Colombia is a country where everything changes according to the altitude and climate, in every valley and on both coasts just as in the jungle, the inhabitants have their own way of dressing, they eat and drink different things, and dance to their own music. The rich mixture of landscape, people and cultures makes it difficult to describe a "Colombian". It is said that handicraft production reflects the diverse nature of the Colombians, representing their originality and creativity, combining the influence of pre Colombia traditions with Hispanic and African inspirations.
Fruit sales on the sea shore and beautiful Colombian girls are everywhere.
Three things can be relied upon wherever you are in Colombia.....at 6 am and 6 pm every day, all the radio stations and TV stations will play the National Anthem. And at midday, everyone who sits even a little but above the poverty line will stop what they are doing and go for lunch. Shutters come down on shops, doors slam shut, and banks are unable to offer such complicated transactions as withdrawals and deposits. It's lunchtime.
Lunch in Colombia is a serious business, a homage to the nation's agricultural riches, a reminder of it's Spanish past, and a salute to the family as the country's key social institution. Colombia may be searching for an identity amid the struggles of a nation torn apart in the past by drug cartels and dishonest leaders (hence the playing of the national anthem, introduced by Samper in 1995 when it was revealed that his election campaign had been paid for by the nation's drug bosses) but the institution of "el almuerzo" remains sacred.
Some Colombians eat breakfast, dinner is usually just bread rolls served with coffee or hot chocolate, and even in Bogota, home to over 7 million people, few restaurants are open at night, but lunch is everything. Without it, a Colombian's day is considered unlived. Lunch is a ritual that follows the rules. It must start with a soup and end with a fruit juice, and the recipes remain unchanged, obeyed more diligently than the country's laws. Few Colombians travel, and the last wave of immigrants were Syrian and Lebanese traders who arrived over a century ago, and who are still disparagingly known as "Turks".
Culinary customs may be frozen in time, but the food is absolutely fresh. Everything grows in Colombia. Sitting just above the equator, two ranges of the Andes with the highest peak over 5,000 meters means a full range of climatic options are at hand every month of the year. Despite rapid urbanization, agriculture remains a powerful economic force and the harvest arrives daily in major cities.
As a tourist, it can be hard to train your stomach to lunch but it's a habit you better acquire fast. Although habit may not incline you to a heavy meal at noon, especially when the temperature has climbed above 40c, at night you can walk for kilometers before finding a restaurant open. Walking at night is not a good idea in many parts of Colombia given its reputation for violence, theft, kidnapping and murder.
Colombians explain that they eat lunch because it's the middle of the day, and they need the energy to go on working until the evening, but at night they go to bed and they don't want too much in their stomachs.
Mauricio Soja, a food writer for "el Tiempo", one of Colombia's leading newspapers, believes that food is an important unifying force in Colombia. "The menu doesn't change even when people get rich," he says. "Even in the exclusive clubs in Bogota such as the Gun Club and the Country Club, they eat the same soup on Sundays as in the poor neighborhoods." Soja believes there is no space for new culinary creations in Colombia. "There hasn't been any innovation for centuries. We have the typical meals and no others, and the ones we have carry a lot of history."
Most of these typical meals are soups. "The techniques of food preparation have never really changed" he jokes, "You put it in a pot, put it on the flame, and wait an hour and a half", he jokes.
But food is no laughing matter to the Colombians. Soja feels that eating expresses a yearning for national recovery, a symbol of nationalism. and perhaps because of Colombia's turbulent past, food reinforces the idea of the fatherland, and the feeling of what it means to be Colombian.