Colombia is a nation born of diversity. Fabulous, tasty diversity. The Spanish conquistadors influence extends from the customs, the architecture, and yes—the food. The former slave trade, the indigenous Amerindian cultures, and the country’s proximity to the Caribbean islands has also left its mark on Colombia’s food culture. And that’s just the human influence.
Both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Andean mountains, and the lush Amazon add to Colombia’s geographic and culinary splendor. A Colombian cookbook is a wonderful amalgamation of cuisine that celebrates the locals’ deep love for their land, its harvests, the surrounding waters, and its varied history.
Teaching English is hard work—you’ll need high-quality fuel to keep those ESL lesson plans coming. Lucky for you, Colombia’s dining table is awaiting you with open arms. Is your mouth watering yet? Find a happy heart—and a happy tummy—while you teach English abroad in Colombia. Here’s everything you need to know about Colombia’s awesome food culture!
Dining etiquette in Colombia
Call us food-crazy, but about 90% of the fun you have while teaching abroad will be tasting all of the incredible new flavors and dishes, lovingly made by the hands of hardworking locals in hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Your no-where-in-the-guidebook discoveries will make your experience even more special.
But—don’t be that tourist, the one that ignores the local customs and culture, especially around the dinner table. Keep these tips in mind for a culturally sensitive, not to mention delicious, food experience in Colombia.
Tip: Be sure to try the classic Colombian dish, the ajiaco—this is a warm chicken soup simmered alongside potatoes, corn, avocado, and a local herb called the guascas.
Dining at home
Before you head to dine at the Rodríguez’ home, keep these tips in mind.
- Don’t open the refrigerator: It may sound strange, but even if you are helping set up the meal, avoid rummaging through your hosts’ kitchen. It’s considered rude and invasive.
- Stay clean while you eat: It is very important in Colombian culture that eating isn’t a messy or sticky experience. Use cutlery at all times. If you’re eating fried chicken, you’ll likely be provided a pair of plastic gloves!
- Time? What is time?: Don’t expect your meal to start on time; Colombian has a notoriously “late” culture. Time and punctuality are not stressed. Meals are slow and friendly affairs—expect to stay for 2-3 hours minimum.
- Say Gracias at the end with a huge smile and impart a small gift. Hosts love fruit, flowers, or chocolate.
Tip: Don’t use a toothpick at the table. Just… don’t.
Dining in a restaurant
In Colombia, dining etiquette in a restaurant can be quite formal, with exceptional importance placed on decorum and presentation. Play it safe by remembering our golden rule: “Observe and follow.”
You should wait to be seated by the host, and not start dining until the host says Buen provecho! (Have a good meal!). Try all of the dishes available, and always keep your hands visible and your elbows off the table. Use your cutlery (eating with your hands, even fruit, is a no-no) and always leave a little bit of food on your plate at the end.
Toasting is standard and enjoyed—don’t be afraid to send a Salud to your fellow-diners!
Tip: Generally, there is no tipping at restaurants serving locals in Colombia. In small restaurants, some people tip 1000 pesos or less (about USD$ .50); in finer restaurants, wealthy people tip more, about 10%
Keep in mind that going dutch isn’t common practice in Colombia. If you join a dinner with a friend, let them pay or pay for the bill yourself. Generally speaking, the person extending the invitation will be expected to cover the cost of the meal.
Western food in Colombia
We can’t imagine you’ll ever come to a point where the local cuisine isn’t satisfying enough, but just in case, here’s the inside scoop on western food in Colombia. Major cities warmly welcome international cuisine, including sandwiches, pizza, ice cream, hamburgers—the works!
Tip: Try the McDonalds here! No, it’s not necessarily exceptional, but it is fun to check out the unique, locally-inspired menu items that you’d never find back home. Like, what’s included in the Almuerzo Colombiano lunch special? You’ll have to have a McAdventure to find out…
Being a vegetarian/vegan
Vegetarian and vegan ESL teachers will be ecstatic about the colorful fruits and vegetables I saw crowding the local markets. Pitaya (yellow dragon fruit), mamoncillos (Spanish limes), guanábana (soursop), uchuvas (cape gooseberries), dozens of tubers—including the up and coming variety yacón—are all on offer. Vegetarian and vegan teachers based in bigger cities, like Bogotá, Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali, and Cartagena, will find an assortment of vegetarian restaurants or restaurants with vegetarian options.
Unfortunately, most empanadas (pastries) in Colombia are filled with beef or chicken. Your saving grace? The arepa and the plantains. Enjoy all of the cheese-stuffed cornbread and dozens of varieties of plantains you can to really make your veggie-loving-tummy smile.
Always, always, always eat with cutlery while dining in Colombia—eating with your hands is considered rude and is generally frowned upon. Don’t switch knife and forks while eating; the knife should remain in your right hand, fork in the left. When you’re done dining, lay your silverware parallel across your plate.
Tip: When gift giving in Colombia, flowers are acceptable, but you should steer clear of marigolds or lilies. These are typically associated with funerals
Who says your eyes and ears get to have all of the fun? Invite your tastebuds to the party! Enjoy teaching (and eating!) your way through this gorgeous, coastal country.