As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~Joan Gussow


Bolivian Foods: A Recap

Wowzers! Has it really been that long since I’ve blogged?? Over a month! Well, in case you didn’t know, I took a 2.5 week trip to Bolivia to visit my friends and godson, Jesus. (I served in the Peace Corps there from 2005-2007.) The trip was fantastic! Jesus is now 13 but he is still the same person I met when he was 7–very studious, eager to learn, polite and an all around great kid–I have such high hopes for him! Luckily we did not get stuck in any bloqueos or mudslides. In fact, everything went incredibly smoothly for Bolivia.  (Ok, there was one bloqueo in La Paz–parents were protesting against the municipal government because their children had not received their vaccinations as promised. It was a peaceful protest and we walked an extra 1.5 miles or so to get through it and then continue on with our day in La Paz. It was Jesus’ first bloqueo, so hey, it was educational!)

To view all the pictures of my trip, click here.

I was able to eat all of my favorite food and then some while in Bolivia. Here is a recap of the deliciousness!

I wasted no time to start eating all the Bolivian food I missed!  After we arrived to the airport  (~9 am) and were picked up by my friends Sandra and Susana, we went to my favorite salteña cafe in Santa Cruz for breakfast. I ordered my usual: one spicy chicken salteña and fresh papaya juice. Whenever I would come to the city during my service,  I always made it a point to come here. Salteñas are savory pastries that originated in the northern city of Salta, Argentina and somehow made their way to Bolivia. They are a typical mid-morning snack all over the country. They are primarily made with ground beef (and rarely chicken), spices, very finely diced potatoes, and sometimes a boiled egg and olive inside. In my opinion, the juicier they are, the better. Ironically, I didn’t care for Vallegrande’s version of the salteña. (Vallegrande was the town I served in.)

The space that hosts the salteña shop in the morning doubles up and also happens to host my favorite afternoon “masita” shop, called Horno Caliente. Masitas are little pastries, most of them savory that people eat in the afternoon and evening with tea or coffee. Most Bolivians do not eat dinner as the main meal of the day is lunch and “dinner” ends up being something simple like a masita, bread, etc. My favorite masitas cruceñas (from the Santa Cruz department) are the cuñape (round ball on left) which is about a 50/50 mixture of yuca (manioc root) flour and cheese–it’s basically a cheese bomb.! And the other one is a sonzo which is made of boiled and then mashed yuca mixed with cheese and then baked. They are both best fresh out of the oven.

This photo won’t win any awards, but it does feature another of my favorite dishes–charque. Charque is basically dried and then cooked beef. Think jerky. In fact, the word jerky comes from the word charque. The charque I ate is beef, but it is also made from llama meat, more commonly consumed in the western Altiplano area of the country. It is usually served with boiled potatoes and mote, which is reconstituted dry corn. Another one of my favorites!

This is not Bolivian food! One morning, my mom and I made my friends typical breakfast tacos, fresh squeezed OJ and papaya. The Bolivians approved 🙂

Ok, here’s another not-Bolivian-food. This is my mom’s famous Chocolate Icebox Cake that she only makes for birthdays. She was so sweet to make it for me on my bday in Bolivia! (And IMHO, Bolivian cake is not…well…good…)

Sandra made majadito, which is a typical Santa Cruz dish: charque, rice, veggies, fried plantains and an egg on top. Yesssssss!

Comfort food: choclo con queso y yuca (fresh corn, farmer cheese and yuca). I have fond memories of women selling choclo con queso on my 7 hour bus ride from the city back to my site, Vallegrande. “Choclo con qUEEEEEEEsOOOOOOOOOOOOO” they would shout.

Just a typical market scene!

I took this photo because it demonstrates that tubers are king in Bolivia. In the middle row from left to right are: red potatoes, purple fingerling potatoes, papaliza, more varied potatoes and oca.

Cual lengua quieres? (Which tongue would you like?) My friend, Andrew, with whom we stayed in La Paz, had his empleada make us picante de lengua (below).

Picante de lengua is made with tongue, veggies and aji seco, or dried chile peppers. It’s not really picante. Here it is served over tunta. Tunta is freeze-dried potatoes. It had been traditionally made by the indigenous Aymara and Quechua communities. The process involves exposing a frost-resistant type of potatoes to the freezing night temperatures of the Altiplano region and then exposing them to the intense sunlight during the day. They are then constantly sprayed with water, which makes them white as opposed to chuño, which is another freeze-dried potato but is generally black and not exposed to water. The advantage of treating potatoes this way is that they can be stored for very long amounts of time. I’m kinda luke-warm on eating chuño/tunta–maybe it’s an acquired taste?

