73. Colombia

Colombia is very high on my (extensive) list of places that I would love to visit. Even when watching a show like “Narcos”, about Pablo Escobar and the violent drug wars of the 70s and 80s, my attention was drawn to the beautiful shots of Medellín, with its colourful tropical atmosphere vividly capturing my imagination. Note: the country is purportedly much safer these days, and welcomes tourism! Another important player in my romanticism of Colombia is renowned author Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez hugely popularised the genre of magical realism, a concept where small coincidences and curiosities of the world are highlighted in ways that could be interpreted as magical, but are not explicitly fantastic, and the stories otherwise revolve around realistic events. This genre was like a breath of fresh air to me, as I had always held a soft spot for the hardcore fantasy genre, stereotypically set specifically in a European-like medieval wooded area. To suddenly have the much subtler and more human stories of magical realism playing out in tropical jungles and rolling beaches, the sounds of jungle birds and monkeys threaded throughout the plot, was so new and exciting – I was instantly hooked. This “late” discovery of magical realism, in my early 20s, mirrored a similar discovery of South American cuisine, which I tried at a similar time and had never before realised could contain some of the same properties I adore from Asian food (fresh, tangy and savoury flavours contrasted with sweet tropical fruits, fried starches and fluffy rice), but with a completely new and exhilarating flavour profile. Colombian cuisine is in part a product of the diverse geographies within the country,  with parts bordering both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean Sea, as well as containing sections of the Amazon rainforest, the huge Andes mountain range and expansive flat grassy plains. On top of this incredible biodiversity of ingredients, there are influences from the indigenous peoples, as well as Spanish, African and Arabic cuisines. Colombian food is one of my best bets for the next big culinary trend – so there’s no harm in starting to cook from this cuisine before the hipsters discover it!


Bandeja Paisa

Bandeja paisa.JPGBandeja paisa will always hold a special place in my heart, as it marked one of my first forays into the splendour of South American platters containing lots of little tastes of a huge variety of wonderful things. This concept is my favourite of all culinary options, perhaps representing sheer gluttony at wanting to eat everything on the menu and resenting the awful situation of only being able to choose one item to try. Bandeja paisa literally means platter of a person from the Paisa region, which lies in northwest Colombia. The exact preparation and contents of a bandeja paisa has a little flexibility, but traditionally contains cooked beans (kidney or pinto), carne molida (spiced ground beef), chorizo and/or morcilla (blood sausage), chicharrón (fried pork belly), fried plantain banana, hogao (spiced tomato and spring onion sauce), white rice, avocado, arepa (fried cornmeal flat bread), all topped off with a fried egg. It’s one of my greatest fears to be labelled a mean cook, so of course I included all of the above in my bandeja paisa. However, other varieties exist all over the country, such as the “extended” version, which adds steak, pork and liver, or another version that makes substitutions with salad and chicken breast for the health conscious consumer. The dish has taken on such national significance in Colombia perhaps because of its representation of the cultural milieux, including influences from indigenous, Spanish and African culinary practices and ingredients. Some regard bandeja paisa as the national dish of Colombia, and indeed there was a push about a decade ago by the Colombian government to rename it bandeja montañera (mountain tray) to make it less region-specific and solidify its uniting status. However, there was a pushback by the populace who still felt that, despite the proposed name change, bandeja paisa is too much of a regional dish to fairly represent the entirety of Colombia. Regardless, many tout it as the national dish, and indeed it’s the first meal that always springs to my mind when thinking of Colombian food. What then, are the other contenders for national dish I hear you ask? More on that to come!


