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South American Cuisines: COLOMBIA

In the second of this four part series, Penelope Walsh explores how the most tight knit and visible of London's South American transplants eat

Written by . Published on December 14th 2011.

South American Cuisines: COLOMBIA

WITHIN the South American communities in London, the Colombians may not be the largest, but they are certainly the most tight-knit and visible. Established Colombian quarters have sprung up in Elephant and Castle, Brixton and Seven Sisters. Here, restaurants, cafes, stalls, supermarkets and even butchers offer everything to satisfy the homesick Colombian’s palate.

In Colombia, gastronomy is getting under everyone’s skin. Amongst the wealthy middle class, there is a trend for young professionals retraining to become chefs. Food is now the most popular second career choice.

La Cabana's Bandeja Paisa, Colombian National DishBandeja paisa, Colombian National Dish

Consequently, the Colombian food scene in London tends to reflect a desire to feed one’s yearning for familiar food. Restaurants usually offer the simple, hearty and rustic dishes that are most missed by their Colombian guests. The most typical is bandeja paisa, which consists of portions of beef, pork, eggs, beans, rice, plantain and avocado. Something of a national dish, bandeja means platter, and paisa refers to the coffee-growing region of Colombia, from which the dish comes.

According to Esnayder, the Colombian owner of Sabor (a South American restaurant in Islington), bandeja paisa was originally eaten as the main meal by plantation workers, to sustain them for a hard day in Paisa’s coffee fields. In Colombia, however, Esnayder notices a move away from this style of eating.

As communities migrate towards urban areas, there is no longer, he tells me, the need for the heavy starch and protein-based diet required to survive hard work in the coffee fields, or the cold climate high in the mountainous Altiplano region. “Even in Latin America,” he argues, “there is a huge movement for lighter food.”

Picture 040Sabor

“It is not a fine cuisine, it is a quite robust, but it is going through a process of refining,“ he comments. Part of this process is the Nuevo Latino movement, which since the 1990s has seen South American chefs modernising restaurant food. Although not traditional, the cooking style at Sabor aims to reflect these changes, using modern techniques to make lighter dishes that showcase the depth of flavours in South American food.

In Colombia, gastronomy is getting under everyone’s skin. Amongst the wealthy middle class, there is a trend for young professionals retraining to become chefs. Food is now the most popular second career choice. In fact, Esnayder’s own chef Beatrice previously worked in IT and Esnayder himself trained as an accountant.

Colombia now has its own celebrity chefs, that almost rival Peru’s in airtime, such as Harry Sassoon, and Esnayder’s own friend, the doyenne of Colombia’s new cuisine, Leonor Espinosa. “People are starting to wake up about organic food production,” Esnayder tells me, and more non-indigenous ingredients “are trickling their way there” reflecting a change in the nation’s cooking repertoire. Twenty years ago, Esnayder explains, “trying to get wine in Colombia was difficult. Nowadays my mother can get pak choi in the market.”


There is also increased interest in the regional variety on offer in Colombia. There are in fact seven different geographical regions, each offering distinct local food. For example, while food in the Caribbean is mainly fish and seafood based, food in the Pacific is largely characterised by the African slave communities, which previously populated this gold rich area.  

These differences are also evident in Sabor’s recipe for Ajiaco, a chicken and potato soup, and a regional variation on the better-known sancocho. It originates from Colombia’s capital, Bogota, in the Altiplano region of the country. This region lies 2,600 meters above sea level, making a warming winter broth a suitable local favourite. The key ingredient in the soup is guasca, a herb only produced in the area from which ajiaco originates. It is this herb that gives the dish its distinct flavour.

In the Altiplano, there is less variety in the crops available than in Colombia’s warmer regions. Consequently, whereas sancocho is made with a variety of different vegetables and tubers, the recipe for ajiaco typically uses three or four different types of potato, with each providing different tastes and textures.

(Chicken and potato soup from Bogota)

_PSB2833-Edit Serves: 4
Preparation time
: 30 minutes
Cooking time:
1 hour


2 chicken breasts
3 cloves of garlic
2 red onions
salt to taste
2 litres of chicken stock
12 small yellow potatoes (also known as papa amarilla, yellow potatoes can be found in South American shops in Brixton, Elephant and Castle and Seven Sisters)
2 corn cobs, cut in half
4 medium white potatoes, peeled and cut into 5mm slices (new potatoes or jersey royals are ideal)
4 purple potatoes, peeled and cut into 5mm slices (also known as truffle black potatoes, purple potatoes can be found in the supermarket. Red potatoes can be used instead, as they also retain their shape when cooked) 1 bunch of spring onions
1 bunch of coriander
8 tablespoons of guasca (this herb can be found dried in Brixton, Elephant and Castle and Seven Sisters; soak the dried herbs in water before use to get a more aromatic flavour)
250 ml of double cream or sour cream
4 tablespoons of capers, drained
2 avocados, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced

First, marinade the chicken breasts with the salt, onions and garlic and leave over night.

The next day, place the chicken breasts into a heavy 4-litre casserole dish.  Add water, cover the dish and cook until the chicken is tender. When cooked, remove the chicken from the dish. Remove the skin from the chicken and discard. Cut the chicken into strips.

Cook the yellow potatoes in the casserole dish with the chicken stock, until the potatoes start to disintegrate. At this point the soup should be thick and fairly smooth.

Add the spring onion, coriander, sliced white and purple potatoes, guasca and corn halves to the soup, and continue cooking.

When cooked, remove the bunches of spring onions and coriander.

To serve, divide the chicken strips between four deep bowls and pour over the soup. Dress each bowl with 3 tablespoons of cream and 1 tablespoon of chopped capers. Place the slices of avocado over the top, and serve.

Empanada and ajiaco photographed by Pablo Salgado

More Information


Sabor restaurant in Islington offers typical South American flavours in refined and modernised dishes. Try the homemade Colombian chorizo, which is light and filled with flavour. www.sabor.co.uk

La Cabaña

Under new management since March 2011, the new La Cabaña in Brixton Village has kept the old restaurant’s Colombian chef, bringing together her signature dishes with Venezuelan classics. The restaurant offers hearty, traditional dishes, with a laidback atmosphere and extremely reasonable prices. Try the daily £6 lunch deal, and the bandeja paisa, a generous mixed platter, and the Colombian national dish. 1 Granville Arcade, Brixton Village, Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8PR



Secrets of Colombian Cooking by Patricia McCausland-Gallo
A detailed exploration of the varied cooking styles in Colombia’s different regions. Precise instructions make this book a good introduction for home-cooks at all levels.

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