More adventures in the quest to reveal the entire Bolivian cuisine.
by SeenThat on April 25, 2011
As A Politically Incorrect Journal, this journal was born by chance. Walking around Miraflores around noon of Holy Friday, I found a restaurant advertising several dishes I didn’t recognize. Accordingly, it offered dishes from the Beni, one of the areas of Bolivia I still didn’t visit. Deep in the Amazonian Basin, Beni is the source of what most Bolivians classify as exotic and exciting dishes. In the past I reviewed crocodile meat from there and the surprisingly good experience left me willing to try more dishes from the mysterious rainforest. Without thinking twice I passed through the stone wall fencing the low building and went straight to the counter. In most Bolivian restaurants sitting down and waiting to be serviced can lead to unexpected results. "Que es sudaù de pacù, (What’s sudaù de pacù?)" I asked. It was the first item in the list of "special lunch" featured next to the counter; I understood only the "de" (of) in the name."Pacù is a fresh water fish. It is served with rice. Sudaù is the rich sauce accompanying it." I was told immediately and we closed a deal. The special lunch included also a fish soup."What would you drink?"I wasn’t planning to order any drinks. The lunch already included a soup and that’s enough by local standards. Yet, the owner didn’t let me say "no," and began describing their typical drinks. The second one was "chicha," which I had never reviewed so I took a "half-jar" of it; later I found apparently they understand the term jar differently in Beni.Introduction: The SoupI sat down and found myself staring at the furs of some very unhappy large cats. Suddenly I was happy I had ordered fish, there would be no misunderstandings regarding the source of the meat. I barely had finished photographing the corpses when a local matron with a large pot of soup approached my table and served the fish soup.Soups are a main component of the Andean High Plateau meals; I reviewed the exceptional chairo – a soup made with dehydrated chuño potatoes - in my Chatting Chatarra journal. Invariably, they are very thick and hot, exactly what you need to cope with the cold. Fish soup – unless you consider wallake a soup, a thing locals do not – is an oddity. Thus I was really surprised to find a thin soup with a fish head clearly searching for the rest of its body in it. Bolivia is one of the few places were fish heads are regularly consumed. I tasted the soup, expecting a sharp fishy taste, but then I was reminded all the fish in the Beni are of the fresh water type. The soup had a vaguely fishy taste and was definitely interesting, though I passed on the head; giving it the opportunity to find the rest of its body later in the kitchen seemed a just way of saying thank you for the agreeably soup.Interlude: ChichaA jar of chicha was in front of me. "I asked for a half-jar," I said to the waitress."A small jar is like a half jar," was the only cryptic answer I could get. Actually, the jar rendered five glasses of chicha.Bolivia is one of the places where maize is native. Thus, there are many varieties and it is consumed in several ways. Api and tojori are by far the most popular ones. Both are hot drinks, the first made of blue corn, while the second is from the yellow variety. Often they are mixed, creating a colorful mosaic. The api is not unlike the "chicha morada" found in Peru. "Tortillas" – maize pancakes – can be found in traditional communities though in the city they are hard to find. Finally, "chicha" is similar to tojori, but more diluted and served cold.Despite its local popularity, I dislike api (and tojori). The chicha wasn’t expected to be any better, but missing such a drink would be a sin to my quest to review the entire Bolivian cuisine, thus I served a glass and tried it. You can see in the accompanying picture that the chicha has a thick solid residue floating in it, as with the api, this gives it a dusty flavor. Sour on the verge of fermenting and dusty. No, thanks.Finale: Sudaù de Pacù How could I wash out the chicha dustiness in my mouth? Drinking more chicha wouldn’t help. I was relieved by the sudaù de pacù, the star of this review.The rice occupying most of the plate was dark and had some veggies in it. Next to it was a slice of baked plantain – not to be confused with regular bananas. The rest of the dish included three slices of a fish I couldn’t recognize. The sudaù sauce was below and around everything else.Bolivian rice frightens me. Truly, you never know what crimes where committed on it before being served. More often than not is broken and boiled until it becomes mushy. This one was reasonably good; meaning just that it was edible. Skipping it, I tried the plantain, which was as good as this dish can get, baked on the verge of being crispy and almost – but not just there - sweet.The fish was intriguing since it obviously had different textures. It had been served with the skin, some parts of its interior where meaty, while other more gelatinous in nature. I tried a bit and found it surprisingly good, with an interesting mix of tastes and textures, the sauce wasn’t spicy – a disappointment – yet it fitted the dish perfectly. Soon, I got a surprise. The thick bones of this small fish – its diameter was about two inches – would have made a shark proud. I had found an Amazonian shark.
