Every day – roughly between twelve and two thirty – part of Bolivia closes down. It’s lunchtime. For everyone. Within minutes local restaurants are packed and waiters are serving customers as fast as possible. We daily join the crowds to have a taste of Bolivia’s simplest yet most plentiful meal: almuerzo. It is the perfect way to get a feel for Bolivia’s traditional food. Note that the food discussed in this blog post is focused on the highland (altiplano).
What is Almuerzo?
Lunch is the main meal in Bolivia and often shops, offices and tourist attractions close during lunch hours. In general, Bolivians are quick eaters and use the rest of their lunchtime for a quick nap at home or a stroll in a park. The exception to this rule is Sunday, when families like getting together and going out for an elaborate lunch – often à la carte – which may take the whole afternoon.
A typical almuerzo – set meal – has two courses, basically centred on Bolivia’s staple food of potatoes, corn and rice, which is served with meat or chicken. The two courses consist of a large bowl of soup, often with pasta and a piece of meat or chicken, and the main course.
We find that Bolivian food could use more variety, especially in terms of vegetables, but in general lunches are healthy meals. The basic, nutritious ingredients come without thick sauces or condiments that only too often destroy the taste and low calories of a meal.
Healthy Soups and Main Courses
Coen and my favorite soups:
- Sopa de maní – a delicious soup made with peanuts (maní = peanuts) and filled with pasta, potatoes, a piece of meat and sometimes vegetables.
- Chairo – a soup much eaten in La Paz. It is a traditional soup that comes with chuño (deep-fried potato]), moto (white corn), charque (jerked meat) and kilkiña (a flavour enhancer).
Most of the time you can choose between two main courses. If you don’t understand the Spanish terms for the meals, ask if you can have a look in the pots and pans in the kitchen, or indicate a neighbour’s plate that looks appetising – I find it a perfect of ordering food in a country where I don’t speak the language.
A typical Bolivian lunch has a piece of meat or chicken that generally comes with rice and a salad. Rice may be replaced by pasta or potatoes. Asadito is a common term to indicate a good piece of beef that comes with an almuerzo.
A typical taste enhancer that Bolivians eat with their meal is llaguá, a hot sauce made of tomato, chilli peppers called locotos, and herbs. Try a little bit before pouring it all over your meal! On restaurant tables you will find oil and salt, sometimes vinegar, but regular black or white pepper appears not to be used as a condiment.
Other Typical Bolivian Dishes
Some restaurants not only have the choice of two set lunches, but also serve extra dishes, such as chicken broaster or fish – in La Paz trucha (trout) is popular. These dishes cost more than an almuerzo.
The more luxurious restaurants may also serve a tiny salad before serving the soup, as well as a glass of cold peach or cinnamon tea called mocochinchi, which comes with lots of sugar and with or without a piece of peach. In some restaurants they serve dessert but don’t get your hopes up. It generally consists of no more than a piece of fruit or a glass filled with chemically-colored jelly, on which the Bolivians seem to thrive.
The quality of almuerzos varies largely and is often related to the price. While an average meal costs 10-15 bolivianos, expect to pay somewhere between 15 and 30 bolivianos for a fish.
One More Tip
Even when not used to eating a hot meal for lunch you want to adapt to the Bolivian pattern, especially since at night everything else is closed except restaurants and street stalls where they sell chicken broaster with French fries. When in doubt about hygiene standards, follow the crowds: where there are many people (especially with kids), food is generally reliable.