Empanadas fritas

empanadas fritas.JPGEmpanadas originated from Galicia in Spain as a large pie with chicken, onion and capsicum, possibly with inspiration from Persian flavours and Arabian samosas many centuries before the Christian era. The conquistadores then helped to bring the concept of empanadas to The Americas, and following the Spanish colonisation of almost the whole of the southern continent, the variety and interpretation of empanadas exploded and they morphed into the single-serve items best known today. I already made a type of empanadas way back in Chile week, called “empanadas de horno”, literally “empanadas of the oven”. These huge flaky golden beauties are undoubtedly my favourite empanadas, however, there is another variety that come a very close second: empanadas fritas, literally “fried empanadas”. The name “empanada” simply means “enbreaded”, describing any filling stuffed inside a wrapper of dough. While the large baked Chilean empanadas de horno call for wheat flour to maintain a tight seal on the juicy fillings, the smaller empanadas fritas more popular in northern parts of South America commonly have a more delicate (often yellow) cornmeal dough (resulting from a fusion with native ingredients) that quickly and uniformly seals upon immersion in the hot oil. The filling of your empanada could feasibly be anything under the sun, but popular varieties include beef and potato, as well as mixed vegetable, often flavoured generously with onion, garlic and cumin. In Colombia, these small pastries are a popular street food all over the place, but particularly common outside churches, perhaps in a nation-wide conspiracy to associate church with pleasurable experiences in the minds of the populace? I served my empanadas fritas with aji, a condiment made with lots of finely chopped spices jalapeños, coriander, vinegar, lemon juice, spring onion, cumin, and a little tomato.


Pescado frito

pescado frito.JPGWherever there’s coastline in Colombia, there’s seafood, and one of the most famous meals encompassing this resource is pescado frito, literally meaning fried fish. The process of making the dish is very simple, as the freshness of the fish matters more than any seasoning. Nevertheless, the raw fish is first seasoned with salt, pepper and lime juice, and dredged in plain flour. It’s then fried, immersed (or near-immersed) in hot oil, until the outside is crunchy and golden, while the inside is moist and tender.  Colombian poet María Mercedes Carranza referred to this dish in one of her poems, setting the scene of the banal daily life of a relationship, as contrasted with the usual passionate descriptions of love by poets: “con el cepillo de dientes por la mañana/ el pescado frito en la cocina” (with a toothbrush in the morning/fried fish in the kitchen). I know she was trying to convey a dull and monotonous image of romantic life, but honestly, it sounds beyond exciting to me! Importantly, as for many dishes of South America, the accompaniments to this dish are equally, or perhaps even more, important than the main attraction. I made a simple tomato and lettuce salad as well as patacón pisao, which are twice-fried green plantain slices. I also made Colombian coconut rice, which involves first reducing coconut milk until it becomes thick and brownish, then adding rice, water and raisins and simmering until the rice is cooked.


Ajiaco/Sancocho

ajiacoSancocho and ajiaco are, apart from bandeja paisa, the other two most likely contenders for national dish of Colombia. They are often grouped together, as I have done here, because, even to a seasoned chicken and vegetable stew connoisseur like myself, they appear very similar. As I understand it, sancocho, meaning “to parboil” can describe a wider variety of  stews, including chicken, pork, beef, fish, or a mixture of those, with a mixture of vegetables such as corn, potato, cassava, plantain or tomato. Sancocho is also not uniquely Colombian, and can describe popular meat and vegetable stews in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, The Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama and The Philippines to name a few. Ajiaco, on the other hand, is relatively more restricted in geographical distribution, being common to Colombia, Cuba and Peru, but particularly popular in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Unlike the “anything goes” ethos of sancocho, ajiaco’s recipe prescribes a specific combination of chicken, three types of potatoes, guasca (the galingsoga parviflora herb, native to the region), and often garnished with sour cream and capers. I therefore suppose that ajiaco could be a type of sancocho, but not all sancochos could be ajiacos. Am I overthinking this? Regardless of the name, I made a chicken and vegetable stew which I hope could be safely described as one or the other, and just thing for a cold night in the Andes!

