Growing up in Australia, I never realised as a kid how multicultural our food-scene is. Most kids knew how to use chopsticks from a young age, and confidently ordered nasi goreng, sushi, or pad thai from restaurants. Thus, I spent my childhood flitting between various European and Asian cuisines, craving variety and relishing all of the novel flavours I could find, which became fewer and fewer as gained more gastronomic experience with time. One area of cuisine that we don’t get much here, however, is South American. Mexican, yes, but that’s North American, not South, and they’re very different. Trust me. So when I met my Chilean boyfriend Rodrigo, I was also introduced to new and exciting tastes from that part of the world, and I fell in love with the food instantly. Bolivia and Paraguay are both landlocked countries with strong indigenous cultures that pervade their cuisines, as well as Spanish, German, Italian, French and Arabic influences. Interestingly, 95% and 88% of the Paraguayan and Bolivian populations are of partial indigenous descent. This may be part of the reason that indigenous ingredients and preparations are more prevalent in these nations than for example neighbouring Argentina or Chile. The dishes are strongly shaped by native ingredients, which vary across the differing climes of the country, from the high and cold mountainous conditions in the west, to the tropical Amazonia jungle to the east. I’ve visited a few countries in South America, but never Bolivia or Paraguay, but would love to go one day to see the Amazon rainforest, the mountains and the lakes, of course sampling some of the wonderful food along the way!
Silpancho, meaning “flat and thin” in the Quechua language, is a dish from the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia. So beloved is Silpancho in this city that it has a tradition of restaurants displaying lights outside that, if on, signal that silpancho is ready, while off indicates you won’t be able to sate your desire for the dish in that particular establishment tonight. Until recently, the city-funded outdoor lighting on the streets of Cochabamba was scarce, and so these silpancho signals formed an important part of the citizens’ nocturnal safety and navigation. Silpancho is comprised of an adobo-spiced breaded veal steak, topped with tomato, onion, lemon and coriander salsa, fried potatoes, fluffy white rice and a fried egg. Although the origins of silpancho are cloaked in the annals of time, Celia la Fuente Peredo, renowned and decorated female Bolivian chef, is credited and honoured to the point of near sainthood with adding rice and egg to the combination in the 1950s to create the version we know today. Adobo spice in this context is made from chilli, sesame seeds, cumin, garlic and vinegar. This dish was definitely a winner. It had all of the components I like from the European schnitzel, but the vinegary adobo and fresh, crunchy salsa cut through the fat and made it so much more delicious. Also, fried potatoes (made by first par-boiling and then frying in oil) were a new and dangerous revelation to me. So quick! So easy! So calorific! In Latin America they prepare onion for salads in a way that I and many Australians might consider revolutionary: by “buffering” it. This entails dicing fresh onion, then covering it in a lot of salt and boiling water. Never fear, saltphobes, the salt will be washed off later, and a lot is necessary for the chemical process, so don’t be stingy. After 5-10 minutes the onion is drained and rinsed in cool water, and you’re left with crunchy sweet onion, without the burning sensations (or onion-breath). And now we come to the egg, oh the egg. It’s common in South America to just put a fried egg on top of everything, and it’s a practice I fully support. Restaurants often offer meals “a lo pobre”, literally “to the poor”, which just means with chips, fried onion and a fried egg. I’m not sure of the connotations or insinuations of “to the poor”, but I definitely didn’t feel unfortunate eating silpancho.
Pastel de quinoa, salteña and solterito de habas
Quinoa, despite representing the burgeoning hipster movement, is an ancient grain from the Andes, and has been consumed for centuries after very early domestication by the indigenous people. Indeed, the Incas referred to this crop as “mother of all grains” and held it in high esteem in religious ceremonies perhaps in part because of its rich abundance of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals that had the ability to keep the population healthy and satiated. Pastel de quinoa means “quinoa pie”, and I used a mix of different quinoa varieties, first boiled until tender before being combined with the other ingredients and baked in an oven. The other ingredients included onions, tomatoes, chilli, garlic, spinach, green beans, grated carrot, egg and assorted spices, with some cheese on top. Salteñas are a type of baked meat-filled pastry, like an empanada, commonly eaten for breakfast in Bolivia. The name is thought to refer purported creator, Juana Manuela Gorriti, an ex-patriot of Salta, Argentina (and therefore the “salteña”, meaning lady from Salta), who eventually married a Bolivian president. A common theme that I’ve found in my research is that most regions across the world have a protein-filled pastry. Throughout Asia there are dumplings/momos/spring rolls/samosas, Eastern Europe has pelmeni/pierogi, Western Europe has pasties/ravioli/tortellini/filo pastries/dumplings/pies, Africa has madombi/sambusas and America has empanadas/salteñas. Even Australia has meat pies, sausage rolls and the notorious chiko rolls (poor, dear Australia). I’m not sure why this theme is so pervasive, it might be something to do with the convenience of having a dry pastry containing and protecting the moist meat. The combination of carbohydrates and a protein filling is also undeniably delicious. It might also be that it’s hard work to make them all from scratch, and they therefore symbolise love and occasion, and so have stuck within the celebratory traditions and nostalgia of different cultures. All I know is: it’s a recipe for success. My salteñas had shredded chicken, black olives, potato, onion, peas, cumin, paprika, hard boiled eggs, raisins and aji amarillo paste in a homemade eggy pastry. An addition to the filling particular to Bolivia is a small amount of gelatine powder, which makes the cold filling relatively solid and easy to handle during the assembly process, but which then melts during cooking to create a fantastically juicy and succulent texture and ensures the dough doesn’t get soggy or wet. The aji amarillo is a yellow pepper/chilli native to South America, and gives dishes a mild sweet flavour and strong yellow colour. I’m used to baked Chilean empanadas with minced beef, but the chicken was a marvellous variation, especially with the mild spice of the yellow pepper and sweetness of the raisins and sugar. Solterito de habas is a salad combining fava beans, white corn, black olives, tomatoes and onion with a simple dressing of oil, vinegar and salt. The combination of all three was light and refreshing, with particularly pleasant blend of spices and textures.
