Colombia isn’t well known around the world for its cuisine and foods. But there are a number of delicious traditional Colombian dishes that are worth trying.
Some countries are well-known for their cuisine. So, you can find Italian, Chinese, French and Indian restaurants in cities throughout the world. But you would be hard pressed to find a restaurant specializing in Colombian food in many cities around the world outside of Colombia.
Some foreigners in Colombia or visiting will tell you that traditional Colombian dishes are generally bland, overly fried, too salty and meat-heavy. However, some of the dishes in Colombia are actually packed full of flavor and not everything is meat-heavy.
Colombian cuisine varies regionally and is influenced by Spanish, African, Arab and some Asian cuisines.
We previously looked at 30 exotic tropical fruits of Colombia and 9 Colombian street food options you should try. And we now look at 15 traditional Colombian dishes worth trying. Note these popular Colombian dishes are in no particular order. And the above photo is a lechona.
Colombian Dishes #1: Lechona
Lechona is one of the most popular Colombian dishes for large parties. The lechona is a traditional Colombian dish from the Tolima Department of central Colombia. But this dish can be found throughout Colombia. Furthermore, lechonas are popular in Colombia on holidays like Christmas, New Years and the Colombian Independence Day.
A lechona is a roasted, stuffed suckling pig. The pig is cut open with the bones removed. And in the body cavity is typically placed herbs, peas, rice, onions and spices along with pork meat cut into small pieces. The lechona is cooked for several hours in a large oven. Or it could be cooked outdoors. A lechona is usually accompanied by arepas or potatoes.
I have ordered lechonas a couple times for large parties at my apartment. Restaurants in Medellín normally have several sizes of lechonas that you can order serving 20, 30, 40 or even more people. Here are two places in Laureles where I have ordered lechonas that were very good:
Colombian Dishes #2: Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja paisa is a traditional Colombian dish from Colombia’s Antioquia region. This is a huge meal that is not for the faint hearted.
Bandeja paisa is a plater that normally has a steak (or ground beef), crunchy chicharron (pork crackling), chorizo sausage and served with rice and red beans, a fried egg, plantain, arepa and fresh avocado.
There are some disagreements to what should be included in Bandeja paisa. So, you may see some variety at different restaurants.
You can find Bandeja paisa at most restaurants in Colombia serving typical Colombian food. Two of my favorite places for Bandeja paisa in Medellín include Hacienda, which has four locations in Medellín and Restaurante El Viejo John in Sabaneta:
- Hacienda Junín: Carrera 49 # 52-98
- Hacienda La Strada: Carrera 43A #1 Sur-150
- Hacienda Manila: Calle 12 # 43D-114
- Hacienda Ciudad del Rio: Carrera 48 #20-34
- Restaurante El Viejo John: Carrera 45 # 70 Sur-42, Sabaneta
Colombian Dishes #3: Mondongo Soup
Mondongo soup is served in most traditional Colombian restaurants. Mondongo soup is made from diced tripe (typically the stomach of a cow), which is slow-cooked with chicken or beef stock, cilantro, and many vegetables such as peas, carrots and onions.
It’s a hearty dish and is sometimes the soup course in a traditional almuerzo (lunch) meal in Colombia.
You can find Mondongo soup at most Colombian restaurants in Medellín. And probably the most famous place in Medellín to find this soup is at Mondongo’s restaurant which has two locations: Calle 10 #38-38 in El Poblado and Carrera 70 # C3-43 in Laureles.
Colombian Dishes #4: Ajiaco Soup
Ajiaco soup is a Colombian chicken and potato soup, typically served with corn on the cob, chopped avocado, capers and a drizzle of sour cream. An important ingredient in ajiaco is guasca, which is an herb grown throughout South America.
Ajiaco soup is probably the most representative dish of Bogotá. In addition, Ajiaco has a very distinct taste and you can find it in any city in Colombia. Many restaurants serving traditional Colombian food will have Ajiaco soup on the menu. In Medellín, Ajiacos y Mondongos in El Poblado located at Calle 8 # 42-46 has some good Ajiaco soup in my experience.