63. Argentina and Uruguay

Like most Latin American countries, Argentina and Uruguay’s cuisines have been shaped by the confluence of native traditions and ingredients, as well as influences from immigrants coming from all over the world, particularly the Mediterranean. Both of their cuisines are strongly shaped by enormous quantities of beef coming the sweeping pampas (grassy plains), and have very few indigenous influences as compared to other South American countries. In the case of Argentina, the most striking external influence is Italian, and consequently a quick look at any Argentinian restaurant’s menu will yield an abundance of pizza and pasta. Even the Argentinian speech sounds a bit like Spanish spoken with an Italian accent. I’ve visited the capitals of both Argentina, Buenos Aires, and Uruguay, Montevideo, very briefly, and was surprised by how very European they both were. The temperate weather, classic European architecture, modern conservative dress sense, and tall, white citizens could have easily been plucked from the streets of Milan, Berlin or Paris. Certainly, they don’t embody the bright, noisy, colourful and chaotic stereotype of Southern America that might spring to mind if you have never visited. On the first day in both cities, we ordered a parrillada (a mixed grill barbecue with salad, sauces and chips brought still flaming to the table), and it was obviously wonderful and delicious – just the thing to recover from a 20 hour international flight. However, I subsequently found the lack of diversity a bit tiring – once I got sick of enormous slabs of meat, pasta and pizza, there wasn’t much else to try! Also in most places, when you order a steak, that’s what they bring you. Steak. Alone. On a plate. I think the Argentinians and Uruguayans could learn a thing or two from their many northern neighbours, who wouldn’t dream of presenting a cut of meat without several different accompaniments. After all, I hold the firm belief that accompaniments are almost always the best part of the meal, so their neglect is tantamount to heresy in my book. While in Uruguay, I also came across the unusual government regulation that forbids restaurants from leaving salt on the table, nor offering it to patrons unprompted. As an ignorant tourist, therefore, you will inevitably enter into a strange conversation with waiters endlessly asking “would you like anything else? Are you sure? No seasoning perhaps?”. The way that one restaurant I visited In Uruguay unfortunately subverted this regulation was by wildly oversalting their meat before it left the kitchen to near-inedible levels. As a self-confessed saltaholic, my opinion of a meal as too salty is quite the statement! However, quirks aside, the barbecue/meat tradition in this part of the world is undeniably wonderful, as are the many other regional and/or fusion-influenced specialities, so I admit that my first impressions may have been driven by my poor choice of tourist-catering restaurants, as well as my complete ignorance of all other parts of these countries outside of their capitals. A convincing reason to go back, no? Argentina and Uruguay have also more than made up for that experience by providing me with my daily addiction of the last few years: mate. Mate (pronounced mah-teh) is a strongly caffeinated tea made from the yerba mate plant, traditionally drunk from a hollowed out gourd through a hollow metal straw that filters the tea leaves. Having never warmed to coffee, I make a large cup of this tea every morning and refill it with hot water throughout the day, regularly feeling thankful to the clever South American inventors of this preparation for getting me through every day.


Asado

argentinian asado parrillada.jpgAsado or parrillada is the technique or event of having a barbecue, usually cooked on an outdoor grill over flame or hot coals, hugely popular in both Argentina and Uruguay. The event is generally not very welcoming to vegetarians and vegans, with the major focus centering around meat, particularly cuts of beef, offal and embutidos (types of sausages), usually simply prepared without a marinade, just some salt. I included a whole-barbecued sirloin strip, beef ribs (whole and “flanken style” cross cut), chorizo sausage, morcilla (blood sausage), and pork sausage in my asado. This would traditionally be joined by a few token barbecued vegetables (although I included quite a lot for some vegetarian guests), barbecued provolone cheese (provoleta), salads, bread, and plentiful red wine. The sauces I prepared were chimichurri, made with garlic, oil, vinegar, and finely food processed herbs such as parsley and coriander, and salsa criolla, which is a chunky mix of tomatoes, onion and capsicum. The history of beef in these countries is a long one, and can be attributed to these countries’ current statuses as first- and second-highest consumers of beef in the world. It begins with the legend of Juan de Salazar y Espinoza and the Goes brothers in 1556, who first introduced cattle into the “pampa” (Argentinian grazing plains), which they sourced from Brazil in the form of one bull and seven cows. Those cows then reproduced prolifically and produced a huge population of wild cows inhabiting the flat grassy expanses of Argentina. This prompted the tradition of “gauchos” (cowboys), who made a living by herding/hunting these wild cows, predominantly to skin and sell the leather, which was a hugely profitable venture of the time. However, this lifestyle inevitably led to a heavily meat-based diet of the gauchos, cooked in a rustic, outdoor manner. And so, the asado was born! By the 18th century, there was an estimated 40 million wild cows in Argentina. By the 19th century, Charles Darwin himself spent a whole year sleeping under the stars in Argentina following this lifestyle, and found it so agreeable that he wrote a letter to his sister pronouncing himself a gaucho, adoring the fresh air, meat and mate dearly. The original asados involved making a large bonfire in the ground, then propping up stakes around it, on which various whole animals (such as goat) or cuts of meat were crucified/threaded and slow cooked by the radiant heat. This tradition is still upheld in some parts of Argentina and Uruguay, and one of the most famous Argentinian chefs, Francis Mallman, is legendary for cooking in this style. After spending much of his life being classically trained in the subtle delicacies of French culinary arts, Mallman now lives on an island in the far south of Argentina, in Patagonia, where he has returned to his Argentinian roots of extremely rustic, outdoor gaucho-style open fire cooking. Prospective disciples of his practice, which is nearing a cult-like status, often come to stay with him to learn the ways of the fire.


