What are the essential items to stock if you want to cook Colombian cuisine? The answer can be a little complicated. Colombian food changes drastically from region to region. You won’t find the same type of dishes in the temperate mountain regions as you will in the heat of the coasts, in the extreme weather of the plains (los Llanos), or in the thick of the jungle.
Still, there are certain ingredients that create a somewhat cohesive identity within Colombian cuisine. The country’s flavors are a complex mix of the history that it shares with most of the continent. The flavors of its indigenous heritage have combined with European flavors, remnants of centuries as a Spanish colony. There’s also a distinct West African influence, particularly along the coasts, where most of the Africans forcibly brought to the Americas arrived.
In terms of flavor, don’t expect to encounter a significant level of spiciness. Condiments are used with an almost austere frugality; but this doesn’t mean the food is bland. Far from it. Colombian cuisine is grounded in deep flavors of culinary methods like leaf wrapping, smoking, and grilling over wood.
Whether you want to connect to your heritage or simply appreciate another culture's cuisine, these essential Colombian pantry staples will enable you to enjoy many flavors of the country’s cuisine.
Baking Supplies/Dry Mixes
- Masarepa: This starchy, pre-cooked corn flour is used to make Colombian staples like pan de bono, a kind of cheese bread, and arepas, one of the country’s most defining foods. You can find it in specialty Latin American stores or online.
- Cornstarch: A base ingredient for foods like almojabanas and buñuelos, cheese bread balls usually served during the holidays. It can be found in most grocery stores and has a drier texture than corn flour.
Spices and Condiments
- Cinnamon: Sometimes used in traditional Colombian hot chocolate, cnnamon is also key to canelazo, a hot cocktail that will keep you warm and cozy in the mountains.
- Panela: Unrefined brown cane sugar can substitute sugar or honey as a sweetener for fruit juices or fresh limeade. It’s also made into a thick liquid used to top off desserts like cuajada con melao (cheese curd with panela syrup). Most often, it’s used to make aguapanela, a thick, warm drink that wards off the cold and also helps sore throats. You can find it in the international food section of the supermarket or in specialty stores.
- Maggi broth stock: Colombians rely on Maggi-brand broth stocks to make soups at home. The most popular are chicken and beef broth. Find it in specialty stores or online.
- Coffee: A daily part of Colombian culture, coffee is served in the morning or during afternoon luncheons. Colombian coffee only uses Arabica beans. Thankfully, you can find Colombian coffee almost anywhere that sells the product.
- Chocolate bars: These are specific, hard, dark chocolate bars that are melted in water or milk to make Colombian hot chocolate. They do not taste the same as chocolate bars from other countries like Mexico, so do not use them interchangeably. They can be found in the international food aisle or specialty stores.
- Bocadillo: Guava paste is one of Colombia’s favorite sweet things. Bocadillo can be hard and come wrapped in dry leaves, or it can be soft and spreadable. For your pantry, go with the wrapped type. Bocadillo can be used in sweet-and-savory dishes like aborrajados or eaten as a dessert wrapped in fresh cheese. Find them at specialty stores.
- White Rice: The staple food of Colombia, rice is eaten every day and at almost every meal. While there are many types of rice in the country’s cuisine, plain, long-grain white rice is the one you will most often encounter. Rice will also be used for desserts like arroz con leche.
- Coconut milk: A must-have item when making cuisine from the Pacific region, coconut milk is used to marinate seafood and fish. The creamy liquid is also necessary for making fragrant coconut rice and regional desserts like cocadas, crispy coconut-flavored balls. It’s also added to limeade to give it a sweet, refreshing taste.
- Red beans: Appearing in countless Colombian dishes, red beans are usually accompanied with rice and cooked with scallops or onions to infuse them with flavor.
- Fresh fruit: Colombians consume fruit in copious amounts, be it in salads, sweets or salpicon, a kind of fruit salad bathed in juice and topped with shredded cheese. Fresh fruit juice is served at lunch and dinner. Some popular fruits that can be found outside of Colombia include guava, papaya, mango and passion fruit.
- Plantains: Sweet or savory, plantains are a favored side dish. Sweet plantains are often served alongside beef, rice and beans. Green plantains are smashed and made into salty flat tostones, topped with shredded beef and tomato-based hogao sauce.
- Corn: Grilled corn with butter is eaten on its own as a street food snack, and lightly-salted corn is added to soups. Corn kernels are used in the bland mazamorra soup.
- Cassava: Known as yuca in Colombia, this is another favored side dish. It can be eaten boiled or fried and is often found in soups alongside plantains and corn. Yuca is also mixed with coconut to make elongated balls stuffed with cheese or beef.
- Potatoes: You’ll find them boiled in soups like ajiaco, generously salted, or bathed in creamy cheese sauce. Potatoes are also used as a stuffing for empanadas, one of the region’s most important foods. Papa criolla is a specific kind of Colombian potato that can be found frozen in specialty Latin American markets.
- Queso campesino: Farmer’s cheese is fresh and semi-solid. Usually unsalted, it’s often dipped into hot chocolate or aguapanela or eaten together with bocadillo. It is sometimes found in specialty stores but can be easily replaced with queso blanco.
- Arequipe: Also called dulce de leche elsewhere in Latin America, this creamy caramel sauce is eaten on its own by the spoonful or added to desserts as a filling and topping. Find it in the international food section of supermarkets.