The Bolivian cuisine is not as diverse as its landscape (but then, Bolivia’s variety in landscapes is hard to match). Even though there are regional variations between the lowlands and Andes Mountains, traditional Bolivian meals are mainly a result of versatility in the use of the country’s staple food of potatoes, corn and rice.
Let’s take a closer look.
Bolivian food and definitely worth a try when visiting the country. After all, food is not only fundamental but also a way to learn something about a country’s history and geography, as well as its daily life.
200 Varieties of Potatoes
Bolivia may be one of the world’s poorest countries but Bolivians don’t starve (unless there is an extreme situation such as a severe drought). In this agricultural country there is enough food but the problem is its monotonous diet, which leads to undernourishment, especially in the case of young children. The main daily meal of most Bolivians consists of potatoes, rice and grain (corn and quinoa).
In many corners of the country vegetables are unheard of – especially in the countryside – perhaps with the exception of lettuce and onion. One of the government’s main focal points is to diversify the Bolivian diet by, among other things, educating the locals on the necessity of varied food.
Bolivia is the oldest country known to eat potatoes and there are more than 200 varieties. Many of these are no longer cultivated. The main potato varieties are divided into three groups: red, yellow and white. Typical Bolivian potatoes are:
- Oca: a small, yellow sweet potato
- Chuños or tunta – freeze-dried potatoes.
Maiz, Choclo or Mote
Maiz, or choclo is the Spanish word used for the product on the field, but once cooked it is called mote. In Bolivia you’re more likely to find the white corn with big grains than the yellow corn more commonly known in the western world. Apart from food, corn is largely used to produce Bolivia’s main and cheap alcoholic drink: chicha.
Bolivian Snacks / Fast Food
Two popular snacks are salteñas and empanadas. Both are pastry shells filled with vegetables, eggs, potatoes, raisins and/or olives, which may be enhanced with sundry spices. Although these snacks are generally available throughout the day, halfway the morning is a popular time for them, since the Bolivians eat a light breakfast with only coffee and some biscuits.
Another popular snack is salchipapa: French fries served with tasty, deep-fried pieces of frankfurter.
On the market you may find api and pastel for breakfast, or as a late afternoon snack. Api is a corn drink, served hot, enhanced with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. There is another corn drink, which is white and bland in taste. On request they will mix the two for you. Pastel is a deep-fried snack filled with chicken, beef or cheese.
Bolivian Dinner and Lunch – Typical Meals
Dinner (cena) generally comes down to eating a la carte in a restaurant. Simple meals vary from 3 to 5 US dollars, although luxurious restaurants in larger cities have menus with prices way beyond that. Pizza is a popular one with Bolivians and travelers alike. Pizzerias are in every city. Vegetarian meals, however, you find only in travelers’ haunts in Bolivia’s larger cities.
At home a Bolivian dinner is very similar to the lunch, albeit in smaller portions. A popular takeaway meal in cities is fried chicken (pollo frito or broaster) or chicken cooked on a spit (pollo al spiedo) with French fries.
A Minimal Selection of Bolivia’s Typical Dishes
When unsure about where to eat, in terms of hygiene, your best bet is to go where a lot of local people are eating. Especially places filled with workers from the street generally means you’ll get good value for money.
- Pique Macho originates from Cochabamba, where it is served spicier than elsewhere. It is an excellent dish with small pieces of tender meat, fried potatoes, vegetables, pieces of frankfurter and boiled eggs. The true Pique Macho has locotos on top: tongue-searing peppers.
- Chicharron is made up of large pieces of pork cooked slowly in its own fat in huge iron pots. It is served with rice or potatoes and often found on markets as an evening meal.
- Llama is often found on the menu in the highlands. It tends to be a bit tougher than other red meat but when well-prepared is a welcome variety to the menu. Try to find one with a Roquefort dressing; it is finger-licking good.
- Papas a la Hunacuaina originates from Peru and is often eaten in La Paz for almuerzo. It is a light meal consisting of salad, boiled potato with peanut sauce, a slice of ricotta-type cheese and a boiled egg.
Note that lunch is Bolivia’s principal meal and the easiest way to try the local food for little money. As it’s such an important meal, I wrote a separate piece on Bolivia’s lunches.