In the heights of the Andean High Plateau, you can hear few jokes; people seem to be as dry as the weather. Given the circumstances, I was surprised when invited to try a "shark." My host was offering a small plate with ispi. Considering the fact the average canned sardine is twice or thrice as big as an ispi fish, this was a clear and unexpected attempt to make a joke. High altitude sharks do exist, but they walk the streets.
Few travelers ever see this dish. It is popular with traditional communities around the Titicaca Lake and can be found also in La Paz; however, this demands knowledge or a big strike of luck. Markets are a good place for finding ispi but there is no need to go especially to one of them. A few months ago the Mercado Lanza was re-inaugurated in a large structure, one of the many improvements done to La Paz for the Bicentennial celebrations. In front of it – and next to the San Francisco Church - a small establishment was opened. It doesn’t have a name it simply announces "Ceviche;" it specializes in ceviche and ispi.
Seldom can a traveler sit here, look at a dish and say: this is 100% local, traditional food. More often than not some foreign ingredients can be spotted among the chuño, tunta, oca, umakhaya, quinoa and all other delicacies of the Altiplano. As such, ispi is an oddity and a must while visiting the area.
The dish looks very simple; the serving includes just mote and ispi:
"Mote" is an Aymara word used for corn kernels when separated from the cob; they are unusually large. They may originate in a number of different varieties of corn, though more often than not they belong to large kernel varieties of light color. Here, it was yellow with very distinctive brownish irregular spots. Note that denizens often peel off the external layer of the kernel before consuming it; fibers are an overlooked part of the local diet. The fact this dish is served with only one variety of carbohydrates is a remarkable oddity.
Here, the fried kernels had an unusual texture - again, the fibrous envelope of the kernels is seldom preserved in the served dish here – fibrous in the outside and pretty much like popcorn in the inside
Recently I wrote a journal on Bolivian Fish, yet I didn’t expand there on the elusive ispi. They can be seen in huge shiny piles in markets stalls, or as dark heaps of unclear nature in fish eateries. Invariably, they are deep fried in oil and eaten whole like French fries. The texture is not different from these; the fish are served crispy and very salty.
The obvious result is a perfect snack, containing proteins, carbohydrates and fats while providing a delightful crunchiness. This fact didn’t escape the attention of denizens; ispi can be bought also as a take away, providing an awesome opportunity to those travelers about to depart from the nearby bus terminal. Of course, a soft drink must be added to the package due to the awesome amounts of salts added to the fish.
Another point to keep in mind is that if buying a "ceviche" (see that entry in this journal) a small bowl with ispi is added as a courtesy. That’s the perfect opportunity for trying the snack before committing to a large quantity of it.