In the background, you’ll see a bottle of Hauri, my favorite Bolivian beer, still made with Huari spring water.

These two pictures feature the granadilla, one of my all-time favorite fruits. Sadly, I have never seen them for sale in the U.S. The granadilla is in the passion flower family and is originally from the Andes between Venezuela and Bolivia. I nicknamed it “brain fruit” because that is what it looks like. The “shell” is easy to break with your fingers and then you eat the seeds and gelatinous material surrounding the seeds. Yes, I know, it sounds gross. My mom put her nose up at it when I showed her the fruit, but upon eating it, really liked it. Don’t knock anything before you try it!

Here is Jesus eating Pique Macho. Pique is a dish that you pick at and often share. Basically it’s a bed of homemade fresh fries piled high with beef (think fajita meat), hotdogs, cheese, boiled eggs, tomatoes and locoto (one of the typical hot peppers of Bolivia). This was a treat for Jesus!


The Bloqueos That Await Us

My long-awaited return to Bolivia starts in just a few days!

I served in the Peace Corps there from 2005 – 2007. The last time I was there was December of 2008, which was rather horrendous being that we (my godson and I) got stuck in terrifying, in-passable landslides (whole other story…). One of the reasons I chose to visit in September was because it was the dry season–no landslides! However, it is Bolivia, and it would not be Bolivia without road blockades, or as they’re known locally, bloqueos. Bloqueos are constructed by local residents to disrupt traffic and draw attention to their political wants. Most of the time bloqeos are organized by ordinary citizens or campesinos. In a country in which the population is made up of more than 50% indigenous peasants with little voice, building bloqueos is an effective measure of protest. Most bloqueos are fairly sublime–branches, tree limbs, rocks, tires, etc. are laid across the road and the “protesters” sit next to the blockade and make sure no one crosses. Again, they are sublime unless you try to cross, and then there might be some rocks thrown or, in rare cases, shots fired. In the Peace Corps we were taught to NEVER cross a blockade. I did twice and they were both pretty heart-rate pumping experiences(….) Bloqueos can last for a day or for a week; waiting is the only thing one can do. They are incredibly effective at interfering with commerce, travel and daily life as Bolivia is a very undeveloped country with few roads. If you are able to close down the one road that exists, well, you’ve accomplished something.

Maneuvering a bloqueo (2005)

Stopped in the middle of no where altiplano, waiting to cross a bloqueo (2006)

This week there have been bloqueos along the road between Cochabamba and La Paz. About 500 neighbors from the area of El Paso protested the exploitation and mismanagement of many wells that they say 40,000 people in the area are relying on.

In La Guardia, which is a town about 45 minutes west of the City of Santa Cruz, there was a bloqueo today organized by 36 transportation lines who were protesting the inclusion of more transportation lines. According to the newspaper, El Deber, the transportation protesters reached their goal in less than 20 minutes (shortest bloqueo ever, me thinks!) as a meeting was called between them and the municipal executive in which they agreed on a compromise–the Director of Traffic and Transportation from the City of Montero, would resign.

In a more serious situation, more than 1,000 amazon indigenous residents have been marching towards La Paz, protesting a new road to be be built from [coca producing region of] Villa Tunari to San Ignacio de Moxos, in the Beni Deparment (Bolivia has 9 Departments–think of them like States). The road would cut through the Indigenous Territory of the National Park Isiboro Secure (TINPIS). The indigenous marchers have many demands, including being compensated fairly for the road cutting through their territory, protection of various natural resources and for funds for education and health services.

Here’s a map of the aforementioned places so you can orient yourself–creating personalized google maps sure is fun!

I just received an email from one of my friends in Bolivia who said the bloqueos no son tán graves so hopefully that is the case!

Food for Thought: April 19, 2011

Because of my job, I read countless articles every week regarding food policy, food culture, environmental issues, gardening and public health. So, why not share some of my favorite articles with a little commentary on a regular basis? Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Mark Bittman’s opinion column in the NY Times is a must for me and he always has it right (in my opinion).  This past week he outlined how we could save $$$$ during our budget wars by simply preventing certain diseases (through improved health). What about M. Bittman for Ag Secretary? Or hell, President?!

It seems everywhere you turn these days, schools are banning one sort of food product or another. Well, this one Chicago school has outlawed lunches packed from home. While I understand the logic, I question whether banning home-made food is the best way to solve the problem. How about some good ol’ fashioned edumacatin’? What about classes, workshops ( flyers in kids take-home bags?) for parents on what to pack their children rather than an outright ban? I almost feel like a teabag er I meant Tea Partier shouting for individual family rights on this one. But I guess with slim budgets, there is no time or money to conduct such an intervention.

