By Fannie Fonseca-Becker, M.P.H., R.D.

The lush and fertile valleys in the Colombian Andes where I grew up were already inhabited by a thriving agrarian culture (the Chibchas) at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. To this day, four centuries later, corn, potatoes, cassava (yucca), squash, tomatoes, and beans remain staples of the Andean valley's cuisine.

In addition to the higher-altitude produce, a profusion of vegetables and tropical fruits grown in the lower altitudes are also available all year long due to Colombia's geographic closeness to the Equator. Although Colombia's cuisine is as varied and rich as its many geographic regions, the following recipes are representative of the high valleys in the Andean region. I took care to conserve the recipes' unique flavors when adapting them to their vegan versions. Some of the ingredients can be found at ethnic stores, usually Latin, Caribbean, or even African.

If there are no ethnic food stores near you, some of the ingredients such as MASECA or P.A.N. (pre-cooked corn flour) are available by mail order through EMD Sales, 820 West, Landover, MD 20785, Telephone (301) 322-4505, Fax (301) 322-3504.


(Serves 6)

This dish is very nice when served on a bed of rice.
  • ½ Tablespoon oil
  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cups cooked garbanzo beans
  • 6 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 Tablespoons ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ cup fresh coriander, chopped

In a non-stick skillet, sauté onions and garlic in oil for about 3 minutes; add the cooked garbanzos, tomatoes, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium heat for 20 minutes stirring frequently. Add the coriander and serve.

Total calories per serving: 200
Fat: 4 grams


(Makes 18 arepas)

Serve hot with soups or as a substitute for bread. The arepas can also be cut in half and stuffed with tomato slices.

  • 2 cups pre-cooked corn flour (MASECA for arepas or P.A.N.)
  • Lukewarm water
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

Mix the flour and salt with the lukewarm water as in the recipe for the tamales (on the next page). Set aside for 10 minutes. Make 3" dough balls and flatten them between your hands until they are ½" thick. On a non-stick skillet cook them until both sides become darker.

Total calories per arepa: 187
Fat: less than 1 gram


(Makes 20 tamales)

Tamales are best when cooked in banana leaves. This fall we were lucky to have 20 large leaves from the banana tree in our backyard. For three years now we've dug it out in the late fall for a winter slumber in our basement and then replanted it in the yard in the spring. Some ethnic food stores sell fresh or frozen leaves already cut and ready to use. If you do not have your own banana tree or an ethnic food store nearby, foil paper can be substituted for the leaves.

  • 3 cups pre-cooked corn flour (MASECA for tamales or P.A.N. work well)
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 4-½ cups lukewarm water


  • 1 Tablespoon oil (I prefer olive)
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 medium onions, minced
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and minced
  • 1-½ cups cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • ¼ cup capers
  • 2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 20 plantain leaves or foil paper (10" x 10")
  • Twine
  1. Mix the corn flour and salt, slowly add water while mixing until a smooth dough that is just slightly sticky is obtained. Set the dough aside for 10 minutes.
  2. Sauté the garlic and onions in oil until the onions are translucent. Add the tomatoes, garbanzo beans, capers, and seasonings; mix well and cook over low fire for 5 minutes.
  3. To assemble the tamales, wet the center of one side of the banana leaf with some of the juice from the sauce, then take some of the dough and smooth it with your hands over the center of the leaf to form a 4" square that is about ½" thick. In the center of this square spoon some of the sauce, leaving about 1" border all around. Then take some more dough and pat it over the square making sure that all the stuffing is covered, and press all four sides down to seal the contents in. Fold the sides of the banana leaf over the dough so that it looks like a small packet and tie with twine. Pour 1" water in a large pot and place a steaming rack over it. (Metal ones are cheap, fit most pans and can be found in any store that sells cooking utensils.) Neatly stack the tamales, cover the pot with a lid, and steam for one hour. The level of the water should be checked on a regular basis; if it is too low, then add some more. Tamales can be prepared a day or so in advance and reheated over a steam bath before serving. Do not eat banana leaves.
Total calories per tamale: 252
Fat: 2 grams


(Makes 12 empanadas)

Serve this dish as an appetizer.

  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 large red pepper, diced
  • 1 Tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 1 pound tofu - crumbled
  • 2 Tablespoons tamari
  • 12 empanada rounds (found ready to use in the frozen section of your local ethnic market or you can also use small flour tortilla rounds which can be found in most large supermarkets in the refrigerated section)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. While the rice is cooking, sauté the garlic for 3 minutes, add the pepper, cumin, parsley, tofu, and tamari and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the cooked rice and mix well.
  2. With a spoon, scoop some of the filling in the upper half of the empanada round, making sure to leave a large enough border. Fold the lower half over the top part to form a semi-circle. Press the edges together and go around the edge with the teeth of a fork to seal it. Place on a non-stick cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden.
Total calories per empanada: 171
Fat: 5 grams


(Serves 20)

This dish has been our family's favorite for Thanksgiving Dinner for the past six years. I usually buy a medium Hubbard squash (also known as Crew Neck squash) at our local farmer's market. If there are no Hubbards in your area, a good-size pumpkin also works well. Choose one that will fit in your oven and for which you have a large enough pan - I usually get one that fits into my 16" by 11" pan.

  • One medium Hubbard squash (Ahuyama)
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 2 Tablespoons grated ginger
  • 4 large onions, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup chopped carrots
  • 4 cups squash flesh cut into small cubes
  • 3 apples cored and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • 4 cups cooked Kashi (cooked millet or rice can be substituted for the Kashi)
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • ½ cup slivered almonds


  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup tamari
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the top portion of the squash as if to make a lid, scoop the seeds as well as some of the flesh and set squash aside in a large oven pan.
  2. In a non-stick covered pan, roast the mustard seeds until they stop popping and set aside. In a wok or large skillet, sauté the ginger, onion, and garlic in oil. Once the onions are tender add the carrots, squash cubes, apples, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, mix well and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and mix in the cooked Kashi, mustard seeds, raisins and walnuts. Mix the orange juice, syrup, and tamari and set aside. Stuff the squash with the kashi mixture, pour over the orange juice-syrup-tamari, and top with a layer of almonds. Cover with the squash lid and cover the bottom of the pan with 1" of water; bake for 1-½ hours or until the squash is tender. (Prick it with a fork, if it goes through the skin easily it is ready.)
Total calories per serving: 171
Fat: 5 grams


(Serves 4)

This dish calls for ripe plantains (they are ripe when the skin starts becoming black). If you cannot find plantains in your area, I have tried this recipe with large bananas (medium ripe) with good results.

  • 4 ripe plantains
  • 2 ounces shredded soy cheese
  • ¼ cup fruit preserve (preferably guava, but this can be substituted with your favorite fruit preserve)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel the plantains and slice them lengthwise in the middle but do not cut all the way through so that the two sides are still joined. Stuff the plantain with shredded cheese and fruit preserve, place in a non-stick pan, add ¼" water to pan bottom and cover with foil paper. Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees or until the bananas are soft.

Total calories per serving: 280
Fat: 4 grams

Buen provecho!

Fannie Fonseca-Becker, M.P.H., R.D., is assisting The Vegetarian Resource Group with several projects involving outreach to Latinos.

About The Vegetarian Journal and The Vegetarian Resource Group

This article originally appeared in the November/December, 1995 issue of The Vegetarian Journal, published by:

The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-8343
E-mail: vrg@vrg.org