Going Home to Eat: A Journey into Colombia’s Coastal Cuisine

The best cure for a homesick Colombian? Pan de gloria for breakfast, mojarra frita on the beach, and Grandma’s signature arepas.

Illustrations by Catalina Vásquez
Editor’s Note: This article is also available
in Spanish.

I wasn’t born in the port city of Barranquilla, Colombia, but my parents’ hometown is as much mine as it is theirs. I grew up in Miami, but each summer made the pilgrimage to the coastal metropolis — a place I consider to be my motherland, my roots, my old home.

One of my favorite things about Barranquilla is that it’s a city that feels lived in. It’s a chaotic and charming place, bustling with a million people from a mix of cultures, a city where motorcyclists take the double lines on the pavement as mere suggestions, and the areperas abandon recipes, making traditional arepas on the fly from their street carts. This is my Barranquilla, the one I miss when I’m away: a place both normal — in the way hometowns are — and electric. Each time I return I am grateful for three reasons: my grandmother Fiyi, the city’s powerful energy, and, of course, the food.

In the morning

I feel that energy as soon as I wake up on my first day back. The street vendor is on his megaphone — “Aguacate, banano, mango,” — and though he’s only selling fruit, he’s my alarm clock. The cars buzz around him, adding color with every honk.

My grandmother Fiyi is already up in the other room, getting ready for our outing to the corner bakery, though we won’t be leaving for another hour or so. “El desayuno se te va a enfriar.” She’s reminding me, as she does every morning, that my breakfast is on the table and is getting cold. My grandmother’s dining room is my favorite room in the house — an open floorplan, with a ceiling that extends just past the dining table and rocking chairs, opening up to reveal a deep sky. I feel like I’m outside, participating in the life of the city.

She has made for me all the things I loved most as a little girl: hot chocolate with special Milo powder (a chocolate and malt-powder drink that is at the top of every child’s wish list), scrambled eggs the way Fiyi makes them — not beaten but stirred so you can still see the distinctions between the whites and the yolk — and arepas, a Colombian staple made of corn flour and often stuffed with cheese. Fiyi makes them the way we’ve made it in my family for decades, folding the cheese into the dough itself.

Next to Fiyi’s home cooking, the best place to get a customary Colombian breakfast is a Barranquilla restaurant called Narcobollo. On the days we don’t have breakfast at home, we stop here to get arepas or pan de bonos, traditional cornflour-based snacks, and accompany them with some coffee.

We head to the Panaderia 20 de Julio bakery, where there is the familiar smell of avena — an oatmeal drink with cinnamon — fresh juices, and, of course, the heavenly scent of bread. I rush over to the clear cabinets lining the walls full of baked goods to pick out some for breakfast tomorrow. Pan de gloria, a soft bread molded into a spiral and coated with a generous layer of sugar, was the bread of choice for six-year-old me (and still is). My other childhood favorite is the pan de mantequilla, a butter bread that is flaky and a little spongy. I order an avena as well, and take the opportunity to buy all the best candy treats — the red-colored Bom Bom Bum, a beloved lollipop in Colombia, and Jet chocolatinas, one of the country’s most popular chocolate bars, slightly sweeter and smoother than American varieties.

In the afternoon

When we get back to Fiyi’s house, my dad is waiting at the door in his old Honda CRV to pick me up. On this particularly warm day, we decide to head to the beach in Puerto Colombia, a neighboring town that was once the main port of entry into Colombia and had one of the world’s largest piers. Though there are many beaches in Barranquilla, like Santa Veronica, which is a bit more crowded, and Puerto Velero, which is a bit more upscale, we choose this one because it is quieter than others and gives us time to relax.

We sit under one of the palm frond huts — my dad on a plastic chair looking out at the beach and me on one of the hammocks. I let my foot dangle off the side and sink into the familiar fine black sand that lines Colombia’s coast.

We have the beach mostly to ourselves, but despite the area’s relative stillness, there is so much life that breathes here: the stray dogs that shuffle along the shore looking for a cool place to sit, the kids playing soccer a few meters away, and the man selling ice cream who rings the bell on his cart to grab our attention. We buy a frozen pop made of mamey, a sweet, creamy tropical fruit that tastes similar to papaya, but we also make sure to save some space for lunch.

After borrowing a few pesos from my dad, I go up to one of the locals who is gesturing to me, inviting me to ride his horse. It was one of the things I most looked forward to every summer — riding horses on the beach. Though the man is helpful and typically guides the horse with the reins, he trusts me to go off for a bit and gallop shoreside. I spend some time riding — the water splashing my heels and the backs of my legs — before turning back and returning the horse to its owner.

