Hacking Colombia: Supermarket

Colombia has a lot of supermarkets from small neighborhood ones to giant department stores. For foreigners, take it for granted that you’ll have to adapt your diet to Colombia’s: While some of your favorite foods from “back home” might be available in the imported section, they might also be quite pricey, and their made in Colombia equivalents may not be quite the same.

Among the big national supermarket chains are exitoJumbo and Euro. Let’s do a tour of the aisles and see what’s on offer so you can prepare yourself for the transition. Please remember that Colombians by and large still cook fresh meals at home, so this influences what food markets provide.

Milk: Almost all milk is UHT, that is ultra-pasteurized, and isn’t refrigerated. Sold either in bags or bricks (tetra packs) and typically in 1 litre format. Lactose free milk is very available and inexpensive.

Eggs: Sold at room temperature, which may or may not be how they sell them in your old country. You’ll also come across tiny cordoniz (quail) eggs which are popular with locals.

Vegetables: Most of it will be familiar to you. Iceberg lettuce may not be easy to find, but romaine is. What will be abundant and inexpensive is cassava (yuca). Potatoes are much like back home, and there’s the small local criolla kind which you should definitely try!

Fruit: As you might expect, an abundance of local produce: bananas and plantains, uchubas (gooseberries), varieties of guayabasguanabana (soursop), pitahya (careful with those!!), etc. Apples, grapes, strawberries, pears and other colder climate fruit tend to be bland or not fresh, so be picky with those!

LegumesFrijoles (beans) are a staple, especially in Antioquia, so expect to see a lot of dried beans as well as canned ones. Canned beans American-style aren’t a thing, but chili con carne might be.

Rice: Another staple, though mostly what we know as plain old rice! Instant rice a-la-Rice-a-Roni isn’t a thing here, but to be honest I’ve never looked for it.

Frozen entrees/meals: While Americans may be used to aisle after aisle of frozen meals, there’s not much of that here, and what there is expensive, poor quality, and quite often half unfrozen! Again, Colombia is a country of fresh food.

Bakery: I’ve never found a really good baguette, pastry or croissant in a supermarket here. If there’s a Deli (a national brand) counter inside the market, you might get something decent pastry-wise. Arequipe (a type of caramel), mora (blackberry), and guayaba are the overwhelming favorite cake and pastry fillings, whereas in salty pastries, it’s gotta have cheese, or cheese and ham!

Arepas: As you may know, arepas are a staple here. You’ll usually find a refrigerated section with every kind of arepa in packages. I recommend the Sary brand even if their products cost a bit more.

Cereals: Oats (avena) are a staple where the avena drink is popular. Choices of cereals are limited, and can be pricey. Some granolas can be overly sweet, so be picky!

Pasta: You may not recognize the brands except maybe for Barilla, but otherwise they’re quite good. My recommendation is Monticello. Pasta sauce, on the other hand, is hard to distinguish from ketchup (usually in squeezable packs) unless you pay extra for the imported stuff (for ex: Hunts, Ragu). My own favorite is Barilla’s, which is often on special in its larger jars. Or make your own spaghetti sauce! Kraft Dinner is expensive, but if you gotta eat that stuff, national pasta brand Doria has something pretty similar!

Yogurts: If you like creamy yogurts, you may be severely disappointed! Colombians seem to like liquid yogurt, and the Greek yogurt is nothing like a Chobani! Any fruit at the bottom yogurts I’ve tried I found too sugary, but as with anything else, maybe you’ll find a brand you can tolerate!

Flour: Corn flour is king, with wheat flour a distant second. Haz de Oro is a well known national brand. There’s instant pancake mixes as well, but the syrups are 100% sugar/corn syrup even if the word “maple” appears on the label, so you might want to make your own fruit coulis as I do!

Meats: Pork, beef, chorizos (sausages) and chicken is pretty good quality here and the morcilla (blood sausage) actually is flavorful (unlike the Argentinian version). Also popular here is mondongo, or cow’s stomach, which is used in soups and stews, but otherwise, not too much guts in the meat department!

WARNING!!!: hotdogs and sausages come individually wrapped in plastic, remove them before cooking!

Bottled water: Some inexpensive brands. For fizzy water, consider the popular Bretaña which I use as a substitute for sodas, mixing it with fruit juices. You’ll likely see bags of water as well. Note that in many Andean cities, tap water is safe to drink!

Sodas & other sugary drinks: Quatro (grapefruit flavored), ColombianaRoman Kola and Postobon Manzana are some of the local favorites besides Coke. Kids are given a lot of Pony Malta (malt). Valle and Hit are the local brands of fake sugary juices!

Juices: For a country with an overabundance of inexpensive tropical fruits, there’s not much on offer in ready to drink real juices. However, there’s lots of frozen and unfrozen fruit juice pulps (pulpas) which you can prepare at home in your blender, with milk or water. I use panela sugar to sweeten them, and/or ripened bananas.. Fruit juice paradise in the end!

Toiletries: Like North Americans, no bidets here, so lots of brands of toilet paper! American toothpaste brands like Colgate as well as national ones like Fluocardent. Bath soaps are mostly national brands though DoveJohnson & Johnson and Palmolive are usually found on store shelves. Shampoo brands will mostly be unknown to you, though some higher priced imports are also on offer. Underarm deodorant tends to be expensive so you might want to stock up before traveling here! In my own assessments, national toiletry brands are quite good.

SIDENOTE: counterintuitively, quite often prices are lower in your neighborhood minimarkets!!

The above isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should give you a pretty good idea of what people eat at home here!

Happy shopping!