Bolivia will soon be passing a law that grants human rights to all of nature. As much as I like the sound of this, I wonder how much of a sound bite this is? Serving for 2+ years as an Environmental Education volunteer in rural Bolivia I can tell you that conservation and “protecting nature” are not part of the colloquial vocabulary. I would be all in favor of the government launching a campaign of how to conserve and manage natural resources, being that climate change will most likely have an impact on the poorest nation in South America.

And just to keep things fun, check out Colbert’s report about the increasing price of cocoa and what that means for American chocolate bar.


Honoring My 8th Grade Spanish Teacher

Several weeks ago I had the luck of running into my 8th grade Spanish teacher, Sra. Falbo. We had lunch about a week after that–what a treat! I remember when the 8th grade semester first started and everyone knew that Sra. Falbo’s class was hard–she spoke puro Español. The first few weeks of class I was as lost as the next person was. But only for a few weeks. I soon began understanding everything! It was probably my favorite class in 8th grade–I just adored Sra. Falbo’s way of teaching and I learned so much that year. I owe a lot to Sra. Falbo as I continued taking Spanish in high school and placed out of all lower-level Spanish courses when I rolled in UT, thanks to my AP exams. I ended up getting a second major in Spanish in college. And living in Ecuador. And serving in the Peace Corps in Bolivia. And securing a job in which I use my Spanish daily.

Over lunch she showed me a post card that I had written her (in Spanish) the summer after I graduated 8th grade. I can’t believe she still had it!! Being the Spanish grammar nazi I am, I critiqued several mistakes I made but laughed nonetheless.

Mil gracias y saludos to Sra. Falbo and all of the fabulous teachers that have given greatly to our lives!

Sra. Falbo and I at lunch

The Global [Quinoa] Market and Public Health Implications [in Bolivia]

This article was flying around the Peace Corps Bolivia network today. It’s especially intriguing for me for several reasons: I served in the Peace Corps in Bolivia from 2005 – 2007; I cook with quinoa here in the US; I am the director of a cooking/nutrition program.

I’ve copied and pasted it here for your reading ease. Here is the original link. I’ve made comments to the article in bold italics; I’ve even added some of my own pictures.

LA PAZ, Bolivia — When NASA scientists were searching decades ago for an ideal food for long-term human space missions, they came across an Andean plant called quinoa. With an exceptional balance of protein and amino acids, quinoa, they declared, is virtually unrivaled in the plant or animal kingdom for its life-sustaining nutrients. [There are 9 “essential” amino acids in the world. They are called essential because the body cannot produce them so they must be taken in via food.  Amino acids make up proteins and most animal proteins are “complete” proteins meaning they contain complementing essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins (found in rice, bread, milk, etc.) generally are not “complete” standing alone (hence why so many cultures have “complementary” protein sources like corn + beans, soy + rice, milk + bread, etc.). Anyway, quinoa contains all 9 essential amino acids thus making it the “leader” of the plant proteins.]

But while Bolivians have lived off it for centuries, quinoa remained little more than a curiosity outside the Andes for years, found in health food shops and studied by researchers — until recently.

Now demand for quinoa (pronounced KEE-no-ah) is soaring in rich countries, as American and European consumers discover the “lost crop” of the Incas. The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.

[This picture was taken in a town about 3 hours away from my “hometown” of Vallegrande, Bolivia.]

Farmer plowing potato field. Most Bolivian agriculture is not highly mechanized.

The shift offers a glimpse into the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both prosperous and developing nations. While quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, Bolivia’s consumption of the staple fell 34 percent over the same period, according to the country’s agricultural ministry.

The resulting quandary — local farmers earn more, but fewer Bolivians reap quinoa’s nutritional rewards — has nutritionists and public officials grasping for solutions.

“As it’s exported, quinoa is now very expensive,” said María Julia Cabrerizo, a nutritionist at the Hospital de Clínicas, a public hospital here. “It’s not a food of mass consumption, like noodles or rice.”

Quinoa, domesticated thousands of years ago on Bolivia’s arid high mountain plains and now often misrepresented as a grain, is actually a chenopod, related to species like beets and spinach. Its seeds have a light, nutty taste, and when cooked become almost translucent.

While the Incas relied on quinoa to feed their soldiers, it was only recently that Bolivian farmers, with the help of European and American foreign aid organizations, started growing quinoa for export.

