Theresa Pereira Written by Theresa Pereira

Sugars in Colombian food and drinks: a rich tradition

Our sugar journey around the world continues. In our next stop, we dive into the wonderful country of Colombia to explore the importance of sugarcane and sugar to its cuisine and history.

Sugarcane and Colombia: A rich history

Sugar is intimately tied to the history of Colombia. Arriving in the country over 500 years ago following Spanish conquest, sugarcane production thrived in the fertile Colombian areas and climate so well suited to its growth and farming. From approximately 1538, the crop became an integral staple and was increasingly woven into the culture and various traditions of the country.

In the modern age, production of the crop has continued to remain vital to Colombia’s economy. 2010 saw no fewer than 20.27 million metric tons of sugarcane farmed – a figure that rose to 23.33 million tons in 2019. Leading to the final production of over 2 million tons of sugar per year, Colombia’s output is mainly destined for its domestic markets, with export tending to go to countries including Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, the United States of America, Peru and Europe.

The climate in regions of Colombia is ideal for sugarcane production. Areas such as Valle del Cauca and Risaralda offer excellent levels of what is known as solar radiation – essentially the level of sunlight a surface receives over a specific period. This is intense in these areas, with further conditions including temperature range, rainfall, soil fertility and water availability all coming together to make for the efficient growth of sugarcane.

Valle de Cauca region in Colombia, showing sugarcane fields in front of a mountain

The climate makes the Valle de Cauca region of Colombia ideal for sugarcane growth.

The use of these areas to grow the crop is, to say the least, widespread and maximised. The Valle del Cauca department (the phrase used to describe a given area of Colombia) alone sees the use of approximately 230,000 hectares specifically for the growing of sugarcane. It’s these vast swathes of cane fields that supply the raw sugarcane to neighbouring sugar mills, which are located in places including Carmelita, Manuelita, Risaralda, Tumaco, and many more.

As part of an ongoing effort to diversify and improve the sustainability of sugarcane farming, many of these Colombian sugar mills also incorporate distilleries that allow for the production of sugarcane-based fuel alcohol such as ethanol.

Colombian panela: A cultural staple

Every country has food and drink that defines the experience of living and visiting there, and Colombia is no exception. Panela is a form of unrefined whole cane sugar that is common in Latin and Central America. It’s a key part of the Colombian experience, with its rich brown colour and distinctive mellow taste being made possible through the well-honed practice of boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice. In other regions of Latin America, panela goes by other names including ‘chancaca’ in Chile and ‘piloncillo’ in Mexico.

Rounded blocks of panela on a slate, next to some grated panela

Panela is a key ingredient of Colombian cuisine, with a distinctive mellow taste.

To say Colombians love panela would be an understatement; it’s estimated that the average consumption of unrefined cane sugar is over 30kg per person per year! It’s the central ingredient in many signature dishes and drinks, including a famous drink we’ll look at right now: Agua Panela.

Agua la Panela: Colombian sugar drink

Also known as Agua de Panela – translating to ‘panela water’ in English – Agua Panela is a drink steeped in Colombian tradition. Served either hot or cold, it’s often used as a base for drinks such as coffee, tea and hot chocolate, and is traditionally used with a mix of lime juice as medicine for flu.

a glass of agua panela containing sliced limes and ice

In addition to its refreshing flavour, Colombians believe Agua Panela has good nutritional value.

Made simply by boiling chunks or grated pieces of panela in water, Agua Panela has a distinct taste loved by Colombians, who are firm believers in the nutritional and strengthening value of the beverage.

Polvorosas: Colombian butter and sugar cookies

Polvorosas are adored across Colombia by children and adults alike. Popular year-round and revered especially for holidays, these cookies are simple to bake and make use of clarified butter, icing sugar, vanilla, flour and granulated sugar to produce their distinct flavour and presentation.

red cup of coffee with two polvorosas on the saucer

Polvorosas are a popular sweet treat, having a distinctive buttery and crumbly texture.

Often served alongside a glass of milk, Colombian black coffee, or tea, Polvorosas have an addictively crumbly and buttery texture. The origin of the name lies in the Spanish word Polvo, which translates to ‘powder’ in English. To finish the cookie, cane sugar is dusted over the top after baking, providing a textured finish and additional sweetness.

Natilla: Colombian cinnamon milk custard

The distinctive Colombian style of cooking incorporates panela sugar to provide its distinct finish, although the use of dark brown sugars such as muscovado can be substituted in to produce wonderful dishes including Natilla, a firm milk custard infused with cinnamon flavour.

Natilla with a slice cut out next to sliced bunuelos

Natilla is synonymous with Colombia’s Christmas season where novenas signals the start of the celebrations.

Christmas time in Colombia is truly magical. Seasonal food and drinks are made and enjoyed by families, friends and local communities. Starting nine days before Christmas day, the gatherings for prayer and signing known as ‘novenas’ begin – and a delicious dinner is never too far behind them.

This recipe is often served with buñuelos, a type of fritter typically baked during the festive period. The cold bite of freshly made Natilla pairing with the fluffy, savoury flavour of the buñuelo is a memory firmly ingrained into the minds of Colombians!

The history of Natilla dates back to the arrival of the Spanish in South America. It is believed that Natilla was first seen in the city of Antioquia, where commonly available ingredients led to its creation. At the time, the use of the more readily available corn flour became a signature part of the dish, along with the ever-available Panela that contributes to the darker final colour of the custard.

As a sugarcane producing nation, Colombia has embraced sugars in its culture and cuisine. It has become an essential ingredient not just for its flavour, but to influence and add authentic texture and appearance.

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