While writing a food journal, more often than not I choose the reviewed restaurant just according to the dish they are serving. I wallk around until the desired dish appears. In the case of "picante de lengua" (spicy tongue) it didn’t take long. The desired dish appeared just next to the Monje Campero Cinema on El Prado – La Paz main avenue. Without thinking twice, I left the bright altitude sun and entered a very low room full with tables, chairs and an entertainment complex surrounded by four municipal guards watching an old movie dubbed into faulty Spanish with a heavy Mexican accent. That’s why the street outside was so messy."Un almuerzo" (a lunch) I said to an unseen waiter, and waited. It always works. Almost all Bolivian restaurants offer a set lunch option which is invariably better than anything a la carte. Soon the entrée appeared as by magic on my table. Almost always they are unremarkable, and this one wasn’t an exception. The most interesting item was the llajua, the favorite hot sauce in Bolivia. It is prepared with tomatoes, aji and sometimes quirquincha on a watery base. "Aji" is the name for a local variety of elongated chilies. They come in a variety of color and are sweet or very spicy. For llajua, almost always the spicy and red variety is used. Quirquincha is a green leaf with a sharp flavor; luckily, it wasn’t present here since I dislike its taste. Unluckily, the aji chosen was not spicy, rendering an unbelievably sweet llajua. That was the first sign something was wrong here.Soon the soup appeared out of the blue. Its yellow color told me it was peanuts soup. Native from eastern Bolivia, peanuts are used in a variety of unusual dishes here; their thick soup is exceptional. It doesn’t matter how it is flavored or what additions it gets, it is always good. More often than not, a small bone with beef or lamb meat swims inside. Noodles add a few more carbohydrates to this already fiery mixture.Then, the spicy – but not sharp – tongue was laughing at me. It had been served with tunta, a potato and chopped tomatoes and onion. The tunta is what transformed it into an Andean High Plateau dish, though an adapted one, beef arrived here only recently with the Spaniards colonizers.The tunta and chuño originate on regular white small potatoes and differ only on their dehydration process. During the Altiplano's frozen nights, the chuño is left to freeze on the ground surface after being harvested. Following that, it melts down under the morning sun. During the early afternoon it is pressed with bare feet so that the water is filtered out; the result is a black potato of irregular surface. Subsequently the dehydrated potato can be stored for years while keeping its quality. The unhygienic process is of little concern since the potato is boiled up before consumption. It has a very distinctive pungent taste. The tunta is obtained by putting the potato within a water stream for a fortnight. In this way everything except for the carbohydrate fibers is washed off the original potato. The result is a small, regular shaped, white potato with very little taste. Due to the differences in the process, tunta is much more expensive than the chuño. Most travelers find the chuño’s taste too strong; tunta is softer and more agreeable. If potatoes and chuño or tunta appear in a single dish, passing on the potato and choosing the dehydrated version is probably the best option for the traveler seeking for a truly local experience. From time to time, other tubers may be found. The elongated oca and its dehydrated version – the umakaya – are much recommended. The first is sweet as a yam, while the second features a pungent taste stronger even than the chuño. The tunta here was well done and eventually saved the dish."Picante de lengua" literally means "spicy tongue;" sometimes it appears also as "aji de lengua." The spiciness added by the aji balances the mild flavor and soft texture of the tongue, creating an agreeable dish. However, here there was neither "picante" nor "aji." Everything was as sweet as the llajua sauce.While pondering if I should join the guards, the dessert landed in front of me. To small papaya pieces were swimming in an unclear liquid. With care, I took a bite. Sometimes, I sit in a place knowing the meal would be bad jut because I want to taste something special. More often than not, I know exactly which is the special dish I’m searching for; aji de lengua in this case. Seldom had I found myself delighted by one of the other dishes in the meal. This was one of these rare cases, the papaya bits were swimming in lemon juice and created an altitude ambrosia, that transformed guards and non-spicy spicy foods into a remote and irrelevant memory.