Locro

locroLocro is a dense and hearty stew that originates from the Andes mountain range, where the snowy peaks and bleak winds call for piping hot stodgy meals (I know from experience!). Locro is therefore eaten in most countries that the Andes pass through, including Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. However, it is perhaps most famous, and has become a national dish, in Argentina. Like most traditionally home-cooked meals, the recipe is flexible, but almost always involves stewing together dried large corn kernels, meat (could be beef, chorizo, ham etc., I used the latter two), onion, pumpkin, potato, and sometimes fresh corn kernels, when they can be sourced. The mixture is simmered with water for hours until the root vegetables have formed a thick mush and all the flavours have wonderfully combined into the taste of pure cosiness. This list of predominantly indigenous ingredients makes it likely that locro originated from the people of the Incan empire, and indeed it’s called “ruqru” in the native Quechua language. These days, locro is most commonly associated with May 25 in Argentina, which is the anniversary of the May Revolution against the Spaniards, and is usually marked by citizens chowing down on a big bowl of locro to symbolise their native ingredients and traditions. However, I suspect that this tradition is also triggered by the first whispers of winter blowing into the country, as the dish is thought to be rich in vitamins and nutrients, perfect to ward off illnesses. Locro was also served at the “wedding of the century” in 2001 between the only Chilean Miss Universe winner (1987), Cecilia Bolocco, and former long-standing president of Argentina Carlos Menem. These two figures were the equivalent of royalty in their respective countries, so their union was quite the spectacular event, inviting over 6000 guests to a sport stadium. Locro was an efficient way to feed all of these attendees, perhaps symbolising the Andes that both divide and unite the two countries.


Matambre

matambre.JPGThe word “matambre” can actually refer to a wide thin cut of beef, like a flank steak, taken from on top of the ribs. However, this cut is almost never grilled by itself, and one of the most popular recipes using it is “matambre arollado” (rolled matambre) or “matambre relleno” (filled matambre), which have come to be shortened to just “matambre”, referring to the entire preparation. This is convenient, because matambre is a portmanteau word of the Spanish “matar” (to kill) and “hambre” (hunger), and this meal is definitely a hunger killer! To prepare the dish, a large cut of flank steak is flattened out into a large thin sheet, and then hard-boiled eggs, vegetables (such as olives, carrot, spinach and capsicum) and herbs are laid out in rows across the surface. The steak is then rolled up, secured with string, and barbecued or baked until cooked. Thin slices are cut from the matambre, each revealing a beautiful pinwheel of meat peppered with the colourful filling. This preparation was easier than I expected, and turned out prettier than I imagined, so I highly recommend it for bringing along to a barbecue or preparing as an unusual roast dinner. It could also be a good way of sneaking some extra vegetables into kids/adults/yourself in a delicious way?


