Bolivia

Hola! Our July 4th weekend found us globetrotting in the Southern Hemisphere, but in the Americas nonetheless: in Bolivia. While we were a bit too early for Bolivia’s own independence day, Día de la Patria, which is on August 6th, we still enjoyed ourselves.

We estadounidenses (people from the United States) might pride ourselves on living in a diverse country, but Bolivia may have us beat in some respects. It has over 30 official languages, including Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara, and over 30 native cultures. It also contains 40% of all animal and plant life in the world, and has hundreds of ecosystems, which one might not expect of a landlocked nation.

Quinoa, the hip superfood, is one of the most famous Bolivian exports:

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Since the weekend began on Friday on account of the holiday, we also embarked on our trot earlier than usual, on Friday evening. Derek prepared una ensalada de siete granos, a salad with numerous types of beans, barley, and diced onion and pepper. Bolivian dinners are typically on the lighter side, and this seemed like a fitting dish for a summer day.

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After dinner we watched the documentary Cocalero, which recounts the 2005 presidential campaign of Bolivia’s current head of state, Evo Morales. The title refers to coca leaf growers, whose livelihoods were threatened by U.S.-funded efforts to eradicate the crop (since it can be used to make cocaine), and whose support was a big factor in Evo’s win. His election was especially significant since he’s the first Bolivian president from the country’s indigenous population (which makes up over half the country’s total population). Here’s a trailer for the film–while our copy of the film had English subtitles, I couldn’t seem to find any trailers online with English subtitles.

Our movie snack was some Taza chocolate, made from Bolivian cacao. (We previously enjoyed another variety of Taza chocolate when we globetrotted to Belize.)

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Saturday began simply with bread, marmalade and black tea. Breakfast is pretty basic in Bolivia, though many might have coca leaves in their tea.

Like people in many Spanish-speaking countries, Bolivians often take a mid-morning merienda, which we might call a snack, or elevenses, if we’re Anglophiles. This is when Bolivians enjoy one of their most well-known foods: the salteña, which is like a baked empanada. (You may recall that we made empanadas in Argentina.) Typically the salteña has a beef or chicken filling. Other common filling ingredients include peas, potatoes, hard-boiled egg slices, olives and raisins. For our merienda, I made a vegetarian version, somewhat following this recipe for its filling and this recipe for its dough. I made the filling a day in advance (since it needs to “set”) and then the dough that morning, shortly before assembling the salteñas. Derek documented the assembly process:

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I don’t think our salteñas could pass as authentic, since real salteñas are reportedly very juicy inside and ours were a bit dry, but they were still tasty.

After our merienda, we watched a short documentary about a day in the life of President Evo, from about four A.M. until eleven P.M., in which he attends numerous meetings, press conferences and other events in different parts of the country. He even plays in a soccer match. I felt pretty tired after making salteñas, but that’s nothing compared to Evo’s schedule.

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and typically consists of several courses. The first course is often a soup, so I made Sopa de Te’qo, a vegetable soup. The main course is usually a meat dish with potatoes and rice, but I did some more research and found a dish sometimes eaten during Semana Santa, the last week of Lent before Easter, called sopa de pan, which is indeed vegetarian. While the name suggests a soup (sopa is Spanish for “soup”), it’s more like a two-layer pizza.

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Usually there’s a dessert with lunch, but since our studio kitchen couldn’t handle three dishes being made at the same time, Derek waited until after we’d had our two sopas and cleaned up to make arroz con leche, rice pudding.

While the rice pudding cooled, we watched a Financial Times video about Bolivia’s rising indigenous bourgeoisie. While Bolivia is still one of the poorest South American countries, its economy has dramatically improved since Evo became president. With more money in their pockets and an increased sense of ethnic pride (largely attributed to having an indigenous president in office), many Aymara people have embraced New Andean style architecture and fashion that flaunts aspects of their heritage. We also watched a few videos that took us through La Paz, the working capital of Bolivia (Sucre is the official capital), including this one:

The rice pudding still hadn’t gotten cold in the fridge, so we waited more, had more of Derek’s bean salad for dinner, and then checked on our dessert again. It wasn’t ice cold yet, but still enjoyable.

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We headed out later in the evening to meet friends and find a spot along Cambridge’s Memorial Drive to view the fireworks on the Charles River. I couldn’t find too much about how Día de la Patria is celebrated in Bolivia, except that there are marches, military parades, gun salutes, and street dances–no mention of fireworks, like our own Fourth of July custom, but maybe gun salutes are a close enough equivalent.

Since we were out until late Saturday night, we slept in a little Sunday morning, and only had a bit of bread for breakfast shortly before reheating a few salteñas for our mid-morning snack. We also watched a BBC News piece about silver miners working outside the city of Potosí, and their dangerous working conditions and poor quality of life. While the lives of many Bolivians have improved since Evo became president, many who live in this particular community–including women who lost their husbands in mining accidents, and teenage boys who juggle school during the day and working in the mines at night–have yet to see benefits.

Boston doesn’t have any Bolivian restaurants (there had been a Mexican/Bolivian restaurant in East Boston a few years ago, but it’s since closed), but we did locate one north of the city, in Beverly: Fusion Andina. We took the commuter rail to Beverly and, as the first customers of the day, were warmly greeted. The restaurant is very cozy, with many Andean decorative touches, including the salt and paper shakers (upper left in the photo). We received a complimentary bowl of cancha, roasted corn nuts, and ají verde, a spicy green sauce, to snack on (upper right) while we waited for our entrees. I had the locro de zapallo, a butternut squash stew with rice, plantain and queso fresco, and Derek had the chicharron de cerdo, roasted pork belly with white corn and potatoes. We were quite full afterwards, so we didn’t have dessert, but decided to both enjoy some api, a hot drink made from purple corn. (Traditionally, api is a morning beverage, so don’t follow our lead if you want to be authentic.)

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After our hearty lunch, we walked from Beverly into Salem, where we wandered through the historic district for the remainder of the afternoon. Derek pointed out that the word Salem comes from “peace”–and the Bolivian city of La Paz also means the same thing. After getting back into Boston in the evening, we returned home, where we had some Sopa de Te’qo and sopa de pan.

It’s been a full weekend, activity and food-wise, in Bolivia. We’ll be eating Bolivian leftovers for at least a few more days. Even when all the food’s gone, and we move on to globetrotting through other countries, I think we’ll still be keeping tabs on Bolivia. Considering all the progress that the country has made in the past few years with Evo at the helm, it’ll be interesting to see what the future has in store for Bolivia.

Jess

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