Air Meal from Colombia

An article I wrote for the Bogota City Paper back in 2009 and recently rediscovered in the murky depths of My Documents…

A love letter to corrientazos

A disclosure: I love corrientazos. They embody everything I hold dear about Colombia – the mix of culinary traditions and diverse regional identities, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its citizens, the sacred ritual of vast plates of rice and bizarre ingredient combinations, the endless variety of the place. What follows will be no measured review of dining options but rather a love letter to a country and its many lunchtimes, from a steaming bowl of ajiaco in the Boyaca countryside to fresh snapper and coconut rice by the balmy Caribbean shores.

What is a corrientazo? 

The humble set lunch is popular across the continent in different incarnations (in Brazil you choose your options from a buffet and the plate is weighed at the till), however in Colombia it has been made into an art form. The infinite variations on the soup theme are often cited as the reason for the Colombian set lunch’s standout charms but these plates of liquid goodness are just one part of the real joy that is the corrientazo (“Electric Shock”). The presence of the corrientazo in every corner of the country is evidence of the importance of lunch to Colombians, and the variations between regions exhibit the richness of the many different cuisines and cooking styles within the country. Even the name is charming, although all the set lunch has in common with an electric shock is the ability to leave you stupefied and gasping for breath (in a good way).

Perhaps part of the joy of the corrientazo as a lunch choice is the range of variations within a rigid framework. Every self respecting corrientazo should contain soup, main course, juice and dessert  but within these categories endless combinations arise at the whim of the diner…

Soup (ajiaco, sancocho, the alarmingly tripe-addled mondongo, consomes, hearty minestrones, plain cream of tomato, plantain soup, maize soup, barley soup, fish soup, chicken soup, chicken feet soup…) main course (your choice of accompaniments – including potatoes, yuca, spaghetti, platano, lentils or beans and your choice of meat, chicken or fish, more up-market gets you named cuts of meat or fancy sauces. Salad generally a laughable affair comprised of wet onion and tomato rounds.), juice from a vast range of fruits from the relatively prosaic (mango, pineapple, blackberry) to the downright weird (curuba, tree tomato, feijoa) and usually a dinky portion of dessert – Lego-sized cubes of translucent jelly, a slick of figs with arequipe, the slightly odd combination of squeaky white cheese (cuajada) and sticky sweet syrup (melao) or just a boiled sweet that arrived with your change.

Basic corrientazos can be ridicuously cheap. Anything under $3,500 seems too good to be true, and the tastiet of the basic corrientazos tend to hover around the $5,000 mark. $6,000 and up is classified as an “executive lunch” and generally brings a greater variety of options.

The importance of the corrientazo to the Colombian national identity cannot be underestimated. Disbelief and derision await the person who divulges that lunch isn’t that big a deal in the UK, that people normally eat sandwiches and (worst of all) often don’t even leave the office in order to do so.  “Don’t you get hungry?”, the Colombians  enquire in an appalled tone. Of course, I explain, but then again you don’t get that unbelieveable desire to put your head down on your desk and sleep for a few hours that goes hand in hand with polishing off a hearty bandeja paisa. “That’s what coffee is there for”, they patiently explain to me, shaking their heads in disbelief. This love for a freshly-made, delicious hot lunch has led enterprising Colombians to open up corrientazo restaurants worldwide serving nostalgic ex-pat communities their daily ration of carhbohydrates. Nobody finds it strange that their plate contains potatoes, yuca, rice, patacon and spaghetti alongside the meat and desultory salad.

Some of the best sights to see in Colombia have their accompanying corrientazo. Palm trees in the Eje Cafetero’s Valle Cocora look that little bit more beautiful when seen over a steaming platter of trout in garlic sauce, while nothing perfects a Guajira sunset quite like a crisp fried snapper with zingy lime wedges and a cold beer. From pork chops in a 70’s bakery in Sogamoso to chicken with crisp bubble and squeak-esque fritters in a rodside cafe in Tierradientro, no sight worth seeing is without its lunchtime delights worth trying.

Due to Bogota’s teeming population of  inhabitants from all over the country, many of Colombia’s regional culinary delights can be experienced within the capital. Atmospheric Paisa restaurants invariably have incomprehensible jokes written on the walls and often boast amiable waiters in typical Antioqueno clothing. Costeno lunchtime eateries usually emphasise the fish options, with rich seafood broths and crisp patacones not to be missed, while restaurants with a more Andean touch usually tend towards the warming stews with several varieties of potato, not forgetting the famous ajiaco Bogotano.

Corrientazos are to be found in almost every corner of the city,  however a general rule of thumb is that the more affluent the area, the less common it is to find a corrientazo. Almost any corrientazo place has the potential to serve up a meal of outstanding deliciousness and immense variety, so just take the plunge! You won’t regret it.