Bolivian cuisine is widely varied, and delicious when experienced. The difficulty often arises when trying to find the opportunity to experience it, as so many restaurants in Bolivia, particularly in La Paz, now serve international cuisine and try to cater to the tastes of tourists. Bolivia’s culinary tradition has been described by some guide books as ‘one of Bolivia’s little-known secrets’. Restaurants serving traditional Bolivian food are now arguably harder to find than restaurants serving Italian food such as pizza or spaghetti.
In Bolivian cooking, the country can be divided into three regions with different foods and eating customs: the altiplano, the valleys and the tropical regions. Much regional cuisine is based on the foods that are available in the region. The food in the Altiplano is suited to the cold climate, containing lots of peppers, ‘aji’ and spices, and is centred around meat and carbohydrates. Food such as ‘chuño’ (dehydrated potatoes) is left outside to dry in the strong Andean sunshine. The diet in the tropical regions of Bolivia is based much more on fresh fruit (which grows in abundance in the region), vegetables and meat. Food in the tropical regions is drier and less spicy, and meat is often served with fried cassava.
Each region has maintained a characteristic cuisine, but over the years different ingredients, dishes and eating customs have become integrated to a degree, and many regional dishes are now available elsewhere in the country. Recipes from Spain in colonial times, and other Latin American countries more recently, have extended the traditional indigenous Bolivian menu. But all these dishes have become native by being adapted to local ingredients and methods of cooking.
One of the best ways to discover Bolivian cuisine is often through Bolivian friends, or if you are brave enough, street food, which is available in great quantity.
The most abundant and cheap forms of Bolivian food are the salteñas, empanadas and tucumanas available in the street from vendors for between Bs 1 and 2.50. If you have acclimatised to Bolivian food, these can be even cheaper than an almuerzo lunch, but they are usually eaten as a mid-morning snack around 11am. Salteñas, which originated in the Salta region of Argentina, have now become a Bolivian speciality. The cuñape is another traditional pastry, made from cheese and manioc flour, served fresh or dehydrated, traditionally at mid-morning with coffee.
Traditional Bolivian cuisine is much more prevalent in homes than it is in restaurants. In La Paz, food is difficult to digest because of the altitude, so the main meal of the day is eaten at lunchtime. Long lunches are traditional throughout the country, similar to in the Mediterranean, and offices and businesses are often closed between approximately 12 and 3pm so that workers have time to go home for lunch. Lunch (‘almuerzo’) usually consists of several courses: a soup, a main course of meat, rice and potatoes, then a dessert and coffee.
Other meals and foods are also traditionally served at particular times in the day. ‘Picantes’ are usually served at 5pm, and barbecues are often held at midday on a weekend, but these meals are usually prolonged and can run into dinnertime. Mealtimes in Bolivia are typically family occasions, and often form an important part of an evening of socialising.
Bolivian cuisine can often be less accessible to tourists than foreign cuisine. However it is delicious and hugely varied, ranging from the sweet dessert Manjar Blanco, made from dulce de leche and typical of the Santa Cruz region, to fricasé, a spicy meat dish found in many regions of the country. As well as being quite difficult to find in Bolivia, traditional Bolivian cuisine is uncommon abroad, in comparison to Asian cuisines such as Chinese, Indian or Thai, which are now commonplace in the West. However there are large communities of Bolivian immigrants living in Virginia and Washington D.C. who have started traditional restaurants, and South American restaurants are also appearing in London, for example the Latin American restaurant Sabor that recently opened in Islington, serving some traditional Bolivian food such as quinoa with lamb. Bolivian cuisine, as part of Latin American cuisine more broadly, has potential to become a new popular type of cuisine in Western countries.