, and Spanish influences and culinary traditions. Colombia’s agricultural culture has also had a strong influence on some of its most popular meals.
The best dishes in Colombia are essentially put into three categories: street food, seafood, and soups and stews. Honorable mentions also go to hardy grilled meat dishes, an amazing selection of exotic fruits, and Colombia’s pride and joy, coffee.
I’ve had the pleasure of trying every dish on this list. Although food always involves personal taste, I think each of these items is worth trying. Colombia combines urban, international tastes with farming traditions and locally sourced ingredients. With regional adaptations of some of the country’s most popular meals, you’re sure to find something you’ll love.
Here are 20 of the best dishes available in Colombia, as well as some honorable mentions and must-try beverages.
1. Sancocho de Gallina
Sancocho evolved from a traditional Spanish stew. The basic ingredients always include yuca, potatoes, plantain, and corn. Don’t forget large pieces of chicken and hot broth. This dish is served with a side of rice and salsa de hierbas (a spicy herb sauce). The recipe can vary from one region to another. The original version is from Valle de Cauca, in and around Cali. However, Sancocho de gallina is popular in the Eje Cafetero, the coffee region of Colombia. This is one of the tastier versions of this dish. You can find it in Salento or surrounding towns. There are also other varieties of this dish that feature beef or fish.
Lechona is a favorite among Bogotános. This mix of rice, yellow peas, pork meat, and spices is usually served with an arepa and piece of pork skin. The preparation involves slow cooking the mixture inside a full pig for around 10 hours. The dish originates from the Tolima region outside of Bogotá. Lechona makes a great late breakfast or brunch meal. One of my favorite places to buy Lechona is on Calle 53, not far from Carrera 7. Eating the pig skin is optional.
3. Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja de paisa is a typical Antioquian meal that has become so popular with Colombians that it’s known as the national dish of Colombia. You can find it everywhere, but its origin began in Santa Fe and Medellín. This meal is a generous full breakfast with ingredients like white rice, chorizo, plantain, red beans, chicharron (pork crackling), a fried egg, some ground or minced beef, an arepa, and a slice of avocado. Prepare to take a nap afterwards if you get through all of this food in one sitting. The dish was originally meant to provide field workers with enough energy to get through their workday. You might want to pace yourself.
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Ajiaco is thought to have originated from the mountainous city of Bogotá and the Santa Fe region. This dish is basically a chicken soup made with corn and three kinds of potatoes. There is usually rice as well. Ajiaco is usually topped with avocado slices and sour cream. It’s perfect for the cooler climate of Colombia’s mountains. The dish is also flavored with guasca, a local herb. The chicken is served in large pieces, often with the bone still in place. The corn is still on the cob, and you should be ready to use your fingers.
Arepas are a common street food popularized in Central and South America. In Colombia, the most popular arepas are filled with cheese (arepas con queso), or with eggs and meat (arepas con huevo). This popular street food is a good option for a quick meal-on-the-go any time of the day. The arepa de huevo is distinctly costeño (from the coast) and is popular on the streets of Cartagena and Baranquilla. Make sure to choose a food stand with people lined up to eat. This way you can be sure the arepas are fresh. You can also find a version of arepas that’s larger and flat. This corn-based bread accompanies breakfast, lunch, or dinner, especially in farming areas. Try the Antiochian style of arepas served with pork sausage.
6. Pescado Frito y Arroz Con Coco
This is popular in the Caribbean coast and my personal favorite. This fried fish dish with coconut rice is served with a side of patacones (fried plantain) and a simple salad. The fish is cooked whole, and my Colombian friend likes to remind me that the best part is the cheek. While I’ve had a hard time getting past the eyes, the fresh taste of the fish is amazing. This dish has mild seasoning, but the flavor of the rice and the freshness of the meat make up for any lack of spices. This costeño-style meal is popular with lunch or dinner and is most often served with red snapper or tilapia. You can find several pescaderos (fisherman) along the beach of Cartagena, selling their morning catch for a very reasonable price. You can expect locally sourced fish while on the coast, however this may not be the case in the capital region.
7. Calentado de Lentejas
Another breakfast classic, the calentado is a hardy dish made of reheated leftovers. Ingredients usually include rice, beans, potatoes, beef, and chorizo, served with a fried egg on top. Occasionally, people will throw in other things. My favorite version includes lentils. This dish is very filling, and I’ve been told that ketchup is essential. The calentado varies from one restaurant to another and is a great way to reuse leftover food from the night before.
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Colombia’s empanadas are everywhere. They are a staple of everyday convenience and on-the-move professionals and students. Empanadas have a delicious, crispy crust made of masarepa, a precooked cornmeal mixture. Typically, the filling is made of strewed beef or pork and mixed with potatoes. The style varies depending on the city, with some empanadas having chicken and rice as a filling. Colombians love to eat their empanadas with sauces like hogao (tomato base with spices) or aji (made with garlic and spicy peppers). Occasionally, you can find the Chilean empanada, which is larger than those of Colombia.
