Today’s episode is the second in a series of episodes on global cuisines. Last month, we talked with dietitian Vandana Sheth about the nutritional highlights of Indian food—along with a few of the nutritional challenges. Today, we’re going to continue our exploration of nutrition around the world with a tour of Colombian cuisine.
Sandra Arévalo is a registered dietitian nutritionist and expert on Latino culture and health. Sandra grew up in Colombia and emigrated to the United States where she currently serves as the Director of Community and Patient Education at Montefiore Nyack Hospital as well as a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Below are a few highlights from our conversation.
Characteristics of Colombian Cuisine
A lot of North Americans aren’t very familiar with Colombian cuisine. What are some of the characteristic hallmarks?
Because we are in Latin America, a lot of people have the misconception that Colombian food is spicy, like Mexican food, perhaps. So a lot of people are surprised to learn that Colombian cuisine is not spicy. It’s very savory and flavorful, but not spicy.
We have a huge variety of climates, depending on the altitude, and the cuisine varies a lot with the geographical area.
And because we are near the equator, most people think that it’s just hot everywhere. But it’s not. We have a huge variety of climates, depending on the altitude, and the cuisine varies a lot with the geographical area. If you are closer to the coast, the dishes are more tropical and seafood-based. If you are in the mountains, where the weather is colder, and there is different agriculture, you have more soups and stews. In the valley, you have more meats, rice, and beans.
So, each region has its own typical dishes. But most feature some sort of meat or fish. Every meal contains rice but will often have other starches such as plantains, potatoes, or yucca. Corn is widely used as well. We use corn flour to make arepas, but we also add whole-kernel corn to soups and corn on the cob grilled. Fruit is also a part of most meals.
Is there a particular spice or spice combination that is characteristic of Colombian cooking?
We use a lot of fresh herbs and vegetables to give flavor to our food. Many of our dishes are based on a guiso or sofrito, which is a flavorful sauce made from onions, garlic, tomato, sweet peppers, fresh cilantro, and parsley.
What are the health benefits of Columbian diets?
What are some of the healthiest aspects of traditional Colombian diets?
- The wide variety of exotic fruits
- We eat more fresh, local food and less processed food
- Meals are always balanced with fresh produce
- Food is also less expensive than in the U.S.
Does the large amount of fruit and juice contribute excessive amounts of sugar to the Colombian diet?
It’s not a concern. Our juices are always fresh pressed or blended with the pulp—so they are very nutritious—and then diluted with water. We often enjoy fresh fruit instead of sweets or dessert at the end of a meal.
Be sure to check out Nutrition Around the World: Indian Cuisine for a closer look at traditional Indian foods with author and dietitian Vandana Sheth.
What’s less healthy about Columbian diets?
What are some of the less healthy aspects of traditional Colombian diets?
Lots of dishes are fried, such as fried fish, fried chicken, fried plantains, empanadas, and buñuelos.
How to eat healthy Colombian cuisine
When you cook traditional Colombian food or develop recipes, what modifications might you make to make them healthier?
Instead of frying so many foods, I suggest grilling, roasting, or steaming. We traditionally eat larger portions of carbs and smaller portions of vegetables. So I ask people to reverse that, make salads bigger, and eat less rice and potatoes.
Exotic Columbian foods you may not have heard of
Are there any exotic foods we might be surprised by?
Roasted guinea pig is a delicacy in some parts of the country. In other parts, people love hormigas culonas, which are a kind of ant. And in the valley region, they eat chiguiro, which is a little like a porcupine.
Want more insight into Colombian foods? Listen on Apple, Spotify, or click the audio player above to hear the full interview. Be sure to follow Nutrition Diva wherever you get your podcasts for upcoming episodes about fascinating cuisines around the world.