by SeenThat on April 26, 2011
Sometimes, taking great pictures is simple; the location is so amazing that dropping the camera on the floor while ensuring it will shoot on impact is enough to provide breathtaking images. In other occasions, you remember tips on how to take good pictures: you wait until the soft sunset light and do not face the sun while shooting the camera. You begin feeling like a pro when you reach a high altitude destination with awesome views. You remember and apply all the photography tips you ever heard of, but nothing helps. Great views, horrific pictures.Over time, I visited two high altitude destinations: the Himalayas and the Andes. By high altitude I mean being over 4000 meters above the sea level, where all humans need an acclimatization period. There, I learned the hard way that most photography rules are bent by high altitude radiation. Here are some tips.You walk through downtown La Paz in a breezy afternoon. Out of the blue, Mount Illimani appears in its full glory. Excited, you take out the camera, make a fast - but attractive - composition, shoot the picture and move to viewer mode. Everything is vivid and nice, but Mount Illimani is nowhere to be seen. You enlarge the picture and after a while find out a vague whitish shape. The Illimani became an outline. Is the camera bad? Nearby, Bolivians dance in one of their crazed carnivals. You try photographing them. Most of their dresses colors and details disappear. You see glory, the camera captures garbage.The problem is called glare, namely reflections of light by nearby objects. At sea level is a small problem. However, La Paz is oriented towards the southeast, facing Mount Illimani. The snow of the mountain reflects the sun radiation, especially during sunrise and sunset. Most pictures during those times would come out bad if facing the sun, Mount Illimani, or anything reflecting their light. Understanding that solves part of the problem – you’ll take the pictures about half an hour after sunrise or before sunset - but it still would leave you without good pictures of Mount Illimani. Learning to take advantage of the clouds is important; at high altitude, heavy, dark clouds occulting the sun are the photographer’s best friends. That works fine in the wet Himalayas, yet, the Andes are next to the planet’s driest desert; clouds are an oddity even in La Paz, almost completely across the range from the desert.Yet, solutions can be found even without pro equipment. If you look at my picture in my IgoUgo profile page, you can see me next to the Everest, wearing Ray Ban sunglasses #1 (the opacity number, #3 is the darkest). They were perfect there, but rather useless in La Paz due to the wild glare in the last. In La Paz, I used #3, polarized sunglasses. Even then, looking at the direction of the sun during sunrise is difficult, that’s how intense the glare is due to snow reflections. Yet, polarized glasses are important since they diminish the strength of the glare. Thus, while taking a picture of the mountain, just take off the sunglasses and place them in front of the camera lenses. It may distort the view a bit, but almost always it would solve the glare issue without using expensive filters.Then, you walk around and see a pretty street framed by an awesome forest and hill. You take a picture and then realize the street is in almost complete darkness, while the bald hill top glares as a miniature sun. You can either see the street clearly or the hill clearly, but no both at the same time. There is no magic solution for this one, but it is useful to realize many digital cameras allow you to define the contrast of a picture. In such a case, diminish the contrast as much as possible, sometimes, that would result in decent pictures under these heavy constraints.Is that all? Not exactly, but these tips solve the main problems of high altitude photographing with simple and accessible methods. As always, the main point is awareness to the glare and contrast issues, then, solutions to other secondary effects can be devised on the spot.
