Bolivian Food and the Claus Meyer connection

Bolivia´s food has a reputation of being uninspired and not particularly good.  I don’t share that view at all – to me it has been a fascinating discovery.

A few of the many varieties of potato

There are many new ingredients, interesting flavours, unexpected combinations.  The fresh produce is of a high standard, and is produced in a real way … vegetables and fruits have things not often encountered in first world supermarkets, such as blemishes, irregular shapes, and flavour.

Potatoes are a key part of cuisine here.  There are dozens of varieties on sale, different shapes, sizes, colours, some multi-coloured, not forgetting too the interesting chuño and tunta.  These are small potatoes that are left outside for four days, drying in the bright sunshine during the day, and freezing at night (tunta is soaked in river water for 3 weeks first).  Potatoes so treated last for many years, and have a more pronounced taste and a denser texture when cooked.

One comes across differences in meat and fish too.  Llama and alpaca are a regular features on menus, pleasant enough meats but nothing special in my view.  They are also salted and dried to produce charque, the original form of jerky.  Lamb is lovely and intense, more like middle eastern lamb than northern European.  Trout from Lago Titicaca is wonderful, and it is particularly gratifying that it is properly cooked here, moist and tender, not the overcooked, dry trout that one comes across so often in other places.  Plenty of tropical river fish are also used here, such as the delicate white fish surubi, a close relation of catfish.

Chuño at the back and tunta at the front

Given this great base of ingredients it is not surprising that the traditional cuisine is lovely.  The markets are the best places to find it.  Soups are a major feature and are fantastic. They are hearty, beautifully balanced, and obviously made with proper techniques in a traditional manner.  Caldo de pollo for breakfast is a staple and is right up there with the finest chicken broth I know (from the simple Jewish-Hungarian restaurant Kádár in Budapest).  Also caldo de cordero (lamb), caldo de cabeza (sheep´s head, very good), caldo de cardon (bull´s penis), and plenty of others.

There is an interesting strand of cuisine which mixes sweet and spicy flavours.  The classic example is salteñas, empanadas or pasties made from sweet pastry and filled with a spicy stew.  Not really to my taste, but an interesting combination.  Another, more to my taste, are humintas.  These are triangles of corn-based fruit cake dough with sultanas, hot chillies and cheese, wrapped in corn husks and baked.  They are lovely, sort of like triangular tamales.
Extraordinary caldo de pollo

Bolivia has a thriving microbrew industry with a dozen or so breweries producing craft beers of usually excellent quality.  Wines are made too, nothing that will make headlines in the wine world, but decent quality, well produced wines that stand up well to mid range Chilean and Argentinian products.

The local distilled spirit, singani, is made from grape trash in the same way as grappa or marc de cava.  The primary grape used is muscatel, and the result is a clean, sharp, floral spirit that is pleasant after a meal.  Again I don’t think the marketers of eau de vie and grappa have anything to worry about, but singani is certainly a good addition to the lineup.
A licuado stand in Sucre market

Fruit licuados, which I had come across previously in Mexico, are taken to a whole new level here.  Licuados are made with pretty much any fruit, with either milk or water, and are uniformly delicious and addictive.  A typical market will have dozens of stands offering licuados as well as elaborate fresh fruit salads, enticingly presented and topped with an extravagant tower of whipped cream.

All this comes at a price of course, and in Bolivia that price is incredibly low.  One can easily get spoiled with 10Bs breakfasts (€1.10) and 15Bs (€1.65) lunches in the markets.  A large licuado, the perfect dessert, is under €1.

In La Paz there is a small but blossoming foodie culture.  There is Hallwrights, a good wine bar, offering hand crafted locally produced cheeses, cured meats and bread, accompanied by Bolivian, Chilean and Argentinian wines.   There are great little shops too, like the artisan bakery and deli Arco Iris opposite Sopocachi market, selling interesting bread, pastries, charcuterie, cheeses and local pates.

However, in contrast to the markets, which have been consistently good, restaurants are mixed. There are places catering primarily to tourists, offering the standard fare of pizza, Mexican food and burgers – nothing more needs to be said.  There are local restaurants and some of these are good, but many struggle to get past acceptable.  There are a few international restaurants aimed at the diplomat/expat community, generally OK but nothing special.

Then there is Gustu.

Gustu stands head and shoulders above any other restaurant I have been to in Bolivia.  Indeed it stands above any restaurant I have been to in the last two years, except perhaps for Aponiente in Spain.  It is, in my view, certainly 1 star and more likely 2 star Michelin, and achieves this entirely with Bolivian products and Bolivian cuisine.  Clever, inventive, modern, intelligent, very well executed dishes.  For example, a Bolivian traditional dish is remade into a take on fettucine carbonara, with “fettucine” of palm hearts, a poached egg yolk, desalted deep fried alpaca charque, and beurre noisette.  Spectacular.  The prices are, by Bolivian standards, stratospheric.  By first world standards they are modest for food at this level.

But clever food is only the end product of Gustu, extraordinary enough though it is.  What makes Gustu even more special is that the kitchen and wait staff are primarily Bolivians from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds (all are indigenous, most were street children).  They have been transformed in just 18 months into capable world class kitchen and front of house staff.  How?  Through the work of the charitable foundation Melting Pot, set up and led by Claus Meyer.  Yes, that Claus Meyer – the one who co-owns Noma in Copenhagen. 
Gustu: palm heart fettucine, crispy alpaca charque,
poached egg yolk, beurre noisette

The funding for the cooking school, restaurant and food laboratory has come from his own foundation, the Danish government, and several NGOs.  And it is not just about doing magic with Bolivian food: hundreds of lives being changed in the process.  The restaurant´s manager explained how the intention is to phase out the half dozen or so foreigners leading the restaurant today (including a young Danish superstar chef, Camilla Seidler, just voted best chef in Latin America) with Bolivians, and they feel confident this will take no more than a few more years.  In addition to the training in the restaurant, Melting Pot also runs a cooking school for indigenous poor in El Alto, the sprawling low income area of La Paz.

Sitting having lunch at one of the simple stalls in the market in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, we finished our tasty and ridiculously cheap food, and were chatting over a glass of chicha, the local corn drink.  A small boy, maybe 7 years old, approached us, eyes downcast, and quietly asked if he could have the rice left on Maret´s plate.  Not asking for money, or gifts, or anything else- just leftover rice.  He proffered a plastic carrier bag to put it into.  Of course we gave it to him, and he was gone in a flash, before we could offer something more.  The gap, the almost unfathomable gap, between the first world and the third world is a part of everyday life in some parts of Bolivian cities, and it is into this world that Melting Pot / Gustu stepped, working to make a difference.

Gustu is an act of total generosity on the part of Claus Meyer, empowering disadvantaged Bolivians and putting Bolivia firmly on the foodie map.  It is entirely consistent with the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy, which always was about more than just a local foraging approach to food.  Noma might be getting the limelight, but I would venture that the real story of the New Nordic Cuisine movement is being played out in the mountains of Bolivia (and also in the prisons of Denmark, another Claus Meyer initiative).

For me the experience of Gustu was humbling, a piercing insight into the nature of true generosity and the empowerment of others, and how much further I have to travel in those regards.

As for Bolivian food being uninspired: not at all.  I have long felt that the magic in life is rarely found in the safe middle ground, and that is certainly true for Bolivian cuisine. 

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