Recently, I commented how chicken has become by far the most popular food in Bolivia, a stranger from strange land that took over all local delicacies. The most popular dish in this category is "pollo a la broaster," a fried breaded chicken that can be found almost on every block. Yet, if venturing into the local markets varieties that are more loyal to local cooking traditions can be found. "Sajta" is the name of such a dish, which features also dehydrated potatoes and as such is of special interest to the traveler seeking local experiences.
Chuño and Tunta
First, locals consider potatoes and dehydrated potatoes different types of food. A local phrase refers to "cultivating chuño" as a synonym for an impossible task. After hearing that for the first time, I needed it explained to me; after all you can cultivate a potato and then dehydrate it into chuño. The result of this attitude is that both items are often included in a single dish. More often than not, chuño and tunta would be the main dehydrated potatoes offered.
The chuño and tunta 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. Taste with care.
If looking in the markets with care many more tubers can be found. Native to the area, there are literally hundreds of them. Surprising for such untidy people, Bolivians have a very strictly ordered menu. In markets certain dishes are served exclusively on certain days and the order is rigorously kept. Moreover, certain tubers have seasons; certain potatoes are left to experience an "helada," (frost) in the early winter and only then consumed. "Papalisa" stews can be found during most of the year; these tubers skins feature spots of red and yellow colors and yield a wonderfully weird dish.
On Aguado and Llajua
Sajta - as most other Bolivian dishes - is covered up with a generous layer of "aguado." This is a sauce prepared with a base of onions and aji. Aji is a generic name for the main variety of chilies. Elongated and thin, they appear in many colors, and can be very hot or not at all. Piles of dried up aji and also of ground aji used mainly for coloring food can be found in every market. Invariably, the non-spicy variety is used for the aguado. In some richer foods other ingredients are added to this sauce. In the case of sajta, peas and "habas" (fava beans) are very popular.
So the aguado is not spicy, but Bolivians prefer spicy food. What can one do? Llajua (yah-hoo-ah, pronounced in the Bolivian Spanish dialect, the second "h" as the "ch" in "loch," all vowels long) is always available for spicing up main dishes. It is prepared by diluting spicy aji - more often than not the red or green varieties - and tomatoes with water. Sometimes another very spicy herb is added, which adds a very unpleasant flavor. Taste with care before adding "llajua" to the food.
Finally, the Sajta
I chose a hawker selling sajta at the Rodriguez Market, please see the chicharron entry of this journal to understand why a more precise location is not provided. While sitting on a narrow and low bench by the street, the seller was warned I was carrying a camera by one of the diners.
"Don’t take any pictures!" she said angrily before anything else.
"Thank you!" I told the dinner and added to her:
"I’ll take pictures of my food."
Rapidly changing the subject, she said sajta cost 12BOB (less than 2 American dollars), slightly more than a set lunch here. After agreeing to the price she proceeded to prepare the dish out of several bowls, all of them covered with thick clothes and dark plastics to keep the food warm. La Paz in February is cold (as in all other months).
She added an eight of a chicken to a plate; this is the standard serving here. It had been boiled; it was juicy and soaked with aguado. A large white potato made company to a large serving of tunta. This is an advantage of the sajta: it allows tasting dehydrated potatoes with the softest variety available. That also explains the slightly high price of the meal. Everything was covered with a lot of aguado, next to it, a bit of spicy llajua was placed.
The dish was excellent and as a matter of fact better than most set lunches in town. Simply, this type of stalls always serves fresh food prepared in the day (again, please see the chicharron entry).
"Do you want soup?," the hawker added.