Some optimistic bloggers use adjectives like delicious, mouth watering, and scrumptious to describe Bolivian cuisine. I might use similar words to write about Thai, Indian, Italian, or Turkish. But Bolivian? I think bland, boring, and dull are much more accurate. I am willing to bet you have never seen a Bolivian restaurant outside of Bolivia and there’s a reason why. While there are a few tasty exceptions, Bolivian food is just not very good. So without further ado, I present to you an honest review of Bolivian cuisine: The good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good: (I’m being fairly generous in some cases)
Anticuchos are a popular snack throughout the Andes including Bolivia. These are kebabs of chopped up, flame grilled, cow heart, lathered in a spicy peanut sauce and accompanied with a potato. The snack is only eaten at night and is especially delicious after a few beers. Look for Cholitas waiting outside your local discotec with a mobile flame grill.
Tocumanas are a deep friend empanadas (pasties) that actually originate in Tucuman, Argentina. They’re typically filled with beef or chicken, boiled eggs, peas, carrot and various spices. You can usually find them in little street stalls accompanied by a huge selection of sauces and salads. The best ones in La Paz can be found on Calle Mexico up from the stairs from the Prado. Tocumanas and Salteñas are exclusively a breakfast or mid morning snack so don’t even bother trying to find one after midday.
Salteñas were invented by a lady from Salta who fled Argentina in exile to live in Tarija, Bolivia. She started making a different kind of empanada and the locals would say “go and pick up an empanada from the woman from Salta (salteña)” and thus the name was born. Salteñas are oven baked breakfast pastries with similar fillings to Tucamanas except that they have a sweet and sometimes spicy sauce and a firmer crust. Recipes vary somewhat throughout the country. La Pacena Salteña and El Hornito are good options in La Paz.
Chicharron are deep fried, crispy and extremely fatty ribs of pork, chicken or beef often cooked in beer. The meat part is delicious but the downside is that they are usually served as a small amount of meat with a huge portion of Choclo (flavourless Bolivian corn).
Sopa de Mani (peanut soup) is my favourite Bolivian soup. It’s loaded with peanut flavour, pasta and vegetables. Like most soups, it usually forms the entree of a Bolivian almuerzo (set menu lunch).
Llajua (pronounced yak-wa) is a spicy Bolivian sauce made from ground tomato, onion, and locoto (peppers). It’s made fresh every day which makes it much tastier than bottled hot sauce. Llajua is a great way to give some flavour to the plain white rice and potatoes that accompany almost every Bolivian dish.
Milanesa de Pollo/Carne is a chicken or beef schnitzel accompanied by plain white rice and a bland Bolivian salad of lettuce, tomato, and onion with no dressing. The schnitzel can be quite tasty (depending on the restaurant) but the accompaniments are not.
Silpancho is a Bolivian classic originally from Cochabamba. Those crafty Cochabambinos realised that if you put a fried egg on top of a slab of cooked minced meat it slightly improves the flavour. A salad of diced up tomato and onion is served on top of the egg to add a bit of interest.
Pique Macho is essentially a Bolivian version (inferior version) of an Asian stir fry. It contains chopped beef, sausage, onion, tomatoes, boiled eggs, locoto (peppers) and in true Andean style, sliced potatoes. While it lacks the flavour of its Asian counterparts, it’s actually pretty good by Bolivian standards.
Majadito is a dish from the warmer Bolivian lowlands. It consists of flavoured rice with chopped beef, onions, tomatoes a fried egg and banana. I prefer it over most highland dishes but it’s still nothing to get excited about.
Trucha and Pejerrey (trout and kingfish) of very high quality can be found in Lake Titicaca. The freshest restaurants are in Copacabana but those in La Paz can be pretty good too. Try the fish market around the cemetery, where buses from the lake stop to unload their fish and passengers. I don’t actually eat fish so I can’t speak from experience, but pretty much everyone I know says they’re good.
Sandwich de Chola is a La Paz favourite consisting of roast pork, pickled vegetables, and salsa. This simple yet delicious combination can be found all over the city but the best place to consume them is the food stalls near Parque de las Cholas on a Sunday afternoon, washed down with a few beers.
Buñuelos are a sweet, deep fried, flour based pastry smothered in icing sugar or honey. They are typically served from street stalls and often eaten for breakfast along with a warm glass of Api; a sugary purple corn drink.
Sonso (which means silly, no idea why they called it this) is an afternoon pastry popular throughout the lowlands of Bolivia. The snack is made from a dough of yuca (an edible root popular in Latin America), cheese, eggs, and butter which is then fried over a hotplate like a pancake. It’s one of the better desserts in Bolivia in my opinion.
Asado means grilled or barbecued meat so one could be misled into thinking it will be delicious. The reality is that you will be served a thin, tough, and dry piece of beef accompanied by plain white rice and a bland Bolivian salad.
Saice is a combination of fried minced meat, tomatoes, peas, and a few herbs. The dish is served with raw sliced onion and short cut pasta. While it’s not particularly offensive to the pallet, it is rather boring.
