When I was a kid, my mother used to make me chicken soup whenever I fell under the weather. Even though I still miss my mum’s chicken soup on those cold nights (and there are plenty of cold nights in Bogota), nowadays I just make myself a nice cup of agua de panela (panela water).
Panela is a sweetener that is made from sugar-cane juice. The cane juice is first extracted from the plant, then boiled and evaporated into a thick brown liquid. When the liquid is cooled, they turn into bricks of gold like this and boom, you have panela.
While panela is most commonly sold in brick form, you can now also get it granulated like sugar or in mini-cubes for smaller serving sizes.
How is it consumed?
The most common use of panela is to make agua de panela; a hot beverage made of panela, water and lime. It’s delicious hot or cold but seeing as I’m in Bogota, I like to drink it boiling hot on a cold night (or morning) as it’s a great source of calories when you need to warm yourself up. In Colombia it’s extremely common to drink hot agua de panela as a remedy when you get ill, particularly with a cold and flu (My tip: Add a thumb of ginger while heating your agua de panela). Agua de panela can also be refreshing ice cold with a lot of lime on a hot summers day and is drunk pretty much everyday in hotter regions like Antioquia and the coastal regions. A traditional way to drink agua de panela is adding cheese to the hot agua de panela with almojábana (Colombian cheese bread) on the side.
Panela is also used to sweeten coffee. In fact, if you go to a traditional coffee shop you can get a “tinto campesino” which is agua de panela with filtered coffee.
To be honest, the first time I had agua de panela I didn’t like it. I thought it was way too sweet but over time I’ve come to love it. So much so that sometimes I even cut off a small piece and eat it straight like candy. Mmmmm rico.
What about all that sugar?
Whether panela is good for you or not seems to be a never ending debate. Most locals will tell you that it’s full of vitamins and minerals but the reality is, it is basically just sugar and overconsumption of sugar is probably not good for you in the long run. It’s one of those things that Colombians have grown up with because generations upon generations of mamas and abuelitas before have made it for their children so it makes a regular appearance in the average Colombian household. It’s also a very cheap source of calories so for many Colombians, its an affordable and effective source of energy to get them through the day. I once lived with a poor university student who would have a mug of agua de panela with bread for dinner at least two or three times a week. In fact, it wouldn’t be abnormal to have a cup of agua de panela with your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I’m writing this post on a rather rainy and cold morning here in Bogota so I’m going to get load up on some calories with a nice cup of tinto campesino.