After having spend a few weeks in the highlands, we have not managed to eat as much local food in Bolivia as in other places. Bolivia’s Altiplano cuisine is rather straight forward and unlike in neighbouring Peru, there has not been a very notable Gastronomie revolution. To be fair, people in Bolivia have other worries than being obsessed with food (like if they have water and electricity). That being said, in some cities people eat a lot of meals. In Cochabamba for instance we were told people have breakfast, 2nd breakfast, salteñas at 11.00, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. They are quite busy with eating everyday.
Most meals are made up of some form of meat, potatoes and/or rice. Vegetables (a bit like in Peru and the Philippines) are used fairly sparingly in restaurants. We have actually resorted to cooking ourselves a lot since the markets were really cheap and sold great vegetables. A good kilo of tasty fresh produce usually cost us not even a Euro, which was nice for a change. Also some came in handily pre-cut mixed packets sold by old ladies.
Since we did not visit the Bolivian rainforest and lowlands, we missed out on all those delicious tropical fruits with exotic names and shapes. We’ll be back for the Amazon though, eventually.
So food in Bolivia: In Bolivia breakfast is light, which is why people will eat the mighty delicious salteñas at around 11 am and then have lunch around 1 pm.
Salteñas are dough pockets or dumplings as big as a small fist filled with a really juicy stew-like filling that contains minced meat, an olive, egg (sometimes from a quail), potato in cubes or small pieces and more vegetables like peas, carrot, peppers and onions. The salteña’s edge is artfully braided together. The dough is slightly sweet, yellow-orange in colour and tastes a bit like fine pastry dough. Since the inside is stew-like you get a spoon to eat it. Salteña eateries are only open until 1 pm, so it really is a morning or brunch food.
For lunch you can usually get a very straightforward menu for 15-30 Bolivianos (2-4€). You will get a soup, a main course with some meat and rice or potatoes and a small desert. The soup may be sopa de mani or peanut soup, the main dish some form of pollo or some other meat with papas. Like in so many former Spanish colonies, meat is also king in Bolivia (at least in the highlands). As desert various colours of jelly topped with whipped cream are popular. They are sold at street corners, in buses and markets.
Markets are pleasant and relaxed places to shop for cheap food and everyday needs like soap or shampoo. You can also get delicious fruit juices there. At the markets you can find a surprising selection of cakes too. The Bolivian highlands actually have a lot of pastry shops that sell creamy treats and cookies. Tourist restaurants and cafés serve excellent pies.
Here is what we really liked to eat in Bolivia:
Best snack: hands down Salteñas!!!
They are fun to eat, as they taste different everywhere and you get a spoon. You will feel like a local sitting in a salteña restaurant surrounded by locals.
Also a good snack were humitas.
Humitas are made from maize, wrapped in a corn leave and steamed or boiled. We enjoyed them with cheese and anise as a bus snack in central Bolivia.
Best pastry: alfajores
Sounds Arabic right? Bingo, the alfajor pastry came to Southern Spain via the moorish conquest. The recipe was brought across the Atlantic and adapted to local ingredients. Now, these big round dry double cookies glued together with manjar (creme caramel) filling are an ubiquitous thing in former Spanish colonies.
Best side dish: chuña
While this special food might not be a tourist favourite, it is definitely worth trying. Chuño, an altiplano staple, are small freeze-dried potatoes. The campesinos in the altiplano used to put them outside in winter to make them last longer. They are completely white when dry and will keep for a very long time. They need to be soaked before cooking. We had some fried with eggs and aji sauce. It’s texture is a bit harder than preserved egg, so it is nicely chewy.
Best meat: lengua picante
We had excellent soft ox tongue in a spicy tomatoe sauce.
Best vegetarian dish: Papa relleno
A large potatoe is stuffed with cheese and/ or egg and then deep fried. The whole thing is served with different salsas. It is delicious.
Best fruit: Chirimoya
The white milky flesh is always pretty sweet. Maybe it was chirimoya season when we were in Bolivia, but the green fruit that looks like the head of a Thai buddha statue was sold everywhere. Another great fruit is the sourish tumbo, which is a relative of maracuya, but redder with thinner green skin.
Best drink: Trimate
This pleasant infusion of anise, coca and camomille can be found at most breakfast buffets. The coca leaves gives it the necessary kick while the rest makes for a good digestive tea.
Best surprise: wine from Southern Bolivia
Bolivia is home to the world’s highest vinyards. The area around Tarija produces quite good red vines. Some are very sweet. Brands like Campos de Solana and Aranjuez can be found at nicer restaurants. Give it a try!