Colombian Dishes #5: Sancocho Soup
Another hearty soup in Colombia is Sancocho. This soup is based on the Spanish cocido and is popular in most countries in South America, with some regional variations.
In Colombia, the ingredients vary depending on the region of the country. It typically consists of meat, plantain, cassava, coriander, sweetcorn and potatoes. And on the Caribbean coast, fish is frequently used instead of chicken, beef or pork.
Sancocho is typically served with white rice, which may be a side dish or added to the soup. You can find Sancocho in many restaurants in Medellín serving typical Colombian food.
Perhaps the best Sancocho soup I have had in Medellín was at El Rancherito, which has three restaurants in Medellín:
- El Rancherito: Calle 18 # 35 – 50, kilometer 2 on Vía Las Palmas
- El Rancherito: Calle 30A # 82A-22, Los Molinos mall in Belén
- El Rancherito: Carrera 48 # 26-1, Mercado del Rio in El Poblado
Colombian Dishes #6: Buñuelos
Buñuelos are both a traditional Christmas dish and a popular breakfast treat for Colombians.
Slightly larger than golf-ball size, these tasty morsels are concocted of salty flour and small curd white cheese. They are rolled into a ball then fried until golden brown. They are best served piping hot.
You can find many places selling buñuelos in Medellín. Near most parks in the city you will find one or more places selling buñuelos. For example, near Parque Pobaldo on the corner of Calle 9 and Carrera 43B you can find a shop that has been frying up this quintessential street food for Colombians and tourists alike for over 20 years.
And in Sabaneta next to Parque Sabaneta to the right of the church is the El Peregrino restaurant that is famous for its buñuelos. This place makes normal size buñuelos as well some giant buñuelos that are more watermelon size.
Colombian Dishes #7: Natilla
Natilla is a rich, custard-like dessert that is traditionally enjoyed at Christmas in Colombia. It is usually served alongside buñuelos. Colombian-style natilla tends to be firm and sliceable, although it can also be served in a creamier pudding form.
Places that sell buñuelos normally also offer natilla. For example, the El Peregrino restaurant in Sabanata that is famous for its huge buñuelos also sells natilla.
Colombian Dishes #8: Arepas
Arepas are one of the most commonly served foods in Colombia. Arepas are a staple food in Colombia, kind of like tortillas in Mexico. And arepas are a common accompaniment for other dishes and they are also eaten separately. In most restaurants in Colombia, you will typically be served with a bland white corn version as an accompaniment.
An arepa is basically a type of bread made from cornmeal. It is commonly served with butter or cheese. My favorites are the arepas de chócolo and arepas de queso with cheese previously covered in our Colombian street foods article. In addition, you can find arepas everywhere in Medellín. You will also see a section in each grocery store selling many different types of arepas.
Colombian Dishes #9: Pescado Frito (Fried Fish)
Pescado frito (fried fish) is a very common dish on the coast in Colombia. But you can find this dish throughout Colombia. The fish are fried whole and usually are accompanied with several sides including rice, beans, a salad and patacones.
But be careful with bones as these are obviously not fish filets. Furthermore, some of the most popular fish in Colombia used for this dish are tilapia, red snapper and mojarra.
Some restaurants serving traditional Colombian food will have pescado frito on the menu. Three of the best seafood restaurants in Medellín that have pescado frito on the menu are:
- El Barco – Carrera 48 # 85-198 in Itagüí – this restaurant sits above a fish market. This place is a local secret and is typically filled with Colombians who know how good it is.
- Donde Bupos – Carrera 43 A # 19-153, Edificio Recife in El Poblado.
- Lo Exquisito del Mar – Calle 49B # 68-56 in Suramericana near the stadium in Estadio.