by SeenThat on May 4, 2011
Would you stop reading my food reviews if you knew I was aware from the beginning of the quest I wouldn’t be able to review the entire Bolivian cuisine?In the not so far past…"You know what was inside that?" I asked a local that was leading me to a place where I was supposed to speak. A stop along the way had been forced in favor of a fried intestines snack at a stall stationed above a semi-open sewage entry. Even if not knowing until that moment what filled up the delicacy in the not so far past, the pungent smell didn’t leave room for imagination."I like it," was the answer shrugged towards me between hurried bites of s***.I won’t review this dish and similar ones, partly because I won’t use that word for describing food or giving a verdict on it, and in this case that would be unavoidable.KawiHeavy soups are typical of the Andean High Plateau and an excellent way to warm up in this cold crest of the world. The variety of soups is large; most of them are thick and as such called "sopa." Thin soups are called "caldo" and are not part of the ubiquitous set meals, but used for the creation of special dishes like jakonta and kawi. These two are seldom found in downtown restaurants, but are very popular in the markets and definitely worth a try. I entered the covered market from the gate nearest to the gas station and saw a sign announcing "kawi." I asked about the difference between kawi and jakonta, and then between kawi and kawi seco (dry kawi). The surprised cook raised her eyebrows, but took my order for a kawi without questions. Talking the local Spanish dialect diverts most questions regarding why an obvious foreigner chooses such local delicacies. I sat at a bench next to a long table painted in light blue, the leading color at local markets. A bowl of red llajua (a sauce made with hot aji chilies, tomato and water) was in standby there.Almost immediately a bowl of soup was placed in front of me. One look was enough for assessing its ingredients. They included indigenous ones and some brought from Asia by the colonial masters. Broken rice was at the bottom of the bowl and mercifully almost completely out of sight. Resting on it was a large white potato, and a small chuño and tunta dehydrated ones. During the Altiplano's frozen nights, the chuño is left to freeze on the ground surface after being harvested. Following that, it melts down under the morning sun. During the early afternoon it is then pressed with bare feet so that the water is filtered out; the result is a black potato of irregular surface. The white tunta is created similarly, though it washes in a cold stream for a couple of weeks before being dried up. Subsequently the dehydrated potato can be stored for years while keeping its quality. The unhygienic process is of little concern since the potato is boiled up before consumption. Chuño has a very distinctive pungent taste; tunta is a bit more palatable. Atop everything was a generous chunk of beef; the meat was tender and well prepared, with a fatty membrane covered one of its sides. That’s what defined the dish as kawi. If the meat used were lamb, then the dish would have been called jakonta. Kawi Seco (dry kawi) is the same but the soup is served apart, the rice, potatoes and meat served "dry" on a plate.The soup was oily, resembling very much those served in much colder Urumqi. However, beyond the oily taste, I couldn’t find any traces of spices; the only exception was the bowl of llajua placed near the food. Note that sometimes quirquincha leaves are added to it; these add a strong flavor that many dislike. This is typical of South America; except for llajua, Bolivians do not add any spices to their food. That may explain the extreme quantities of salt used here; I strongly recommend asking for food to be served "sin sal" (without salt). Finally the llajua became useful; I added a generous amount of it to cut the oily flavor of the soup."Gracias!" I said while trying to leave the narrow space gracefully. Again, a surprised cook raised her eyebrows.
by SeenThat on April 27, 2011
"It’s food!" the girl attending the counter answered me and left me truly speechless.I was in a restaurant and have asked regarding the nature of "masaco," one of the items appearing in their menu under the unclear label "Mas Delicias Cambas" (More "Camba" Delicacies). It took me a few seconds to recover, but eventually I found the way to get a more useful answer:"What kind of food? Is it like a steak, a soup, or maybe a cake?" I ventured, attempting to expand her limited loquacity."It’s masaco, you eat it!"Something was very wrong here. I have reviewed the restaurant last year, when it was called El Horno Oriental. Back then I couldn’t understand the lowlands dialect, and because of that almost got hit by a hard tropic fruit. Now, the accent was clear – it was a new crew - but the words made no sense."How do you prepare it? Does it have dough or meat? Is it liquid or solid?" Talking with a toddler was easier than this torture."It’s like a tortilla." Hallelujah!"And what about ‘zonzo?’" That was the next item on the menu."It’s the same!"At this point I gave up. "Please bring me a masaco mixto." I didn’t have the whole day. An important IgoUgo review was to be written today."Do you want it with plantain or yuca?" she asked.CambaIn A Politically Incorrect Journal I expanded on complicated local terms as "Camba." This one refers to people from the croissant-shaped Bolivian lowlands. It doesn’t apply to the massive amounts of migrants of the last years from the Andean High Plateau to there. The rule for travelers is never using these terms, as it may be interpreted as racist, especially if applied to individuals. Yet, they are quite common for restaurant’s names.The first review of this journal, reviewed an institution serving food from Beni, the northern lowlands. This one served from Santa Cruz, the southern lowlands.The RestaurantI was alone in the "L" shaped dining room. The space was comfortable and tastefully decorated with vague tropical motifs of the Amazonian Basin lowlands. I skipped the coaches and took seat on a sturdy wood chair placed next to a no less stable table. I needed something solid to restore my confidence in the world after this last - and almost traumatic – close encounter with humanity.Those looking at the pictures accompanying many of my restaurant reviews may notice they are strangely empty. That’s done on purpose. In such a way I have time to interrogate the waiters on the peculiarities of the food served and I do not need to deal with the noisiness of Bolivian restaurants at peak hours.MasacoThe waitress was advancing towards me with a small plate containing an undefined shape at its center. Afraid of more questions, she dropped it in front of me and disappeared.The sight was impressive, it wasn’t what I was expecting (a flattish tortilla). A slightly flattened ball made the entire dish. I could discern the different decisions I have taken next to the counter.The first one had been choosing the "mixto" option. That meant it contained charque and cheese. Charque is the local name for … jerky. I am fascinated by dehydrated meat, an impossibility in my home town. Unrefrigerated meat is supposed to rot, not to dehydrate. One of my first memories (and shocks) in Bolivia, was seeing people drying sheets of meat in their yards as if it was laundry.Yuca is the local name for cassava; I find cassava dishes insipid, thus I chose the plantain. These are like bananas, but they must be baked before consumption and have a less fruity taste. All these ingredients had been mixed and baked. It looked like an extra-thick pizza with no dough. A ball of solid pizza sauce. It was also very hot; the cheese on its top had melt increasing the similarity with a pizza. The result was interesting. Slightly fruity-sweet due to the plantain and fibery-salty due to the charque, this odd dichotomy was held together by a rather good cheese, an oddity in Bolivia. "It’s food!" the girl attending the counter had said.