9. Cabro Santandereano
Cabro Santandereano or Santander goat is a savory dish made with goat meat marinated until tender. The meat is then grilled and served with boiled yucca or pepitorias, a chunky version of the French fry. By North American standards, goat meat isn’t as tender as beef or pork. However, when properly prepared, seasoned, and tenderized, it makes an excellent meal. I’ve had both Colombian and Haitian goat and enjoyed the two completely different takes on this meal. The texture and flavor are reminiscent of lamb; however, it is tougher. This dish is best served at dinner with a nice glass of red wine.
Beloved by costeños (people from the Caribbean coast) and Bogotános alike, ceviche is a coastal dish made popular across Colombia. This fresh meal is prepared cold and offers a variety of seafood such as red snapper and shrimp. The meat is marinated in lime juice and the acidity “cooks” it. The mixture is then served with tomato sauce, ketchup, or mayonnaise. I had mine in Cartagena, served with soda crackers and ketchup. The flavors are rich, and the best ceviche is made with fresh, locally sourced fish and shrimp.
Trucha (trout) originates from the region of Quindio, the coffee region of Colombia. The area is known for its trout fisheries. This meal has become a favorite among Colombians everywhere and is prepared in various ways including frying, broiling, grilling, or baking. Typically, spices and herbs are added to a scored fish before cooking on the grill. The dish is then served with a side of plantain or potatoes. A wedge of lime enhances the flavors of the trout.
12. Posta Negra
This dish was a revelation for me. I couldn’t decide if I loved or hated it. That said, I don’t regret trying it. Posta negra also has its origins in Cartagena. You can find it in many variations in some of Bogotá’s best restaurants. It’s made with slow-cooked beef tips covered with a dark sauce similar to the Mexican mole. Posta negra or “black beef” is often served on a bed of rice and topped with fresh, diced tomatoes. The flavor of the sauce is strong, but this is definitely a dish worth trying. I’ve even had it in burger form.
13. Patacones Con Hogao
Made with fried plantain and served with a salty, tomato-based sauce, patacones con hogao is one of my favorites. You can find it all over city bars. It makes a great appetizer to share with friends over a pint of beer. Originally from the coast, patacones are made of plantain and often served as a side with fish or meat. Here, they become the central attraction. The dipping sauce often includes guacamole as well as the traditional hogao sauce. This is a fun and tasty dish to try. The hogao sauce is salty and is prepared with onions and tomato. The plantain is mashed and deep fried in oil.
14. Maracuya Smoothie
Colombia’s maracuya is a delicious type of passion fruit known for helping with digestion. This yellow, oval-shaped fruit is usually served in smoothies or juice format. You can also eat it whole with a sprinkle of sugar and a spoon. The flavor is tart but very tasty.
Carimañolas are a great breakfast treat made popular in the Caribbean region of Colombia. The ingredients include yucca, cheese, and meat such as chicken or minced beef. These small, torpedo-shaped snacks consist of yucca, stuffed with cheese, and deep fried. This dish is often served with a sauce known as suero, a mixture made of fermented milk.
Mamona originates from the Orinoquían region of Colombia. Traditionally, it’s prepared for celebrations and holidays. The basic ingredients include seasoned beef, garlic, and beer. The meat is then served with cassava, arepas, potatoes, and guacamole. The recipe calls for the beef to be roasted for four hours, then placed on sticks before cooking. Mamona is a meat-lover’s delight.
17. Mango Biche Con Sal y Limon
Unripe green mango spears are a favorite street food of Colombians. This dish is made of mango and topped with lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt. Mango biche are a great sweet-and-savory snack to have on an evening stroll through a park or street.
18. Casuela de Marisco
Casuela de marisco is thought to have originated from the coastal islands of San Andres, Santa Catalina, and Providencia. The ingredients of this seafood casserole dish include shrimp, oysters, octopus, and squid. They are mixed and stewed in a coconut milk and spice-based sauce. A favorite in Cartagena’s walled city, you can also find it in Bogotá, but I’m told not every restaurant gets it right. Ask a local for the best seafood restaurant in town. Or go to the source and enjoy this dish in Cartagena or San Andres.
While coffee isn’t a meal, it manages to earn a spot on this list. Colombia is known for its coffee culture and offers some delicious varieties of beans. In fact, the Eje Cafetero region of the country produces some of the world’s best coffee. You can visit coffee farms and book a tour to learn about the production process from start to finish. The Quindio region’s baristas are extremely knowledgeable and skilled.
A potent, anise-flavored liquor, aguardiente is a must-try for any ex-pat. This strong alcoholic beverage isn’t for the faint of heart. After all, the name translates to “burning water”. However, it’s worth having this experience at least once to earn bragging rights with your Colombian friends and neighbors.
The drink is also part of Colombia’s history. It originated with the Quechua Indigenous people who called it “guarapo”.
Food aficionados will love Colombia’s diverse dining options. They represent the country’s rich cultural regions and offer something for everyone. Though not on the list, “lulo”, another of Colombia’s amazing fruits, get’s a mention. Most restaurants and cafes will offer it. In a few select places you can try it in a smoothie mixed with hierbabuena, a minty herb.
Many of the dishes listed here were influenced by Spanish settlers and African cultures that arrived on the continent centuries ago. They show Colombia’s distinctive cultural roots. The country’s different regional traditions contribute to the variety of preparation styles for many of these popular dishes.