When people think of Colombia, two things usually come to mind: Pablo Escobar and cocaína. However, Colombia and its people are so much more than that.
Food, music, and people; these are the things that truly represent Colombian culture. It is born from the mixture of European conquistadors, indigenous people of the land and enslaved Africans. The nation is defined by its culinary dishes, such as pandebono, ajíaco, bandeja paisa, and arroz con pollo; notable music like cumbia and vallenato, musicians such as Lucho Bermudez; and cultural influencers like Julian Castellanos and Juan Mario Arbeláez.
The Food of the People
The culinary arts often serve as an agent of influence, spreading a foreign nation’s way of life to other communities – bringing to light what natives eat and listen to in their homelands.
In the U.S, one such example is a little restaurant in Hackensack New Jersey called Villa de Colombia. Since 1990, Villa de Colombia has served authentic Colombian cuisine to its clientele. As testament to the ever-expanding Colombian culture, the restaurant has integrated other Latin American and Spanish recipes into their menu, illustrating the inclusive nature of Colombian food.
As Julian Castellanos, restaurant manager and son of Villa de Colombia owners explains, the familial eatery has actively helped spread Latin American authority throughout Hackensack and neighboring communities.
“When we first started, there wasn’t that much of a Hispanic community around here, so we adapted our menu to the type of community we had around here.”
For the Castellanos and their establishment, they discovered that the restaurant did not only affect the community, but the community also impacted the dishes they served. Today, their menu is catered to fit the tastes and likes of the constituency living in the area. Much like Colombia, Villa de Colombia has become a melting pot of cultural cuisine while maintaining their Colombian roots in every dish they serve.
When asked which dish best represents Colombia, Castellanos shared that the bandeja paisa, or paisa platter, was the perfect choice. “I think bandeja paisa is signature Colombian food,” stated Castellanos. Bandeja paisa has helped spread Colombian culture and sway the popularity of the dish in other countries.
“What makes it a signature dish is how diverse it becomes from region to region,” Castellanos says. “For example, up the coast, they use fish while in the Antioquia District, they add more meat into it.” While the preparation of the dish varies between regions, the basic components– rice, plantain, lemon, red beans, and hogao sauce– stay the same. The dish’s ever changing nature makes it one of Colombia’s most well-known culinary recipes both domestically and internationally.
Culture x Food
However, many believe Colombia cannot be represented by one dish alone, but by the multitude of diversity via culinary arts. Renowned Colombian chef, Juan Mario Arbeláez, who currently owns six restaurants in Paris, France, says, “It is very difficult to describe Colombia in a single dish because Colombia has a wide variety of territories, cultures, and populations that are very different. I would describe Colombia as an environmentally rich country with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and wildlife that are unique and not found anywhere else.”
Arbeláez shares his belief that as an amalgamation of subcultures, one dish cannot define Colombia. Rather, what makes Colombia so special is the multiple ethnic backgrounds that directly impact the diverse palette of flavor resulting from the accumulation of unique recipes and ingredients.
Colombian food has a real impact on the culture, with every dish representing the history and heritage that birthed these recipes. With such a power on people’s lives, it should come as no surprise that these meals have inspired have inspired the nation’s songwriters.
“Bandeja con Pollo” (chicken platter), by Mojarra Elétrica, a Colombian electric rock band, is an example of the kind of leverage Colombian recipes have on the people. Although a simple dish, chicken platter is popular among varying social statuses. Whether you are rich or poor, chicken platter is a dish that is able to relate to all Colombians in its simplicity, taste, and feeling of home.
Renown Colombian Jazz Artist, Lucho Bermúdez, composed an ode to one of the country’s most beloved plates entitled, “Arroz con Coco” (rice with coconut). Bermúdez based the song on a meal of the same name he had in a restaurant called Chibchomia in Bogotá, the nation’s capital city.
In the song, he describes the dish making him go crazy, implying that the meal was so good that he was “crazy” enough to write a song about it. Anthems like these showcase how strongly the food is ingrained into the Colombian psyche. Even a side dish, arroz con coco has inspired great artist like Bermúdez to write songs celebrating Colombia to be heard by the world.
Food, music, people, and culture are what define a country. It serves as a gateway into people’s minds and stomachs, providing insight into other cultures and the cuisine they enjoy.
The cultural partnership of food and music continues to rewrite the narrative on colombian representation to the world at large. From Lucho Bermúdez, who integrated jazz music in Colombia’s music tastes and helped popularize Latin American jazz to Juan Mario Arbelaez, who worked hard to become one of the top culinary chefs in France and introduce Colombian cuisine into French culture through his restaurants, and Julian Castellano, whose family immigrated from Colombia and help start the spread of Colombian influence in Bergen County through their food, the true spirit of Colombia are celebrated.