Chivito

chivitoChivito is widely considered to be the national dish of Uruguay, and, at the risk of sounding ineloquent, it can be best described as a super awesome sandwich. It starts with white bread or buns, filled with mayonnaise, tomatoes, olives, lettuce, cheese, pancetta or ham and a fried egg, finally topped with a succulent piece of grilled beef steak. This last ingredient is called churrasco, a succulent piece of thinly grilled steak. Like all great sandwiches, chivito is flexible, and other potential ingredients therefore include salad items such as cucumber, beetroot, or red capsicum. The word “chivito” is a diminutive of the word for goat “chivo”, referring to a young goat/kid. Young goats are commonly barbecued in neighbouring Argentina and legend has it that the name for the sandwich was born when an Argentinian woman requested some in a Uruguayan restaurant on the final day of 1944. The famous chef, Antonio Carbonaro, lacking goat meat, gave her a steak sandwich instead, and so chivito was born! The sandwich is undeniably delicious, and often commented on as greater than the sum of its parts. So beloved is this dish in Uruguay that there has been speculation that infamous Uruguayan football star, Luis Suárez, bit the ear of the opposing team player because he was having withdrawals from chivito while staying in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Nobody could argue that chivito is truly a sandwich you can sink your teeth into!

35. Brazil

I visited Brazil a couple of years ago, and found it to be an incredibly exotic and exciting place. I spent most of the trip in Rio de Janeiro, and I’ve never seen a city like it – the busy urban streets are covered in massive jungle trees, creating a green canopy over the bustling city. Right on the doorstep of the east of the city are miles and miles of white sandy beaches, with green mountains cradling it from the west. Being the fifth largest country in the world, there is a lot of diversity in food throughout Brazil, but my broad impression is that the cuisine is colourful, fresh and commonly incorporates tropical fruit into savoury dishes. There is also a lot of influence from the many waves of European and African immigration since the indigenous cultures prevailed. It saddens me that, at least in Australia, the most “South American” restaurants tend to get is “Mexican” (which is actually North American..). The result is that, although Australians are well-acquainted with any sort of Asian and most European food imaginable, very few have any idea of what real South American food actually is, and how much it varies across regions. Perhaps that means there’s a market for South American restaurants? Noted…


Feijoada

feijoadaFeijoada is often touted as Brazil’s national dish, and indeed I found it commonly on menus in cheap and upmarket restaurants alike when I visited. Similar bean dishes were introduced to Brazil during Portuguese colonisation in the 1500s, but feijoada has since taken on an entirely new identity after the incorporation of tropical ingredients and attitudes. The name comes from the word “feijão”, which means beans in Portuguese, and describes a stew of black beans and meat. Traditionally, the meat is a mixture of salted pork or beef, and often includes cheap trimmings such as ears, tails and feet, as well as bacon, ribs and sausage. I included pork ribs, bacon and small choriço sausages in my feijoada, flavouring the stew with onion, garlic, bay leaves, smoked paprika and a pinch of dried chilli powder. The best thing about feijoada, in my opinion, is the sides. The combinations of these vary depending on the cook, but most commonly include white rice, oranges (to aid digestion) and farofa. Farofa is a coarse powder of cassava flour, toasted with butter, salt, onions and garlic that is used as a side or ingredient in many Brazilian dishes. It’s delicious in its own right, but makes magic when combined with food that’s a little moist, as the farofa absorbs the liquid and creates a great texture. I also accompanied my feijoada with hard boiled egg, sautéed greens, Brazilian salsa (tomato, capsicum, coriander, oil and lemon juice), and fried plantain bananas. Feijoada is often served at family gatherings for weekend lunch, intended to be eaten at a leisurely pace throughout the afternoon. This is one of my favourite meals, the combination of all the different sweet, salty and sour flavours is wonderful. You can perfectly top off your meal with a drink of caipirinha, which is the national Brazilian cocktail of cachaça (a spirit made from sugarcane), lime and sugar. Be warned: you may need a very long sesta after this combination!


Moqueca de camarão

moqueca

Moqueca describes a seafood stew, flavoured with tomato, onion, green capsicum, coriander, garlic and coconut milk. It can be made with a mix of fish, or, as here, with camarão (prawns). The stew originally hails from the state of Espírito Santo, where it is called moqueca capixaba. This version more closely resembles what I made, mainly because the common Brazil-wide moquecas usually use a lot of palm oil in the recipe, whereas the moqueca capixaba uses olive oil. The stew is traditionally cooked in a clay pot, made water resistant with mangrove tree sap. The incorporation of coconut milk into this stew made it taste surprisingly like a Thai curry, although the other flavours helped to remind me of its Brazilian origins. Seafood and coconut are a match made in heaven, and this stew was no exception – the delicate sweetness of the prawns and coconut contrasted nicely with more savoury flavours. Perfect to be eaten with rice, or pirão, which is a paste made from the same flour as farofa.


