Colombia Jottings #1: How to Eat a Mostly Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet in Rural Colombia

I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, but these days I’m trying to eat less meat and more plant-based whole foods.

I live in rural Colombia. How easy is it to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet in Colombia? How difficult is it to be a vegetarian or vegan in rural Colombia?

There are vegetarian restaurants in the city. In the countryside, not so much.

So, on the one hand, it’s not particularly easy. Meat is used in a lot of cooking. Meat is used to flavour sopas (soups) and in frijoles (bean stews). In a typical restaurant, the proteina (the protein, a piece of beef, pork, chicken, sausage, etc.) is at the centre of the meal. The proteina will be accompanied by beans, lentils or stewed vegetables, which may have been seasoned with meat, with a side of rice, perhaps fried plantano (plantain, a type of starchy banana, cooked before eating) or a boiled, salted potato. There might also be a small salad dressed with salt and lime juice. None of this is particularly vegan.

On the other hand, if you squint and ask politely, it’s easy to get most of it plant-based. Just ask. Explain what you want.

For breakfast, ask for a delicious Colombian caldo de costilla (rib broth). This is a broth made with cilantro, with well cooked potatoes that give a wonderful texture, and a chunk of beef rib on the bone. Just ask for a caldo de costilla sin costilla. People will look at you strangely, and by definition broth is not vegan, but the caldo de costilla sin costilla is a delicious soup of potatoes and cilantro. My wife says it might not actually be made with the ribs, as they can be cooked separately. In any case, maybe not vegan, but its is delicious with arepa (a type of corn cake), which is available almost everywhere. It is whole food, plant-based.

For lunch, especially in the Andes, there is the corrientazo. This is a cheap, traditional, set lunch served in small restaurants or restaurantes corrientes. You can find these almost anywhere, as long as you’re looking between 11:30 and 14:00.

The corrientazo is formed around a small piece of proteina (protein: beef, pork, chicken, fish or some sort of organ meat, or pork shank, or beef feet, or whatever’s on special), a principio (a side dish, typically a side of beans or lentils, or a side of stewed vegetables or stewed squash), a side of rice, with plantains (either sweet or savoury) and/or salted, boiled potatoes. The corrientazo is served with a soup or stew as a starter and a fresh, fibre-rich fruit juice. It may also be accompanied by a small salad dressed with lime and salt, and perhaps a dessert, such as pears stewed in panela (raw brown sugar).

The trick to this wholefood, plant-based diet is to ask for a corrientazo without protein, but with all available principios. This doesn’t always work, because sometimes there are no principios. But, in my experience, the corrientazo without the protein will usually result in a pile of beans or lentils and a pile of stewed vegetables or squash, along with rice, patacones (fried green plantains) or maduro (fried ripe plantain), salted potatoes, a small salad, a glass of fruit juice, and the hearty soup.

The soup will come first, it may have meat in it for flavour, and the soup will probably have chunks of beef in it, I pick them out, and the rest will be a mix of beans, corn and vegetables.

Is it vegan? No. But, if you squint, such a meal is wholefood and plant-based, even if there might be some meat used to flavour the soups or principios.

In small towns, there are often fruterias (fruit shops or stalls) that specialize in fruit salad. A fruit salad usually includes ice cream, grated cheese and yoghurt. But, ask for a fruit salad without the ice cream, cheese and yoghurt. The result. A big bowl of sliced fruit—strawberries, kiwi, bananas, papaya, mango, etc.

Pizza? Pizza is becoming more and more common in small towns. On the one hand, I find that pizza often has too much cheese. Try asking for a vegetarian pizza, without the cheese. Or even better, ask for a pizza without cheese and with all the vegetables. (Maybe ask for it to be cooked a bit more.)

Not everything is strictly vegan or vegetarian? By definition, broth soup might be made with with bones. But I’m flexible, and this strategy allows for a delicious, well-balanced, hearty, whole-food, plant-based diet, without having to put a restaurant out by asking for something complex.

If you squint, a corrientazo, with a papa chorriada (potatoes with sauce), patacones, rice, a tomato and lettuce salad with a salt and lemon dressing, a heaping of hearty red beans, a side of braised vegetables, and a fibre-rich fresh glass of guayaba guava juice, and a homemade vegetable, bean and corn soup is a fibre-rich, well-balanced, whole-food, plant-based meal that is hard to beat.

In fact, I’d argue that this Colombian corrientazo (with or without the proteina) is one of the world’s great peasant cuisines. It is very underrated.

It is worth noting that people in rural areas generally eat a hearty breakfast and a large lunch. Dinner might consist of a cup of steaming agua panela (tea made from raw cane sugar cakes) and a piece of bread. One might argue, rural Colombian also practice intermittent fasting.