The focus on foreign markets has altered life in isolated places like Salinas de Garcí Mendoza, a community on the edge of the salt flats in southern Bolivia where much of the country’s quinoa is produced. Agricultural leaders claim that rising exports of the plant have lifted living standards there and in other quinoa-growing areas.

[The following are pictures from edge of the salt flats (Salar de Uyuni), where I visited while living in Bolivia.]

Town at edge of salt flats where we stayed the night

Rows where quinoa was to be planted

“Before quinoa was at the price it is now, people went to Argentina and Chile to work,” said Miguel Choque Llanos, commercial director of the National Association of Quinoa Producers. Now, he said, rising quinoa prices have also encouraged city dwellers to return to their plots in the countryside during planting and harvest seasons.

Yet there are causes for concern. While malnutrition on a national level has fallen over the past few years thanks to aggressive social welfare programs, Ms. Cabrerizo, the nutritionist, said studies showed that chronic malnutrition in children had climbed in quinoa-growing areas, including Salinas de Garcí Mendoza, in recent years.

In Salinas de Garcí Mendoza and elsewhere, part of this change is due to climbing quinoa prices and more quinoa being destined for export.

“I adore quinoa, but I can’t afford it anymore,” said Micaela Huanca, 50, a street vendor in El Alto, a city of slums above the capital, La Paz. “I look at it in the markets and walk away.”

Officials in President Evo Morales’s government say that changing food preferences and increased ability to buy processed foods also play a role.

“It has to do with food culture, because if you give the kids toasted quinoa flour, they don’t want it; they want white bread,” said Víctor Hugo Vásquez, vice minister of rural development and agriculture. “If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola.” [Wow, this sounds just like an American household. White bread vs. wheat bread. 100% juice/water vs. Soda. It’s extremely troubling to me that brands such as Coca-Cola have permeated the entire globe and are wreaking havoc on public health everywhere. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I have been in rinky-dink towns between Mexico–Panama–Ecuador–Bolivia–Argentina–Morocco that there was not a sign for Coke or even a little store nestled between Amazon Basin rivers selling the drink. And at what cost? (not the actual cost, but rather, the cost of it’s global influence on sovereign peoples around the world.]

The shift away from consuming quinoa in the cradle of its cultivation has alarmed some of the plant’s top marketers in the United States, where quinoa is increasingly coveted by health-conscious consumers.

“It’s kind of discouraging to see stuff like this happen, but that’s part of life and economics,” said David Schnorr, the president of the Quinoa Corporation of Los Angeles, one of the largest importers of quinoa in the United States, which has worked with Bolivian producers since the 1980s.

Mr. Schnorr said quinoa’s climbing prices in the United States were raising other concerns as well. “At $5 a box, only so many people can afford that,” he said, adding that he would prefer a price about half that amount. “I’ve always been an advocate of expanding the market, keeping the prices to a point where more people can try it.” [So here is a classic example of capitalism and global expansion. Selling quinoa on the international market has been able to pull some Bolivians out of poverty, but from a public health/societal perspective, ordinary Bolivians cannot afford it. This just absolutely baffles me. I remember, when living in Ecuador, I read an article in the Quito-based newspaper, El Comercio, about the gov’t trying to encourage local indigenous Ecuadorians to eat quinoa because of it’s nutritional and cultural value. Many indigenous Ecuadorians stopped eating quinoa because it’s stigma as “peasant food.” I wonder if the same thing that is happening in Bolivia is also happening in Ecuador?]

Here in Bolivia, government officials are trying to increase domestic quinoa consumption, even as the product faces steep competition from other foods. At supermarkets here, a 1,000-gram bag of quinoa, just over two pounds, costs the equivalent of $4.85, compared with $1.20 for a bag of noodles the same weight and $1 for a bag of white rice.

President Morales said this month that he planned to make more than $10 million in loans available to organic quinoa producers, and health officials are incorporating the plant into a packet of foods supplied to thousands of pregnant and nursing women each month. [I guess this is Bolivia’s equivalent of our WIC Program? I am also curious to know, should the situation worsen, if the Bolivian gov’t will subsidize it’s production so that Bolivians can afford it? Then again, gov’ts have been known (ahem) to subsidize foods that should not be encouraged to be eaten. High fructose corn syrup anyone?]

Mr. Vásquez, the rural development official, said quinoa would also be available in meals for the armed forces and in more school breakfasts. “That’s already under way in some municipalities,” he said, “but we want to expand.”

