Half of the fun of traveling to new places is trying new or unfamiliar foods. As a vegetarian, I haven’t been able to try too many typical Bolivian dishes, but here’s a list of what I have tried:
Cuñape – a type of bread made from yuca (cassava) flour and cheese. For such a simple food, it is ridiculously yummy and makes for the perfect snack. Or meal, because it’s hard to limit yourself to just one.
Empanadas – most people are familiar with empanadas, but there are so many filling options that we don’t typically see in the US. These empanadas are pretty simple – one is filled with cheese, the other is filled with cheese, tomato, and basil.
Salteña – a salteña is like an empanada, but the filling is like a stew. You definitely need a spoon and a lot of napkins to eat one of these! Typical fillings are beef, chicken, or ham and cheese. The vegetarian one (pictured below) is filled with a sort of veggie stew containing broccoli, onions, and carrots. Some places also offer a mushroom version, but I haven’t had a chance to try it.
Chuño – a chuño is a freeze dried potato. There are two types – black potatoes and white potatoes. These potatoes are typically made by the Quechua and Aymara, but they pre-date the Inca civilization. The potatoes are freeze dried through a natural process. In June and July, the potatoes are laid out in a single layer and left to dehydrate in the sun and then freeze overnight. The process typically takes 5 days, but these potatoes can last up to 10 years with proper storage. They’re a critical staple for farmers, as they provide a reliable food source during unfavorable farming seasons.
These potatoes are usually steamed or boiled to rehydrate them. I’ve tried the black potatoes and didn’t much care for them. They weren’t bad per se, but they have a very earthy taste that I didn’t quite like. I think these are probably an acquired taste.
Torta de Choclo – this is a cake made with corn, but it’s nothing like cornbread. It’s quite creamy, has a somewhat buttery flavor, and has just the right amount of sweetness. It’s almost like a cake made out of creamed corn, minus the corn kernels. One thing I really like about Bolivian pastries is that they are not overly sweet!
Queso Humacha – humacha cheese is a traditional dish of La Paz, and is typically eaten during Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter). It’s normally prepared as a stew, but I had a sandwich version that was really good. It contains corn, cheese, and beans (don’t know what they’re called, but they looked like larger, flatter lima beans) mixed in a spicy yellow sauce. Definitely recommend trying this if you have the chance.
Torta de Cinco Leches – this cake is very similar to Tres Leches cake, except it is made with 5 different types of milk instead of 3. Very very very good cake. Sometimes tres leches cake takes on a soggy or oversaturated texture. I was a bit hesitant to try this cake, thinking it would suffer a similar fate, but I needn’t have worried. It was moist, light, and had a subtle, milky flavor. The multiple types of milk were not overpowering or too sweet.
Coca Candy – Last, but not least, is candy made from coca leaves. Considering how much coca leaves are used medicinally in Bolivia, I was not surprised to learn that it comes in a candy form. It tastes a bit like a mild, slightly sweet licorice and is supposed to be good for headaches and stomach ailments. (The flavor is good, but hard to describe, because it doesn’t taste quite like anything else I’ve had.) It also makes your tongue and mouth a little bit numb. Be warned – you cannot bring this candy back to the US. While there are no illegal substances in the candy, drug sniffing dogs have been trained to find it so that customs can confiscate it. Bottom line: this is a food that can only be enjoyed in Bolivia.