Chairo is what I would eat if I were poor, hungry, and living on the Altiplano (highlands) where there is little access to other ingredients. It’s been popular with the Aymara people since well before the Spanish invaded and for some strange reason remains popular today. Ingredients include onions, beef, carrots, choclo, heaps of potato, chuño (disgusting freeze dried potatoes), and herbs.
Fricase is a spicy pork soup popular throughout the highlands and served as a main course rather than a starter. Fricase was originally invented by the French and brought to Bolivia by the Spanish and has since mutated to suit local tastes. Over here, they cook it with onion, garlic, choclo, cumin, black pepper, oregano and thicken it with breadcrumbs. It tastes okay but it isn’t particularly satisfying.
Sajta is a western Bolivian staple made from boiled chicken, plain white rice, potato, chuño, and an onion and tomato garnish. It’s a traditional dish during Carnival but also consumed at other times of the year. Sajta is edible (except for the chuño) but nothing to write home about.
Aji de Fideos (spices noodles) is a pasta dish accompanied with potatoes, minced meat, ground chili, yellow colouring, and various herbs and spices. Despite the name, it’s not actually very spicy so extra llajua should be added to give it a kick. The dish is filling though dull.
Plato Paceño (the dish of La Paz) is painfully dull and unappealing. The dish consists of a huge cob of butterless and unflavoured choclo, some ridiculously large beans, fried cheese, unpeeled potatoes and, if your lucky, a piece of dry meat. It makes me sad to think this is my city’s signature dish.
Charki is dried out meat similar to jerky. It’s made from beef or llama and can be found in empanadas or as part of an almuerzo. Unfortunately, like almost all Bolivian almuerzos, it is usually accompanied by plain white rice, potatoes, and a bland salad.
Falso Conejo means fake rabbit and this dish tastes like it could be rabbit. The typically Bolivian combination of ground beef, plain rice, vegetables, and a few herbs leaves a lot to be desired.
Papas de Huancaina actually comes from Huancayo in Peru but it’s also very popular in Bolivia. It’s a vegetarian dish consisting of lettuce, boiled eggs, potatoes, and olives smothered in a peanut sauce. The peanut sauce gives it some flavour but in my opinion it could use a bit of meat.
Pollo Picante (spicy chicken) is chicken thigh lathered in a reasonably tasty spicy sauce and served with the usual plain white rice, potato, and sliced onion. The chicken part is good enough but accompaniments are predictably bland.
Fritanga is a spicy pork, egg, corn ,and potato stew that is popular in the highlands. The sauce is quite nice but I find the ratio of corn and potato to be too high.
Mondongo is a pork stew from the Chuquisaca region of which Sucre is the capital. The stew is cooked with ground coloured chili power, garlic, brown pepper, and served with a huge amount of choclo. The stew is decent but the mountain of choclo is not to my liking.
Aji de Lengua (spicy tongue) is boiled cows tongue served alongside chuño, plain white rice, onions, and peas. The tongues texture is predictably slimy and rubbery and the dish tastes just as bad as it sounds.
Cuy (guinea pig) is a delicacy of the indigenous Quechua people, so look for it in Cochabamba rather than La Paz. It’s actually quite nice and tastes very similar to chicken. The downside is the little critters have millions of tiny bones which you have to sift through to get to the meat. It still belongs in the “ugly”section because it’s a little disconcerting seeing the family pet staring up at you in horror as you eat your meal.
Tripa are fried cows intestines sold as street food throughout La Paz. The texture and taste are more or less as you would expect; disgusting. They’re surprisingly popular however.
Ispi are tiny little fish from Lake Titicaca that are deep fried and eaten whole. I don’t eat seafood so I must admit I’ve never actually tried the them but they look and smell horrible. Also you are eating entire tadpole sized fish, brains and all. If that wasn’t bad enough, they are accompanied by my least favourite Bolivian side dishes, chuño and choclo.
Aji de Panza means spicy cows stomach. As you may have figured out by now, not much goes to waste in Bolivia. The stomach’s texture is rubbery and slimy but the taste is fairly neutral. The dish is typically accompanied by potatoes and rice with a sauce of herbs and vegetables. It’s pretty gross.
Rostro Asado is without a doubt the most repulsive Bolivian dish of all. This is the kind of food nightmares are made out of. An entire sheep’s head including eyes, nose, teeth, and wool is slow roasted in the oven. It’s ready to be eaten when the sheep’s wool “slides off like a glove”. The head is then served alongside bread, potatoes, and rice. Thankfully this monstrosity is only eaten in Oruro during Carnival. Believe it or not, it’s actually a traditional hang over cure. I’ll stick to my bacon and eggs, thanks.
Most of these dishes are from La Paz which is where I live. Did I miss something important? Don’t agree with my reviews? Let me know in the comments bellow.
Fancy trying to cook some of these for yourself? Check out the following recipe websites.
Mis Recetas (Spanish)