Saturday, September 20, 2008

Your soup is looking at you...and other tales of Bolivian cuisine

Just as sure as most of us start off the day with a cup of coffee in the States, lunch in Bolivia typically starts with a soup and is followed by a "segundo"-second plate. Close to my office in Cochabamba is a pension-basically somebody's house where you can get lunch for 8 bolivianos-just about $1.

We went there the other day, starving, and Matt was with us. We both ordered the "almuerzo completo"-meaning you get the soup and segundo. Soups usually are broth-based, include potatoes, perhaps quinoa or wheat, some other veggies, and usually a piece of meat on a bone. Today, however, Matt's soup had a few more senses-namely sight and hearing. Floating around in his soup, stubbornly refusing to be hidden under a piece of potatoe or clump of parsely, was a sheep's eye. And it was big. I don't think I have seen a sheep's eye since 4th grade when we were required to disect them. As I was in an animal-loving phase at the moment, I spent science class crying instead of cutting the eye apart.
Matt wanted to cry, too, but was a trouper-tactfully moving the eye around, trying to submerge it and forget about it, and eating from the opposite end of the bowl. Picking up something that looked like chuno-freeze-dried potatoes, he was surprised to also find an ear in the soup. I later recounted this to all of our Bolivian staff, who chuckled at Matt's politeness and we laughed over the differences in our cuisines.

For the most part, cyclops soup excluded, Bolivian food is delicious, but can be difficult for vegeterians to enjoy as it is rather meat-intensive. Breakfast is typically a piece of freshly baked bread, coca tea or Nescafe. When I'm at home, I try to add some fruit to that mix and get crazy with my Nescafe-adding Toddy and boiled milk, making a de facto mocha. We have found the place for espresso in town when we really need a swishy coffee fix.

When I'm not in the field,a customary 10:30 am snack takes place. Some of the tasty treats are empanadas-bread pastries typically filled with cheese, or saltenas-bread filled with meat, potatoes, veggies, and spices-delicious! Lunch typically starts with a soup, as i already mentioned and is followed by a different segundo plate every day usually including rice, pasta, potatoes, and a type of meat. A meal is not complete without llajwa-Bolivian hot sauce that spices up everything. Fresh fruit juice or warm soda washes down the meal.

My favorite places to eat are the rural areas where we work. Freshly steamed potatoes, big beans like lima beans, hot peppers, ocas-long, thin sweet potatoes, and delicous warm drinks made from corn, wheat, barley, and licorice root really hit the spot. Meat is a luxury in most of the places where we work, but some of the tastist mammals I've had are vizcacha-looks like a rabbit with a squirrel's tail-and llama. I recently sampled the best home brew yet-huarapa. If it sounds like grappa, that's because it is essentially chicha de uva-grape chicha. It's much more suave than chicha de maiz, which sometimes has an extra added dose of "puro", essentially rubbing alcohol. The tastier chichas taste more like an apple cider than everclear, and you can never go wrong with beer. Matt and I both identify ourselves as cochabambinos, since we are taquina drinkers-the local brew. Recently Taquina started making a red beer that is by far the best in the country.

Getting hungry and we are going to climb 15,000 Pico Tunari manana-the highest peak in Central Bolivia, so I'm off to eat!

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