To understand How to Eat Like A Paisa in Colombia, you must first understand a little bit about their history and culture. Much of Caldas is in what is considered “Alta Montaña,” or high mountain terrain. Local diets are also heavily influenced by the fruits, vegetables, meat production etc.

In days of antiquity, the work was hard and calories were needed. Occupational food necessity like those of the mule teamsters, farmers, cattle ranchers and miners – all form the culinary heritage of Caldas gastronomy and Paisa culture.

Paisa in Colombia
Photo Credit: Erin Donaldson

Colombia has always been a very agriculture based lifestyle and culture. Much of the music, flavors and traditions were influenced by the Spanish Conquest, and indigenous traditions. Staples like coffee, plantain, sugar cane and rice, were brought in from the exterior.

Native flavors include heirloom corn, many of the tropical fruits and yucca (cassava/manioc). The crossing over of these two influences are what created many of the now traditional dishes. 

To fully understand how to eat like a Paisa in Colombia, you must understand the culture of the Small Produce Stands and the Plaza de Mercado (Farmer’s Market or Market Plaza). We are going to show you the basic staples which form typical Colombian cuisine. 

Small Produce Stands

In general, the produce which is the highest in quality – is not found in supermarkets, where things have maybe been sitting around since the last delivery. Not to mention that in Colombia they still wrap most things in plastic or styrofoam. 

Instead, look for the small neighborhood produce stands which cycle out their produce at a faster rate. Over time you will discover which ones have the best quality, even though all of them are better and cheaper than traditional supermarkets. 

Photo Credit: Erin Donaldson

Certain ingredients from your home country can be tricky to buy, or which may not have all the heritage varieties. These include the orange pumpkins, canned pumpkin, sweet potatoes, fresh cranberries and brussel sprouts.

Yucca should be really white. Look for the end pieces which don’t have roots. The really big fat pieces will be more fibrous and not as tasty. Be sure to carry your own reusable market bags to help with heavy items and cut down on plastic. 

Avocados can also be tricky. Haas, or the black ones – are the driest with the most concentrated flavor, but also can be quite expensive due to export demand. Papilillo, is a local variety – but not as tasty and tends to be very watery. This is a cheaper, inferior avocado, which will often be swapped for the big green ones which look almost identical but taste better and aren’t as watery. Criollo, is another local variety, but tends to have fibers in it.

Here, lemons are limes. If you ask for a lemon, you will be handed a lime. Yellow lemons can be found in supermarkets but you will typically pay higher import prices. Locals consider the best lemons to be the small nut-sized “pajaritos,” and the larger fist-sized “Taiti’s.”

The cheaper lemons or “Criollo,” have an uglier “scabby” exterior and are orange on the inside. Try to find the ones which are “heavy” in comparison to their peers – as those will tend to be juicier. Avoid lemons which are becoming yellow – as those have probably been sitting longer and will often be drier or spoiling. 

Plaza de Mercado

Life as such, revolves around the Plaza de Mercado. You will find them in every city and town. It is the distribution center where local production meets consumer needs. Restaurants, smaller shops and residents go to the Plaza, or “La Galeria” – to do their shopping. This also includes exotic out-of-area fruits/veggies and even farm implements. 

Photo Credit: Erin Donaldson

In La Galeria, you will find everything. It is the biggest marketplace of the city for reusable junk, fruits, veggies, grains, meat – and even the darker commodities that are not to be spoken of in the light of day. There, everything has a price tag and the hapless buyer best beware because opportunists abound. 

At the same time, it is a place of wonder, color, smells – both favorable and disgusting. Walking there is the sensation that everything is happening everywhere all at once. The din of vendors and consumer creates a complex symphony of life in Colombia at its most basic element – the food we eat. 

Eat Like A Paisa in Colombia

The flavor of caldas, is based on the main staples of the Spanish Conquest, which is rice and beans. Soup is always included either as Sancocho, a Cream of “x” Veggie, or fish soup. Added to the plate are beans, garbanzos, lentils or pasta. The meat option could be meatballs, steamed chicken (pollo sudado), grilled/fried chicken, beef, pork or even fish. 

According to Angela Garcia, a member of the Manizales SENA culinary program, the main dish of Caldas is Lengua en Salsa Criolla. That is to say Beef Tongue in Native Sauce. Probably the most typical dessert is guava paste with cheese, queso con guayaba, or figs with cheese, brevas con queso.

Juice can be any native fruit in water or milk. Certain rainforest fruits like Borojó are preferable in milk. It can actually be taken as an offense to offer plain water to a visitor. Coffee, tea, aromatica, lemonade or juice must always be kept on hand for drop in guests. This is Paisa hospitality etiquette.

Did you know we offer a Chocolate Tour? Go inside the process of harvesting, fermenting, drying, and preparing the chocolate we drink in Colombia. Our Santo Aroma Bean to Bar Tour

Photo Credit: Erin Donaldson

Some of the most common seasonings include tomillo, bay leaves, cilantro and parsley. On Sundays, Sancocho de Espinazo (or pork spine soup) is a local delicacy and served in some tipico restaurants. Sopa de Sancocho, is essentially a meat based soup with potato, yucca, green plantain, and chopped fresh cilantro added when served. It is probably the most typical soup in the Coffee Region if not most of southern Colombia. 

During December holidays Natilla, a pudding made with cinnamon and raisins, is served with a Buñuelo, or a fried ball of dough. During the month of December, you would be hard pressed not to have Natilla and Buñuelos given to you frequently, or served at office parties.

Novena celebrations are also part of December food traditions as families celebrate the Catholic family mass readings, with typical sweets of the region or a full family dinner.

Where to go for this experience…

Tipico” restaurants are everywhere. One of our top recommendations are roadside stands which feature “Leña.” This is a cooking practice where everything is cooked over wood burning stoves – which adds a unique smoky flavor. 

In the city, the best restaurant isn’t necessary the most beautiful, but definitely the ones which get busy. If you are brave enough, go to La Galeria, where everything is made from fresh ingredients straight from nearby farms and importers. 

Paisa in Colombia
Photo Credit: Erin Donaldson

Food Tourism in Caldas

In a future article we are going to write about regional food traditions, interview local chefs and bring you plenty of food pictures for the top restaurants in the Coffee Axis (Eje Cafetero Region). These will be a series of articles for the 3 major cities and some of their surrounding areas. 

We feel that there is an untapped well of Foodie experiences which go above and beyond the average eatery. Many of them can be found in Manizales and the Department of Caldas, Colombia. For more information or to plan your own personal itinerary to experience the flavors, Contact Us, or check out our Salamina Sugar Cane Tour.