Colombian Dishes #10: Cazuela de Mariscos (Seafood Casserole)
Cazuela de Mariscos is a seafood casserole with coconut milk that is typical dish found along the coast in Colombia. Several types of seafood are normally found in this casserole including shrimp, prawns, clams, octopus and fish fillets.
Some restaurants in Medellín serving traditional Colombian food will have cazuela de mariscos on the menu. The three of the best seafood restaurants in Medellín listed above under pescado frito all have good cazuela de mariscos in my experience: El Barco, Donde Bupos and Lo Exquisito del Mar.
Colombian Dishes #11: Empanadas
Empanadas are small-sized snacks that are typically stuffed with minced beef and cubed potatoes and encased in a cornmeal doughy bread, which are typically deep fried in Colombia. But a few places offer baked versions as well. In comparison, the empanadas in Argentina are encased in a flour wrapper and are baked.
Many other varieties of empanadas can be found in Colombia including vegetarian, chicken and cheese versions. And to spice up your empanada, try topping it with a teaspoon of fresh ají sauce and/or guacamole.
Empanadas are widely available everywhere, particularly from street vendors. In addition, there are small empanada restaurants or stalls in many malls. And you can find stands or carts selling empanadas near most parks in Medellín. Empanadas are a ubiquitous Colombian street food.
Colombian Dishes #12: Churros
Colombian churros are slightly different than the Spanish variety. In Colombia, they are small and circular and generally are normally served sprinkled with sugar instead of a side dish of chocolate. But they still have that sweet donut taste.
Churros are long pieces of fried dough and are occasionally for breakfast in Colombia and they are also a very popular street food. You can find churros all over Medellín. Similar to buñuelos you can normally find churros being sold in a place or a cart near most parks in Medellín.
Colombian Dishes #13: Fritanga
Fritanga is a meat filled traditional Colombian food that is meant to be shared by a family or group of friends. In a fritanga communal basket of food, you will typically find grilled meat like beef or chicken, sausage, chicharrón (pork rind), arepas, patacones, corn and potatoes or French fries.
Fritanga is more common in Bogotá than in Medellín. And the El Tambor restaurant chain of three restaurants in Bogotá is famous for fritanga.
Colombian Dishes #14: Tamales
Tamales are corn or corn/rice cakes that are made in Colombia with a wrapping in platain tree leaves and steamed. In Colombia, tamales can be filled with everything from chicken, pork, rice, potatoes, peas, carrots, corn and cheeses.
Tamales in Colombia can vary in shape and fillings in each region. Some well-known variations are from Bogotá, Cúcuta, Santander (Bucaramanga), Tolima and Valle del Cauca (Cali). For example, the Tamales Tolimenses, which are from the Tolima region, are filled with pork, chicken, rice, potatoes, peas and a variation of spices.
You can find tamales being sold in several restaurants in Medellín. In addition, you can normally find places near several of the parks in the Medellín metro area selling tamales.
Colombian Dishes #15: Patacones
Green plantain is a type of banana that is popular all over Latin America. To make patacones in Colombia, plantain is squashed into thick pancakes, then deep fried in oil until golden brown.
Patacones are a very common side dish that accompany traditional Colombia meals in many restaurants. I personally prefer patacones to the bland arepas that are also commonly used as an accompaniment. It is common to also order patacones with hogao (a sauce) and guacamole,
The Bottom Line: Traditional Colombian Dishes
The 15 traditional Colombian dishes in this article are some of the more popular dishes that you are likely to encounter. Colombia has many more traditional foods to experience. In addition, Colombia is blessed with many exotic tropical fruits. And many of these fruits are used to make natural juices to drink with your traditional Colombian dishes.
I have seen some foreigners call Colombian food bland and I agree with that description in regards to the bland arepas commonly used as an accompaniment for Colombian meals. But there are many other ways to make arepas, some of which I like. The bottom line is that Colombia has a diverse cuisine with many dishes that are tasty to many foreigners, which are worth trying.
How many of the above traditional Colombian dishes have you tried? And do you see any popular Colombian dishes we missed? Please let us know in the comments below.