I am always amazed at how different cultures use similar foods. As I ate and cooked my way through parts of Bolivia, I had many fascinating and delicious experiences.
In Bolivia, the common potato undergoes a remarkable, time-tested treatment to become either “chuño” or “tunta”. Both are freeze-dried potatoes, each processed in a different way. The one comes out dark (chuño) and the other white (tunta). Each has a distinctively different flavor and texture. One of the traditional ways of preparing “chuño” is to mix it with a thick white cream, precisely the raw-peanut cream from my previous post.
What is really incredible is that the traditional freeze-drying process preserves the perishable potatoes almost forever. It depends upon the specific climate of the Bolivian “altiplano” that is dry with below-freezing temperatures during certain months of the year. And imagine: I have been able to prepare and enjoy six-year-old “tunta” and, I’m told, it would have been good for even many more years.
Something as simple as the use of fresh herbs in Bolivia also awakened my taste buds. In Ecuador, parsley and cilantro are the most common, but that is not the case in other countries of the Andes. In a “locro de papas” that I prepared with a lovely family in Cochabamba, they commented on the interesting flavor of cilantro in Ecuador´s most basic soup. And I commented on the unique (for me), light, refreshing flavor of quilquiña/quirquiña herb (pápalo in Mexico; the scientific name is Porophyllum ruderale). The herb is pounded into a hot fresh salsa, called “llajwa”, made of a very hot green chile (“locoto”) and tomatoes. The salsa is found on every table and brightens and adds life to substantial stick-to-your-ribs plates, loaded with rice, tubers, perhaps corn and meat. These days it even accompanies hamburgers and fried chicken. Another similar use for quilquiña is in k´allu or sarza that is served on top of just about everything.
Another fresh herb that woke up my taste buds is one I first experienced in the home of an old country woman. In Peru and Bolivia it goes by the name of “huacatay”, “huacataya” or “suico”, and in Ecuador, country folk know it as “chinzo”. I now have it growing in my own garden, but almost no one in Ecuador uses it anymore. Its scientific name is Tagetes minuta. I find that its distinctive flavor, when used sparingly, brings a boldness and wonderful energy to a dish. Fresh, it´s very good with cheese or in Peruvian-style with shrimp. And when dried, its elongated seeds impart a pleasant, nutty flavor.
As you can see, the names of plants and foods can change from one area of a country to another and from one country to another. Thus, it´s useful to know scientific names to be able to distinguish one product from another. In fact, in my first cookbook there are extensive glossaries that list products from Andean countries with their scientific names, names from other Hispanic countries, and their equivalents in Spanish, English, French and German.
If you´d like to have fun with your taste buds, choose an herb you don´t know well and see how it goes with whatever other food you may imagine. As we experiment in the kitchen, we create very interesting combinations and we learn to respect and play with each food´s flavor.
Finally, so that you too can enjoy the tastes of Bolivia, I´d like to share one of my favorite recipes, Sopa de Mani. It is based on the same smooth, lightly flavored cream made out of raw peanuts that I referenced earlier from my last post. And surprise of surprises, the soup as it is presented here is vegan.
To hear (in Spanish) more about how you can prepare my favorite Bolivian dish, please listen to a radio show I did with friends on their show, The Power of the Spoon
Sopa de maní (Raw Peanut Soup)
I have to admit that I am charmed by the use of peanuts in this soup. Here, raw peanuts are soaked, then ground in a blender. They provide a cream base for a soup, with no dairy. Traditionally the soup would have a beef base, with short ribs being the preferred cut. However, whenever Bolivian friends now make it in their homes, they don´t use the beef. The pure flavor of raw peanuts is very refreshing and new, deliciously subtle, and the texture is pure heaven.
Other than in the Cameroon I have never tasted ground raw peanuts in stews or soups. In traditional societies, where there were always willing women’s hands available, each soaked peanut would have been carefully peeled by hand. Luckily these days, they can be found PEELED in many countries.
This recipe is very basic all over Bolivia and years ago when Natasha Morales prepared it for me and for her new husband, Mauro, our faces lit up. This is truly a remarkably good soup. In Cochabamba and other places in Bolivia, very large noodles, fried dried would probably be added rather than the rice.
1/2 cup raw peeled peanuts
1 small onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
(1 small turnip, chopped – optional)
1 stalk celery, finely chopped with some leaves
4 ounces fresh fava beans (or substitute freshly podded peas)
3 tablespoons rice
1 large potato, peeled
1/2 teaspoon dried ground hot, yellow chili or substitute the dried hot red peppers that come with pizza
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Soak the peanuts overnight or at least for 20 minutes in hot water.
Heat 4½ cups water with the onion, carrot, turnip, celery, fava beans, rice, and salt. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Cut the potato in 8 irregularly shaped pieces. Add to the soup pot. Simmer until the potato is almost cooked.
Blend at the highest speed the peanuts with one cup of additional water, at least for 3 minutes or until completely smooth. Stir into the soup pot and simmer for an additional 10 minutes, until the peanuts lend a creamy texture to the soup. In the last few minutes of cooking, add the hot pepper. Serve with the parsley on top of each bowl.
Yield: 4 servings