It’s a mix of culinary traditions and diverse regional identities. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of citizens mixed with the daily ritual of vast plates of rice and bizarre ingredients. What follows is a love letter to a country and its many lunchtimes.
The humble set lunch is popular across the continent in different incarnations. In Colombia it has been made into an art. 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 a corrientazo. The presence of the corrientazo 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 charms. What a fixed-price 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 is the range of variations within a rigid framework. Every self-respecting corrientazo should contain soup, a main course, juice and dessert, but within these categories, endless combinations arise.
Soups: ajiaco, sancocho, the alarmingly tripe-addled mondongo, consommés, 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 include potatoes, yuca, spaghetti, plantain, lentils or beans and your choice of meat, chicken or fish. More up-market gets you cuts of meat or fancy sauces. Salad, generally a laughable affair, is comprised of wet onion and tomato rounds.
Juice: from a vast range of fruits from the relatively prosaic (mango, pineapple, blackberry) to the downright exotic; curuba, tree tomato, feijoa. Dessert: usually a dinky portion of 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 arrives with your change.
Basic corrientazos have to be cheap. Anything under $4,000 pesos seems too good to be true, and the tastiest of the basic corrientazos tend to be priced around the $6,000 mark. More than $7,000 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. The love for a freshly-made delicious hot lunch has led enterprising Colombians to open up corrientazo restaurants world-wide serving nostalgic ex-pat communities their daily ration of carbohydrates. Nobody finds it strange that their plate contains potatoes, yuca, rice, patacón and spaghetti alongside the meat and desultory salad.
Some of the best sights to see in Colombia have their accompanying corrientazos. Palm trees in the Eje Cafetero’s Valle Cocora look a 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 crisp chicken in a roadside cafe in Tierradentro, no sight worth seeing is without its lunchtime delights.
Due to Bogotá’s varied population, 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 Antioqueño dress. Costeño lunchtime eateries emphasize fish with rich seafood broths and crisp patacones. Restaurants with a more Andean touch, tend towards warm stews with several varieties of potato, not forgetting the famous Ajiaco Bogotano.
Corrientazos can be found in almost every corner of our city: however, a general rule of thumb is that the more affluent the area, the less common they are. A corrientazo has the potential to serve up a meal of hearty deliciousness in no time. Take the plunge. You won’t miss these pesos.