Cold? Have a steaming cup of aguapanela

I don’t know about your neck of the wood but it is fracking cold here in Ottawa. So I keep thinking about having a cup of aguapanela, nice and steamy. With lots of cheese in it.

Aguapanela (or aguadepanela ==> panela water) is a very common beverage in Colombia. It can be served steaming hot (great as part of a meal or to cure the common cold) or cold to quench the thirst in a hot day, which is pretty much every day in most cities in the torrid zone .

I can even be fermented to various degrees to make a drink called guarapo. The longer you let it ferment, the higher the alcohol content will be. Guarapo is the prefered beverage of farmers who take it with them to drink all day while working in the fields. The flavour is very particular and guarapo is an acquired taste. I don’t mind it fresh but I can’t stand the most fermented one.

You can drink guarapo in a fancy glass

Or in a totuma, as it is intended

A hot cup of aguapanela is the he best that can happen to you when you’re sick.  I have nice memories of my mother bringing me a hot cup of aguapanela with lime juice when I was little – and sick, to make me feel better. Yes, I know it sounds contradictory. I was sick and yet it is a nice memory? But hey, it involves my mother taking care of me and delicious aguapanela! So, yeah.

Aguapanela con limón. Please note that limón means lime**, not lemon. This is very important

However, like I said, we don’t just have aguapanela when we’re sick. We also have it for our “onces”.

You see, Colombians, in a very hobbit-like manner, enjoy 5 or 6 meals a day if they can get them. There’s desayuno (breakfast, when you wake up, usually at 6 am), mediasnueves or mediamañana (around midmorning), almuerzo (lunch – at noon*), onces (around 4-5 pm), comida (dinner – around 8 pm). On certain special days like Nochebuena (Christmas Eve with its famous Cena Navideña), New Year’s Eve or others, there’s a 6th meal – cena, around midnight**.

Aguapanela con queso is very popular for our onces, accompanied with bread and butter. The cheese melts and after that, it’s all heavenly yumminess.

Aguapanela con queso

There’s a funny story about Panela. Back in the 20th century, the Europeans actually thought Colombian cyclists competing at cycling races (think Tour De France) were eating bricks and that’s why there were so strong. They were eating chunks of panela to keep their sugar levels up. True story.


Sadly, panela is also associated with socioeconomic issues. I had to deal with many cases of kwashiorkor during my time at the third level hospital. That’s the problem with poverty in third world countries. Also, because guarapo is so cheap and easy to make, it’s widely drank by farmers, cirrhosis is very common among the peasant folk.

Regardless Colombians do love their panela. Some people use it to sweeten their coffee and other beverages – hot or cold, including limade***. Panela-sweetened limade is delicious. And not to be confused with aguapanela with lime, which is a hot beverage  and has a very different taste.

Panela is also used to make melao, a thick syrup that goes very well with – yes, you guessed right, cheese!

Cuajada con melao – YUM!

As you can see panela is a very versatile food. And it’s dirt cheap. No wonder Colombians like it so much. Not because Colombians are cheap but because they poor. At least 90% of the population is, in any case.


* Yes, I cheated. Half of this post was originally part of another post, which I wrote under the influence of cold/flu medicine. I revisited that post today because someone on Twitter asked me how Colombian hot chocolate was made, and realized it was really two posts in one. Since that didn’t make any sense, I cut the part about panela and pasted it here. Wham! Just like that, I have a brand new post. Also, I’m lazy. Actually, that’s not true. I ended up doing a lot of research for it. About two hours of it, yo!

** Lemon => Lima. Lime => limón. Go figure. And yes, Wikipedia and my high school English teacher have it wrong. Lemon does NOT mean limón. I learned this the hard way when I first moved to Canada.

*** Colombians don’t drink lemonade. Or have much use for lemons.

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15 thoughts on “Cold? Have a steaming cup of aguapanela

  1. LS says:

    Nice review about Panela. I want to make a clarification. In Colombia Guarapo is not a fermented drink, is just the juice of sugarcane with drops of limon. It’s a very refreshing and energetic drink.

    • Summer Solstice Girl says:

      I beg to differ. I am Colombian. Was born and grew up in Bucaramanga. My paternal grandmother always had home made fermented guarapo at home and so did all her married sons. We, the children, were given the fresh one and the adults would had the fermented one. There were always two or three “ures”, clay vessels containing guarapo in different stages of fermentation. I never developed a taste for the fermented one but I liked the fresh one a lot. And the. There was “refajo” which was a mix of guarapo and Cola Hipinto. Later on the “refajo” became more popular as a mix of beer and Cola Hipinto or beer and Colombiana

    • Summer Solstice Girl says:

      Oh! It is… hard to explain in English, that’s what it is, as I don’t know the words I need… it is a product of sugar cane. Like very concentrated sugar cane syrup in the form of a brick. I’m sure you could kill someone with it, it is that hard. I am not sure how to explain the process but I have been to some of the places where panela is made.

        • Summer Solstice Girl says:

          Hmmmm I don’t know how they make fermented one. Never learned. I had it whenever I went to visit my uncle Luis and his family (which was very often). They always kept a batch going. Several, actually. A mild one that we the kids were allowed to have and a stronger one for the adults. Uncle Luis never went to work without a bottle.

        • Summer Solstice Girl says:

          As for the recipe for the tea-like beverage… I’m afraid I won’t be of much use because, well. I just take a hammer, break the brick and then take a chunk, put it in a tall and thin pot, add water and then I let it boil. I can’t tell you “take a quarter and add two cups of water” because panela comes in different sizes. The size up get in Colombia is pretty standard. But I have seen that the ones that are exported come in all kinds of fancy shapes and sizes… If I had a scale, I could weight the chunk I used and then tell you. Let me ask around. But basically, you take a chunk, put it in a pot, add water and then let it boil for a while. If your water is good, then a few minutes of boiling is enough. If you are not sure about the safety of your water (which is often the case in Colombian settlements), you boil the crap out of it.

          • Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

            Oh, see? That’s not a hard recipe. Break of a piece with a hammer, throw it in some water, boil the shit out of it. I also have questionable water, so I boil the shit out of everything.

            Sounds great, I will try it as soon as I get back to my brick of jaggery. I have two kinds: from sugar cane, and from palm.

            I wonder what panela tea laced with aguardiente would taste like?

            So interesting that firewaters of the world are often flavored with anise or fennel. The ubiquitous pan-Middle Eastern firewater is Arak. Love that shit!!! There are a couple of Israeli Araks, but most are Arab. Then you go to the Northern Mediterranean and get Ouzo in Greece, Pernod in France (although it has too much flavor and not enough alcohol for me), Absinthe, Aquaviit in Scandinavia….must be a good thing, eh?

            • Summer Solstice Girl says:

              hahahah oh good! Yeah, then you just tweak the concentration to your taste. I bet anela tea with aguardiente must be good. That shitty thing grows on you. It burns like crazy but it does grow on you. The alcohol percent is very high, like grappa or ouzo or absinthe. And personally I like anise so for me it is good. Especially if you are partying with friends and family. Best thing ever!

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