As I come back from my horse ride, it’s not long before an employee from a nearby restaurant comes to take our order. We ask for the usual: mojarra frita, a fried fish native to the area that is caught fresh daily; arroz de coco, or coconut rice; patacones, or twice-fried plantains; and — though it’s about 100 degrees out — we also order a sancocho de costilla, or short rib soup. These dishes are all staples of the region, and it’s common to drink hot soup even on warm days.

I eat hurriedly, excitedly, and foregoing the utensils — my fingers flying to my mouth with pieces of crunchy fish as they try to catch up to the demands of my taste buds. I’m unstoppable as I slurp and crunch and messily pick apart. Frankly, there’s nothing quite like having fresh, home-cooked-style seafood as you are overlooking the ocean. I’m aware at that moment of how rich the food is: The textures have been delicately balanced through hundreds of years of trial and error, blending native ingredients with African and European traditions. The taste is powerful and balanced, too: sweet from the coconut, crunchy and salty from the fish, and hearty but fresh from the thick, lime-infused soup with meat that melts off the bone. “How has it been a year since I’ve been here?” I find myself thinking. Just this is enough to warrant coming back more often. When I’m not in Colombia, this is the food I miss the most.

In the evening

If there is one thing Barranquilla is known for among its locals, it is its extensive street food with arrays of sauces, toppings, and flavors. Colombian street food is more elaborate than the American kind, not shying away from adding three or four types of sauces to a hot dog, and three or four toppings along with it. Things are stuffed, layered, melting, dripping — the way they should be, in my opinion.

Though there are countless places to choose from, one of my go-to spots is Bolaño. The best thing to order is the mazorca desgranada, or sweet corn off-the-cob topped with swiss cheese, crunchy potato sticks, and special sauces, like a mayo-based sauce infused with lime and pineapple juice. Other dishes that shouldn’t be missed are Colombian-style hot dogs with their layer of sauces and crunchy toppings; salchipapa, a sausage and french fry combo; and chicken and beef skewers. No meal is complete without a Colombiana, Manzana Postobón, or Kola Romana, some of Colombia’s most famous apple-flavored soft drinks.

The place is lively with young partygoers catching a bite to eat, and the latest Latin trap music, but my dad and I decide to take the food to go. Instead, we find an empty bench in the Malecón Puerta de Oro, a new pier that recently opened, to enjoy each other’s company over great food and the buzzing of people.

It’ll likely be a year before I return again to the excitement of this place. As a city that is constantly developing, it’ll be different when I come next time. New buildings will rise where there once were empty plots of land and the old sidewalks might be newly paved. But what will always stay the same is that life is present in everything here: in Fiyi’s house, in the motorcycle-lined streets, and, yes, in the arepas.


Where to Eat in Barranquilla

At traditional local restaurants

(Narcobollo)

While Narcobollo sells both meals and snacks, my family and I typically go for the snacks. One must-have option is the arepa de huevo (egg arepa), which is a twice-fried corn-flour snack with a whole, soft egg inside. Another is the empanada de pollo, or chicken turnover. While many Latin American countries have their own version of turnovers, the ones famous in Barranquilla are made with corn flour and are fried so they have a crispy outer shell. Finally, the kibbehs, oval-shaped croquettes made with ground beef or lamb, show the influence of Arab Colombians in the local cuisine.

At corner bakeries

(Panaderia 20 de Julio Bakery)

There are corner bakeries at every other intersection in Barranquilla that sell just about the same things. If you go to one, make sure to order the avena (oatmeal smoothie), the pan de gloria (sugar bread), and the pan de mantequilla (butter bread).

At the beach

(Puerto Colombia)

All the beaches in Barranquilla have locally owned dining services. The best part is showing up, sitting under a palm-frond hut on the sand, and ordering shoreside. You should get the mojarra frita (whole fried fish) with arroz de coco (coconut rice) and patacones (double-fried plantains). As sides, go for the sancocho de costilla (short rib soup), and a Manzana Postobón (apple-flavored soda) or Pony Malta (a frothy malt-flavored soda).

At street food carts

(Bolaño)

In Barranquilla you can find late-night street food stands all around the city. While many move around, some have a more permanent location. Bolaño is one of these restaurants. While there, you should get a mazorca desgranada (corn off the cob) with all the different sauces it brings; salchipapas (a hot dog sausage and french fries meal); or a special perro caliente (hot dog with special toppings).


About the author: Julissa Higgins is a senior at Harvard University, joining Airbnb as a Product Content Strategist in the fall. She was a former political reporter intern for TIME Magazine and is a contributing writer for Canvas8. Born in Miami to parents from Colombia, she calls both places home.