A few weeks ago we were ordering appetizers with some friends at Bruto, a lovely tapas restaurant, when they said they were a bit surprised at our choices—we voted for the morcilla and octopus, which a couple of years ago I would have completely brushed over in search of sliders. It got me thinking how I’ve really changed at the dinner table since we’ve moved here: I would never have considered myself a picky eater in the past, but then I remember how often I’d refuse to try new things because I always wanted to go for the option I already knew I liked.
Eating out in Bogotá—or any country where you’re not a native speaker—is a bit like culinary Russian roulette. I quickly got used to thinking I ordered one thing but having something completely different appear in front of me and I can’t count the number of times I’ve eaten something with unknown ingredients because I didn’t understand what I was ordering (see my blurb below about mondongo…). Sometimes I’ve eaten things I wasn’t so sure of because I didn’t want to offend a host.
Learning to just enjoy the moment and whatever comes is a lesson I’ve learned again and again since leaving my native country, but doing it in a food-y way has probably been the most fun. Keep scrolling to see my most pleasant surprises.
Fruit in Colombia is like no where else I’ve seen—there are so many varieties (some of which are downright different looking), all of which are incredibly fresh. Colombians eat a lot of fruit—every street corner has cups of every permutation of sliced fruit or fresh juice. Just because a fruit isn’t juicy (like a mango) doesn’t mean it can’t be made into juice—the flesh is simply blended with water or milk to give it that liquid-y consistency.
I have to be honest that the only thing that’s held me back from going hog-wild with fruit sampling is that I’m just not sure how to eat some of them. For instance guanabana (above)—the spiny skinned, green football shaped shaped fruit with oozy white insides is gigantic and I don’t even want to bother carrying it home from the grocery store! This is when the juice option comes in handy…I have had the flesh blended with milk and it’s delicious—kind of citrusy but with the creaminess of banana.
By far the most interesting sampling has been guama, which looks like a giant pea pod. One day while in La Candelaria with Carly and Rich (our friends whom we will see wed in Bali later this year), we passed a man with a cart loaded full and decided to give them a try. After you split open the woody exterior you’ll see purple beans the size of a half dollar covered in a white fuzzy skin—the strange part is that the fuzzy coating is what’s eaten and the seeds discarded! It was like slightly sweet, moist cotton and definitely something to experience.
Hot Chocolate with Cheese
A typical breakfast you’ll see in little shops around Bogotá is a cup of hot chocolate with a wedge of white cheese and couple of rolls on the side. While you may be thinking it’s a good idea to stuff that cheese in the bread, it’s actually intended to float and melt on top of the hot chocolate, like a salty marshmallow. Strange? Yes. Tasty? Definitely. Well let me qualify that with the fact that I love salty and sweet mixed together (a big thank you to Dave and Jessi for bringing me those sea-salt chocolates), so it makes sense that I’d like this one. This is a thing that is very specific to Colombia, so if you ever find yourself in Bogotá make sure to give it a try.
The first time I ate mondongo was at one of the typical little lunch places you’ll see all over Bogotá. For the equivalent of $2.50-$5.00, you will get some version of the same thing: a fresh juice, soup, a main dish of fish, beef or chicken with salad, rice and plantain or potato, and a tiny dessert. Sometimes the menu is on a board outside but usually the server will just rattle off your options. Having no idea what it was, I just went along with my group of classmates (who were equally clueless) and ate what was brought to the table. Turns out, mondongo is a super tasty broth based vegetable soup with lots of cilantro; however, as I got a better look at the chunks of meat at the bottom of the bowl I realized that those chunks were tripe, not chicken! Eating tripe without realizing what it was gave me an opportunity to like it, because my experience wasn’t overshadowed by an already formed opinion. Sancocho is still my favorite soup, but I’ve eaten mondongo a couple more times and would happily do so again.
I never would have intentionally eaten morcilla had I known what it was. Otherwise known as blood sausage, the versions I’ve had in Colombia mix blood with onions, rice, bits of meat and spices and are cooked until the liquid coagulates and the link becomes solid. Ok, ok—when put that way it doesn’t sound appetizing (and while we’re at it, it doesn’t smell so good either…), but the crispy outside and soft, crumbly inside is an amazing texture combination with a spicy, earthy flavor. It’s fatty and very heavy, which is likely why I’ve only ever had it as an appetizer. Probably one of the best dishes I’ve had in Bogotá was at Harry Sasson’s restaurant, where the thick links are sliced, fried and topped with an egg.
I guess compared to blood sausage, octopus doesn’t sound that exciting; even so, I was reluctant to try it because tentacles can be a little intimidating. The preparation I’ve most often seen are the grilled tentacles, brushed with chimichurri and served alongside papas criollas (either roasted or mashed), which are little yellow potatoes native to Colombia. I always thought it would be chewy but was surprised that it has a texture more like lobster–apparently that chewiness only happens if it’s overcooked. It’s definitely become another go-to for Cody and I when out to dinner.
Just a note that not all of the foods I’ve listed above are specific to Colombia (many of them are found in different permutations all over Latin America and Spain). Please feel free to share any of your own interesting food stories with me in the comments!