What do people eat in Bolivia? When I crossed from Chile into Bolivia by 4WD I had no idea what kind of food to expect. I tried googling South American food before I left (very important pre-trip research, I assure you) and came back with what I call the Generic Beans and Rice. Yes, we did eat a GBR laden diet but there were a handful of dishes that were something a little more memorable and we sought them out during our month there.
We had had some particularly atrocious dishes in Chile – dishes like Chilean seafood chowder that we went on to nickname seafood chunder because it contained blended oyster shells and was seasoned with fresh sand from the Pacific Ocean floor.
So, naturally, our expectations for Bolivian food were rock bottom, but within twelve hours of arriving in the salt mining town Uyuni, we had discovered the delights of the Salteña.
An empanada of sorts, these hot and rich pastries sells for five bolivianos – or seventy cents each and the salteñas we found in other South American countries were cruel imitations in appearance only. Inside they were dry and lacked the gravy and tender beef of the Bolivian Salteña.
They’re not easy to eat without dribbling sauce everywhere, ten minutes before I needed to take an eight hour bus I slopped Salteña down my front and had to cover it up with a poncho. You can find Salteñas sold on streets with plenty of foot traffic. Jack loved them so much he would buy ten at a time and eat them for breakfast lunch and dinner.
This was another unexpected goodie; see, unlike quinoa cake where the almond flour is substituted for ground quinoa, quinoa chocolate has actual roasted quinoa mixed into it. It’s crunchy and the crispy quinoa is like little pebbles of biscuits. Quinoa chocolate can be found in chocolate shops like the one on the corner of Sucre’s Plaza de Armas square or sometimes in little stalls around the market places – you’ll need to keep an eye out for this one.
While we’re on the subject, Quinoa soup is perfect for those frigid Bolivian nights. Seek them out in local restaurants for 10 bolivianos for a bowl (about $1.50) or as part of a three course meal for 20 bolivianos. Expect them to be chockfull of Andean vegies like corn and potato or the occasional chicken feet.
Alpaca isn’t a meat that the locals eat and is more an attraction for tourists, venison-y in taste, the meat is really quite full-flavoured and we also tried it in a stir-fry in Peru, the Lomo Saltado.
Ok, so this one was a one off, but it was so bizarre that I had to include it. We ate Piranhas while on our tour of the Amazon, fishing them from the river.
Lake Titicaca offers up a plethora of trout, cooked whole by restaurants on the lake edge and practically given away at 10 bolivianos ($1.50) a fish.
(yes we tried the coca leaves in coca cola, but to no effect)
Chewing coca leaves is an important part of Bolivian tradition, so for now the primary component in making cocaine is legal in Bolivia. The narcotic presence in the leaves is so mild that you won’t get high, but they are perfect for combatting altitude sickness and I recommend brewing them in tea over chewing; mulching them down is just downright unpleasant.
Dulce de Leche
We were introduced to this sweet sucker on the odd occasion in Chile but it came in full force when we arrived in Bolivia. It's essentially caramelised condensed milk spread on toast, pancakes or piped into pastry. Often eaten for breakfast, it’s a very sugary start to the day and highly addictive.
Bolivians love their sugar - I don't think I've ever been so visually assaulted with sodas, they’re everywhere you look across South America, sit down at a table in a restaurant and sodas are sitting there next to the salt and pepper, enticing you to open one up. Speaking of sugar, white bread in South America tastes so sweet, and it’s so doughy that it’s almost cake.
The food differences between South American countries are slight. Much of what we ate in Bolivia we found across many of their neighbours with some small variations. Bolivian food is outstanding value for money (the whole country is) with most meals costing us between $2-3 each, with a few lavish meals at upmarket restaurants thrown in (we were starved for vegetables) for about $7 a plate. Not bad for a night out.
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