Meal Mayhem: Navigating a New National Diet

Bandeja Paisa is a traditional Colombian meal in the Antioquia region. Wikimedia Commons Dtarazona CC BY 3.0

Written by  May 27, 2016

Finding balance in a foreign food scene.

Colombia’s sizzling street foods aim to entice: flat-top-cooked salchichas; buttery arepas de queso; deep-fried, carne-stuffed empanadas; and warm, cheese-filled maduro, for starters. Panaderias burst with fluffy white breads jammed with jamon y queso, and ice cream freezers mark the entrance to many a neighbourhood tiendita.

You might say, “Bring it on. I can handle it.” But if you’re used to simpler fare, a foreign gastronomic scene can be a lot to take in. No matter where you move, you’ll encounter a whole new world of food, and a national diet that may require some getting used to. You’ll want to sample a few tried pieces of advice before you take a bite.

Maintain a sense of normalcy.

The traditional Colombian lunch is gigante: rice, beans, a small salad, avocado, plantains, a slice of meat, sometimes a fried egg, and siempre a glass of fresh jugo. The few times I joined friends for a lunch break, I ordered the plato tipico and left feeling overstuffed and fatigued, craving a nap when I needed to teach another class. If you’re planning on living in a new place long-term, you’ll have more than enough time to taste everything. Don’t feel the need to try it all at once, or your stomach will be bursting with regret.

No matter where you move, you’ll encounter a whole new world of food, and a national diet that may require some getting used to.

When you first arrive, stick to your normal dietary routine as much as possible. If you normally eat cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, your body might not be ready for sausage and drinkable avena at 6 a.m.

Research alternatives.

If you have dietary restrictions and can’t access your everyday food items (or find imported peanut butter or almond milk to be a little out of your budget), you’ll need to research alternatives. For vegetarians, this may mean turning to lentils and frijoles rather than heaps of almond butter or blocks of tofu. For the gluten-sensitive, store-bought arepas can replace a loaf of gluten-free bread.

For an affordable breakfast option, shop at D1 (a supermarket chain that supplies you with kitchen basics). There, protein-rich bags of avena hojueles cost only 500 pesos each. Cook the avena over the stove, embellish with coconut and banana, and you’ve got yourself a bowl of tropical oatmeal. Arroz integral is hard to come by, so if you want to avoid white rice, stock up on the brown alternative whenever you come across it. And if you’re craving something green, a pre-washed bag of “spring mix” is likely out of the question. Turn to collard greens (shredded and cooked over the stove), or sauté a bunch of green beans to add a healthy crunch to your meal.

Try new fruits and vegetables.

Colombia is bursting with produce that I had never seen or cooked with before: lulo, guanabana, maracuya, guanaba, and guama, for starters. This is an exciting chance to try new foods, drink juice with every meal, whip up fresh smoothies for dessert, and up your natural vitamin intake.

I awake nearly every Sunday morning to the voice of a fruit vendor on the street. “Papayapapayapapayaaaa,” he shouts as he pushes a cart through my neighbourhood. In this way (whether you’d like to or not), you can wake up to fresh, affordable fruit at every street corner. Pineapples run for about a dollar each, while they usually cost about seven dollars in my grocery store at home. Choose ingredients you’ve never tried before, and ask locals how to cook them. I’ve been boiling yucca, frying plantains, and adding fresh coconut, raisins, and canela to creamy arroz con leche.

Embark on a Panaderia taste test.

South America is bursting with white bread. So if your body isn’t used to the light variety, seek out pan integral, a darker wheat bread often stuffed with nuts or dried fruit. It’s a more filling alternative to the many cheese-stuffed croissants and fruit-filled puff pastries.

Bakeries are everywhere, in every neighbourhood, spaced only a few blocks apart. Not all batches of pan crema or agridulce are created equal, and prices vary. Gradually sample what they have to offer, but remember, you’re not short on time. Avoid a white-bread hangover, and your stomach—and brain—will thank you. You’ve got a new city to explore and culture to experience. With every taste test in moderation, no stomach ache will hold you back.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Caroline Cassard

Caroline Cassard is a travel and food-enthused English language teacher from the U.S. Excited to explore Latin America and beyond, she scavenges for vegetarian meals and attempts to pick up the local language between classes.


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