Fritanga is a spicy pork and egg stew, also containing onions, tomatoes, garlic, herbs and cumin. The dish is particularly common in the mountainous regions of Bolivia, where cold windy conditions might make the inhabitants particularly partial to thick and warming stews. And when I say warming, I mean it. Recipes call for 1/2 a cup of cayenne pepper, which I would classify as a frankly dangerous volume for even the most hardened of spice addicts. I therefore chickened out and only put about 1/8 of a cup in, and I’m glad I did because I was snotting and crying enough for my liking even with that amount. Having said that, I do get an endorphin rush from spicy food, so I didn’t mind too much, and it tasted great. The egg component of the stew consists of raw eggs cracked into the mix at the last minute of cooking and then stirred in quickly to smoothly thicken the stew. I’ve never before come across this technique, always thickening my stews with cornflour and/or reduction, but I think it’s a neat idea to add a bit of extra protein and richness. I served my fritanga with baked potatoes, and stewed white hominy corn. South America is the original home of corn, and boasts many varieties that are near impossible to find elsewhere in the world, such as white corn or corn with truly enormous kernels. Hominy describes corn kernels (usually big ones) that have been immersed in an alkali liquid, originally for preservation. I managed to find some tinned hominy in a South American specialty grocer, and stewed them along with cumin and aji amarillo to create a soft creamy texture and bright golden hue.
Pira caldo and sopa paraguaya
If, like me, you have a smattering of Spanish, you may have already inferred that “sopa Paraguaya” means “Paraguayan soup” and refers to the red soup in the picture, and that “pira caldo” must mean something else? You would be wrong, however, and I was very confused by the terminology in the planning for this week! Pira caldo refers to the pictured Paraguayan fish soup, with “pira” meaning “fish” in the indigenous Guarani language, and “caldo” meaning “broth” in Spanish. As Paraguay is landlocked, the fish in question is usually freshwater, such as catfish. Vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and capsicums are first fried with fat, and then the fish stock, tomato puree along with herbs and spices, such as chilli, coriander and parsley, are added to make a hearty broth. The triangular yellow thing on the side of the soup in my picture is called sopa Paraguaya, and despite being called a soup, is actually more like a cornbread. There are a few stories behind the name, one of which involves the first constitutional president of Paraguay, Don Carlos Antonio López, whose large physique advertised his deep love of food, especially thick soups flavoured with milk, cheese, eggs and corn flour. One day, one of his cooks added a bit too much corn flour to his lunch of soup, and, lacking the time to start over again, decided to just put it in the clay oven and see how it went. Inevitably it made a moist dense bread, which the governor adored, jokingly naming the solid soup “sopa Paraguaya” thereafter. It’s made by first combining yellow corn meal, white cheese, yellow cheese, fat, milk, sugar and fried, finely diced vegetables such as onion, capsicum and corn, into a very thick dough. This is then placed in a skillet and baked in the oven until the outside is browned and the inside is cooked and steaming, sliced, and served as an accompaniment to any other meal. This dish was an absolute winner – I’ve tried and made many types of cornbread from the USA and I judge sopa Paraguaya as far superior to any of these. I think the rustic quality and inclusion of lots of chunky vegetables, including fresh corn, is what makes it so tasty. Oh, and the cheese doesn’t hurt either! The origin of this dish was likely from a fusion of Spanish settlers and indigenous Guaraní people, the latter having a long history of baking doughy breads made from corn or manioc flour wrapped in banana leaves in hot ashes. The Spanish added cheese, eggs and milk to this concept, creating a new dish beloved by both peoples. To my mind this dish is also similar to the many varieties of “chipa” throughout Paraguay, which are small baked bread rolls, often made with manioc flour, eggs and cheese, eaten for breakfast, as a snack, or accompanying any other meal.