Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #4: Agua de Panela

Every culture (and every individual within that culture) has its own methods for dealing with illness, or even just the common cold. Some people swear by garlic cloves, others resort to endless bowls of chicken soup or other kinds of comforting broth, while still others just pop NyQuil until they’ve convinced themselves they feel better. I’m personally terrible at being sick — my two coping mechanisms, in order, are total denial and then eating whole oranges while drinking incessant cups of herbal tea with honey until I can’t think about citrus anymore. It may not be the most medically advanced strategy, but I haven’t died yet, so I have no evidence that it isn’t working.

I’ve only had a cold once so far in Colombia, and thank god, because while I may have the constitution to deal with Colombian gripa, I’m definitely not strong enough to handle the universally accepted cure: agua de panela.

Let’s start with the basics. Panela is a solid form of sugarcane, produced primarily in the coffee region of Colombia and sold in square blocks in pretty much any market across the country. It functions as a sugar substitute, since it essentially is just a block of unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s delicious in coffee, but less so when it’s the main ingredient of a drink.

Those of you who took Spanish in high school may have figured out by now that agua de panela is exactly what it sounds like: panela water. There’s nothing more to it — just a block of panela dissolved in warm water and served like a piping hot cup of sweet tea. I’m sure both Southerners and butterflies would delight in this beverage, but as someone who prefers my sweet drinks to involve fruit, it’s not really, dare I say, my cup of tea.

But that sure puts me in the minority here. Agua de panela is nationally accepted as the most effective and highly recommended cure — or preventative measure — for the common cold. It’s cold outside? Agua de panela. You’re coughing? Agua de panela. It’s 11 a.m.? Why not have some agua de panela?

Given how much soda Colombians typically consume, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the national preference for drinking sugar water at the drop of a hat. Still, the next time I start sneezing, you can find me in a corner with my tea and oranges — hold the butterfly nectar, please.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

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Food Friday: Historic Pastries in Villa de Levya

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This gallery contains 10 photos.

Delicious treats from Villa de Leyva. I swear we ate real food while we were there — but you wouldn’t know it from my photos. Clearly I have my artistic (and gastronomic) priorities in order.

Food Friday: Cholado

they look just good enough to eat, don't they?

Oh so tempting…

On my trip to Cali a few weeks ago, I think it’s safe to say that about 30% of my conversations with my best friend revolved around cholado. How excited we were to eat cholado, where we were going to buy cholado, how much cholado we could possibly eat in one weekend — if it involved cholado, you can be sure it was discussed at great length.

So what, you ask, is this magical, delightful treat that so captured our imaginations and taste buds? WELL. Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about raspado?

that is a brave woman, right there

DO YOU SEE HOW MANY BEES ARE ON THIS CONTAINER RIGHT NOW??

Cholado is more or less its bigger, sugarier, fruitier cousin — and man, is it delicious. It’s also a specialty of Cali and the Cauca department, appearing under brightly-colored carts every few blocks in the cities and towns of that region. I guess icy treats are a much easier sell in places where it doesn’t rain every two hours.

Imagine if a sno-cone and a fruit parfait had a baby and shoved it into a giant cup with a straw. That’s essentially what cholado is: a sugar-high in a cup. It’s made by tossing a bunch of different kinds of fruit (pineapple, maracuyá, papaya, strawberries, etc.) into a plastic cup the size of a Big Gulp, adding shaved ice and food coloring, and topping the whole thing off with a strawberry, sticky-sweet condensed milk and a vanilla wafer, just for the hell of it.

all of that color is purely natural, of course

Bet you’re jealous you don’t have one of these right now

Grab a long-handled spoon and a straw (yes, you’ll end up needing both), and you’re good to go.

I only ate one of these treats during my weekend in Cali — not because I didn’t like it, but rather that one per weekend is about the limit that a normal digestive system can handle. Any more and I would’ve been bouncing off the walls for the whole week. It’s been long enough since that delicious day, though, that I think I’m just about ready for another.

Food Friday: Arequipe, or Whatever You Call It Where You Live

If you’ve visited pretty much any country in South America, you’re probably already familiar with arequipe, or at least with one of its cousins. It goes by many names: arequipe here in Colombia, dulce de leche in Argentina, manjar in Ecuador, and something in Mexico that I won’t write here because it’s a dirty word in Argentine Spanish and I don’t want to offend my former host family. Google it yourself.

evidence of my non-love for the 'quipe

Not all arequipe is created alike. Some comes in a plastic container from a roadside stand somewhere west of Bogotá….

Whatever you want to call it, arequipe is a sugary treat made from heated, caramelized milk and, obviously, a lot of sugar. Like many of the dulces here, I often find it overwhelmingly sweet — a little bit goes a long way. Conventional wisdom has it that Americans have a serious (and seriously problematic) sweet tooth, so maybe I’m just an abnormality, but to me it seems that people here eat way more sweets than at home, and  dulces here have a hell of a lot of sugar. Lunch at my school always comes with some kind of candy, and everyone from kids to adults walk around snacking on sugary confections. You’d never see an adult in the U.S. walking around with a lollipop, but here, it’s pretty common.

but really, I'd probably eat dirt if it were covered with chocolate

…some comes slathered in chocolate and baked into a cake…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re talking about arequipe. Colombians put arequipe on/in EVERYTHING — cakes, pastries, croissants, cookies, you name it. There are arequipe-flavored lollipops, ice cream, chocolate bars and cappuccinos. And that’s if they even bother pairing it with something — half the time, people will just eat it right out of the container with a spoon, like a sugarier version of me with a jar of peanut butter.

GET AT ME, arequipe con cafe

…and some is coffee-flavored and further evidence of the brilliance of the Colombian people.

I have to admit, I still haven’t totally adjusted to the national obsession with arequipe. Don’t get me wrong — I love my sweets, but I prefer my sugar fix to arrive in the form of chocolate or possibly frappes (I believe those of you who aren’t from the Northeast call them milkshakes. Colombians call them batidos). I didn’t really love dulce de leche while I lived in Argentina (unless it arrived inside alfajores, which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life, or at least until they gave me diabetes), and apparently my taste buds haven’t changed significantly in the last three years.

who am I kidding? I totally want to shove my face in it

You know what? At least I’m bothering to put it on cookies instead of just shoving my face in it. Small victories, people!

As with every rule, of course, there’s one exception: last week I discovered, lurking in my second-closest supermarket, arequipe con café. Yeah, that’s right, kids: it’s coffee-flavored arequipe. Because the only thing that can make a bowl of sugar better is caffeine. Friends and family, expect me to return to the U.S. with about ten jars of this stuff.

Still, while this product was obviously designed specifically with me as its target consumer, I’m not yet a full-fledged arequipe convert. Sure, it’s tasty in small doses, or as a topping, or when flavored with my biggest food vice after chocolate, but for the foreseeable future, I think I’m going to reserve my spooning-empty-calories-directly-from-the-jar impulses for Nutella.