“No como carne, no como pescado, no como productos lacteos.” Two days before I’m due to leave London for Colombia and a Spanish-speaking friend starts my language crash course with a few dietary essentials. A long-time vegan, we both wondered how I might fare in a country that prides itself on its staples of sancocho, asados and the bandeja paisa.
Yet, despite cholesterol-charged menus and the paucity of vegetables on a typical Colombian dinner plate, here in Bogotá, I’ve been anything but hungry.
The city boasts around 50 vegetarian restaurants and it’s no new fad: some of the oldest establishments have been serving up veggie fare for almost 40 years. Most are only open for lunch but offer a generous menu del día that typically includes a filling plantain or potato soup, a main course combination of rice, cooked vegetables and some kind of protein such as tofu or beans, plus a salad bar, fresh juice and even dessert. And with most places charging less than $10,000 pesos, eating sin carne is a steal.
Staying in backpacker-friendly La Candelaria, the nearby Boulevard Sésamo vegetarian restaurant became a regular lunchtime haunt. There’s a choice of three different daily set menus. The menú ejecutivo is the most reasonable and it’s an impressive spread.
On my last visit, there was a choice of either creamy pumpkin or cebada perlada soups – the latter a tasty broth of potatoes, onions, red and green beans, barley and herbs. Main course was a colorful if rather unconventional combination of brown rice, Chinese-style stir fried mushrooms, sliced smoked tofu, peas, celery and beansprouts, served with diced beetroot and a baby banana fritter. Fruit compote and a banana made up dessert, washed down with a strawberry or papaya juice. There’s a simple but fresh self-service salad bar with plenty of green vegetables too, if you can possibly fit anymore in. Business suits share tables with students and arty types and the two-floor, 150-seater restaurant does a brisk trade.
There are plenty of vegetarian places of a similar ilk, serving an all-inclusive set menu, though not all boast such a varied one. The nearby Loto Azul restaurant doubles as an Indian spiritual centre, hosting talks, yoga and serves up large portions of vegetarian food, all without egg. The walls are adorned with pictures of Krishna and other Hindu gods and there’s a cushioned area for those that want to sit and eat yogi style.
The oldest vegetarian places can be found on the Calle 17. Here, amidst the profusion of health food stores, you can find the almost four-decade-old veggie stalwart, El Champiñon. From the outside it doesn’t look like much, just a narrow doorway that leads up a flight of stairs, but I swing by to catch a late lunch.
I’m served a hearty home-made sancocho soup with large hunks of soft plantain, and the comforting fare together with the restaurant’s croqueted tablecloths and classical music reminded me of eating at my grandmother’s, albeit without the sherry trifle. A table filled with individual glass bowls of shredded lettuce, carrot, sliced beetroot, tomato and range of salsas is the salad bar while the main course is served from metal tureens, canteen buffet style.
The main course – a fake meat version of the classic bandeja paisa, was achieved with plenty of chewy, springy wheat gluten substitute but it was far too close a resemblance to animal innards for me and I left most of it untouched. With a mouthful of mora (blackberry) steeped in agua panela (cane sugar tea) and served in a plastic coffee cup for dessert, it’s nutritious fare but not exactly haute cuisine.
For bigger portions, more fresh vegetables and fewer pesos, head across to El Tropico, Bogotá’s oldest vegan establishment. For forty years, this eatery has been serving Colombian classics with beans, plantain, rice and plenty of extras, including when I popped by for a generous hunk of homemade coconut cake for dessert. It is a great value, and a popular spot with nearby office workers, as its 12 tables manage to serve up to 100 lunches a day.
La Esquina in Chapinero is a light and airy second-floor restaurant with a calmer vibe, impressively attentive service and some of the best vegetarian sancocho soup I’ve tried. My main course was a colorful, carefully plated dish of brown rice topped with a skewer of marinated tofu and chargrilled red peppers served with a fresh onion and dill salad, boiled new potatoes in their skins with a spicy tomato salsa, green beans and carrots.
Packed with plenty of fresh herbs, the food is far from the insipid veggie stereotype. No visit to La Esquina is complete without popping into the Pan Nobles bakery beneath. A champion of genuine wholemeal bread – none of that pseudo-brown, caramel-colored pap you’ll find in some Colombian panaderías – Pan Nobles offers cinnamon-infused cakes and breads studded with some of Colombia’s best exotic fruits, from mora and fig to guanabana.
After trying out a couple of other similar veggie places, I was on the hunt for something a little more… gourmet. When Carlos, a fellow vegetarian, recommended Imaymana, I decide to meet him for lunch. Walking into the white, sunlit neighborhood restaurant with dark-wood floors and white linen tablecloths, I was shown to a table by a smart waiter and knew straight away I was in for a treat.
The food didn’t disappoint. My starter was a rich Italian-style tomato and herb soup garnished with shards of crispy plantain and served with a selection of homemade breads. The delight of the main course was all in the detail– the roasted chopped brazil nuts and raisins stirred into the brown rice, caramelized onions amongst the slow-roasted root vegetables, the fresh green hue of the broccoli cooked to perfection.
An abundance of fresh greens included courgettes, beans, carrots and roasted garlic and three herb-filled falafel balls were the centerpiece, hidden under a tangy tomato sauce. According to its chef and owner around 70 percent of Imaymana’s patrons aren’t vegetarian, but simply looking to try something different.
As Carlos buys up some wholemeal nut and carrot muffins to take away and I eye up the dense raisin bread, it’s no wonder that even carnivorous Colombians are stopping in at Imaymana for lunch. Bogota seems to have gone green and is far from being simply “zanahoria.”
El Champiñon Carrera 8 No.17-23
Imaymana Carrera 13 No. 78-09
Boulevard Sésamo Ave. Jiménez No. 4-64
Loto Azul Carrera 5a No. 14-00
La Esquina Carrera 9 No. 60-91
El Tropico Carrera 8 No. 17-72
BioPlaza Transversal 17 No. 98-13