Some here cling to eating quinoa despite its rising price. Paulina Vásquez, 52, a housekeeper and mother of three children in their 20s who live with her in a poor district on a steep mountainside of La Paz, sows the crop each year on her family’s land outside the city. The packaged quinoa found in supermarkets is beyond what her family can afford.

Instead, they harvest their own, store it and then prepare it by hand, a painstaking process that includes washing away the resinlike saponin coating that protects the seeds. Ms. Vásquez regularly prepares a sweet drink of quinoa, apple, cinnamon and sugar for her family for breakfast. [FYI, I have never encountered quinoa in this country that needs the saponin removed. Lucky for us.]

But she says many in the younger generation have moved away from it. “People my age and older are eating quinoa,” Ms. Vásquez said. “The young people don’t want it. If there is a pot of noodles everyone is there, as if noodles were nutritious. Even my children are that way.”

[With my upcoming trip to Bolivia in September, I’m anxious to ask my Bolivian friends if they have noticed a price difference and, if so, what their take on the situation is. Regardless, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that international markets have public health implications. So for all you business wizzes and public health genuses, what’s the solution?

In the meantime, buying quinoa will weigh heavily on my conscience.]

Maracuya/Passion Fruit Juice

Maracuya juice, or Passion Fruit juice, is my favorite juice in the world. When I lived in Ecuador during college, I would make fresh maracuya juice almost every morning with my blender, some water and sugar (it is very tart). When living in Bolivia, I drank it every chance I got—maracuya wasn’t very popular in my region, but when I went to low-lands, I loaded up on it. It is just divine.

While shopping at Fiesta grocery store a few weeks ago, I picked up a packet of frozen maracuya pulp. What the heck–might as well try it out. I thawed it out tonight, mixed it with water and sugar in a pitcher. Verdict? Of course it’s not as fresh as when I would drink it in South America, but almost.

The funniest thing to me is why I never bought this before, being that I love it so much. I guess I didn’t seek it out, knowing that at some point soon, I would be heading back to Bolivia for a visit. But, until then, I think I will keep making my maracuya juice and looking forward to the real deal in September 🙂

Mmmmm...maracuya....mi favorito

Joy’s Peasant Salad

If I had to choose a favorite food, I might just have to say lentils. I know, so anti-climatic. One would think, that for a person that loves to eat and cook as much as I do, my favorite food would be on the fancier side of the spectrum. But honestly, I heart lentils. In fact, I remember when I was in Argentina for two weeks. At the time I was living in Bolivia and I ate lentils quite often; I usually made lentil soup at least once a week. I remember thinking towards the end of my trip how I really, really missed lentils. With all the meat to be had in Argentina, I just wanted a bowl of lentils. I guess you could call it my comfort food.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like “complex” food too. However, I’m a practical person and for me, lentils are that magic food. Not to mention that they are a global food so they can be eaten so many ways!

Something else I like are grain-based salads with olive oil + freshly squeezed lemon juice. Think brown rice, quinoa or bulgur.

Why not put  these together and make something practical, healthy, cheap and delicious? Using The Moosewood Cookbook‘s Tabouli as my inspiration, I came up with this “peasant salad” :


  • 1 cup dry bulgur
  • 1/2 cup of brown lentils, washed and rinsed
  • 1 large handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large green onion (I pulled mine out of the garden), sliced thin. Use both white and green parts.
  • Juice of two lemons
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Notes: Bulgar is parboiled whole wheat. Think of it like instant oats–it really doesn’t need to be cooked, it just needs to soak up water. In Bolivia, one of my favorite soups was made with bulgur–llawa de trigo. Que rico!


(1) Place lentils in sauce pan. Add 1 + cups of water (more water may be needed during the cooking process). Cook lentils on medium-high heat until cooked through. They should be soft, but at the same time, firm enough so that they are not falling apart. For brown lentils, it takes ~ 30 minutes.

(2) Boil 2 cups of water. Place one cup of bulgur in medium-sized bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups of boiling water to bulgar. Cover and let sit 20 – 30 minutes.

(2) Add lemon juice, garlic and green onion to bowl. Once bulgur is done (all of the water has been absorbed), add to lemon juice mixture.

(3) Once lentils are done, add to bulgar mixture and mix. Drizzle 2-3 tbsp of olive oil on top and mix. Add salt and pepper to your liking.

(4) Eat warm or wait for the salad to cool. Also does wonderfully left overnight and eaten the next day.

Dry Bulgur Wheat

Green onion + parsley + garlic

Juicing lemon with handheld juicer--a must have in my kitchen

Joy's Peasant Salad, ready to be eaten