Following the agreeable experience described at the beginning of this journal, I returned to Antojito Beniano, Itonama, for a second meal. Its menu was too exotic to let a few cat furs on the wall scare me.This time was a weekday, but the menu was no less varied. The set lunch included one soup and one main dish. "Locrito de arroz" was the only available soup. Main dishes were very varied, the most elaborated one were not available for the lunch and were offered as "extras," this is typical of Bolivian restaurants. Taking a quick decision, I chose the "majadito aguachento de charque + huevo," and proved once again the virtue of slow decision taking processes.While paying, it became obvious I have been recognized – unluckily I do not look local here. The visit was performed after the publication of the first entry, and Bolivians have proved time and again as being very updated on what is said on them. Some time ago I gave a negative review on a local coffee shop; when visiting them again, a waiter stood next to me all the time, fastidiously asking if everything was OK every minute or so. However, here I gave a positive review, and I was greeted in a friendly manner; maybe even a bit too friendly.The –ito LanguageSpanish uses –ito as a masculine diminutive suffix and –ita as the feminine counterpart. Its speakers are not happy unless they use them at least once in any given sentence. Look at the items chosen for the meal, both were diminished. Sometimes it reaches ridiculous proportions. In the market you may be asked if you want more "aguita" (small-water) for your mate de coca. "Te quiero muchito" (I love you small-much) is another silly occurrence.They claim it adds "cariño" (care, love) to the sentence, but they’ll use it also while purposely stepping on your feet. The alliterated diminutive in the chosen menu should have warned me.Locrito de Arroz"Locro" is a rice soup which can be found in Bolivia, Argentina and other parts of South America. It reminds of certain varieties of Chinese congee, especially the Thai Jok and Khao Tom described in More Bangkok.Here the name of the dish had been diminished. What did that mean? Soon I found out. A large pot of soup was brought to the table and I was served. It didn’t resemble the thick soups of the Altiplano. It was watery and the broken rice immediately sunk, leaving in clear sight a bit of meat and a darkish, clear soup. There was an unclear smell. A more careful look disclosed the meat was darkish, instead of the regular reddish. The pungent smell belonged to it. It was like if it had been used for preparing "charque" (jerky) and then after a while returned to the kitchen for regular use. I drank the soup, skipped the meat and waited for the main dish. At least the thick bone of the rotten meat couldn’t belong to the cat fur hanging on the wall above my head; it was beef meat.Majadito Aguachento de Charque + HuevoThis was another awkward definition. I ate majadito in several occasions in the past, but it never was "aguachento" (a word that doesn’t appear in my Spanish dictionary, "agua" means "water"). "Charque" is the local name for jerky, and finally "huevo" means "egg."Eventually the material epitome of this odd name appeared. It was the usual stew of rice and jerky, though here it was watery… justifying the "aguachento" part of the name. An egg and half a plantain unsuccessfully tried to cover up the disgrace. The jerky emanated the same pungent odor of the soup meat. Pungent food is typical of certain cuisines; I have described several instances in the Land of Orphan Toasters. However, it is always achieved through natural products – like durian – or through a very careful process of fermentation. Here it was achieved by using rotting meat. Unsurprisingly, I had a stomach ache even before leaving the place. Exotic I wanted, exotic I got.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009