Picanha

picanha with pao de queijo tropeiro yucaPicanha describes a cut of beef that is uncommon in Australia but very popular all over South America. It’s also known as the sirloin cap, rump cap or rump cover, and is a tender part of the rump that has a thick covering of fat. It is usually seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, barbecued whole (with the fat still attached) until medium rare, then cut up into thin slices to serve. This cut of meat isn’t sold commonly in many parts of the world, so my best advice to those wanting to try it is do your research as to exactly what it is, then form a good relationship with a butcher and ask them to cut it for you. In Brazilian steakhouses (called churrascarias), picanha is cooked over charcoal on rotating skewers, along with many other types of meat including pork, lamb, chicken, chicken hearts and sausage. Waiters come to each table proffering these skewers and a knife, which they use to carve off slices of meat onto your plate. If you haven’t been to a churrascaria, you ought to visit one at your next opportunity – but make sure you’re hungry and not a vegetarian! I cooked my pichana on a humble charcoal barbecue, and served it with a side salad, baked cassava, grilled cheese skewers, tropeiro (beans with greens, chorizo, bacon, scrambled eggs and farofa) and paõ de queijo. Paõ de queijo is bread made of fine cassava starch, egg, oil and cheese, formed into small balls and baked. I loved this meal – the cut of meat is tender and delicious and the sides enhance the flavours even more. I haven’t often barbecued large pieces of meat before, generally opting for single-serve steaks, but I think I will start doing it more – it’s a good way of sealing in all the juices and getting an incredibly tender result.


Coxinhas, pamonha and acarajé

coxinha pamonha and acarajeThis meal was my collective foray into Brazilian street food: all delicious snacks that are commonly found being proffered by vendors to sustain you on your adventures through the country.  Coxinhas are Brazil’s answer to croquettes, traditionally formed with a filling of shredded chicken, cream cheese, parsley, onions and paprika, which is then encased in a thick batter formed by flour and chicken broth. The mass is shaped into a tear drop, egged and bread-crumbed, then deep fried until golden and delicious on the outside and molten on the inside. As for many of the world’s most simple-yet-decadent recipes, the origin of this dish is rumoured to lie in the pernickety desires of an important child. The child in question lived in the late 1800s of Brazil, and was the progeny of Princess Isabel and Prince Gaston, suspected to be hidden away from the public eye because of cognitive disabilities. This child was an infamously picky eater, and in particular would only eat chicken thighs. The frustrated palace chef, sick of wasting entire chickens, came up with the ingenious solution of shredding a whole chicken, then shaping a croquette into a thigh-like shape, so fooling the child into eating a wider diversity of cuts. Even adults tasting the innovation fell in love with the result, and so, coxinha (literally meaning “chicken thigh”) was born. Pamonha is a comparatively older Brazilian food, the name stemming from the native Classic Tupi language of the indigenous peoples, meaning “sticky”. The base ingredient of mashed corn is also indigenous to Brazil, and can be served plain or combined with sweet or savoury ingredients including coconut milk, cheese, meat or peppers. The corn mash is wrapped in husks and then boiled until bright yellow and soft, perhaps underlying the secondary use of the name as a pejorative descriptor of stupid people (soft as mashed corn in the head, maybe?).  Acarajé has origins in the influx of slaves to Brazil from West Africa since the 16th century, where the dish “akara” describes deep fried fritters of various compositions. The Brazilian evolution of the dish added “je” (to eat) to the original name, and is especially associated with the state of Bahia, where female acarajé vendors, called baianas, follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, who used the profits from the business to buy the freedom of enslaved relatives. The dish is formed by mashed black eyed peas, flavoured with onions and spices, shaped into circles or ovals and deep fried in palm oil. These delicious balls are then split and filled with various ingredients like a sandwich, such as shrimp and coriander, or tomatoes and hot peppers.

3. Bolivia and Paraguay

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

Silpancho.jpgSilpancho, 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

saltena, pastel de quinoa and solterito de habasQuinoa, 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

Fritanga.JPGFritanga 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

pira caldo and sopa paraguayaIf, 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.