December 21, 2013
Two topics today: religion and food.
As you may have read here, Carlos, a student who lives with us as a new member of our family, grew up in Candelaria, two or three hours away, in a traditional Tarabuqueño home. Until a few years ago, he had never celebrated Christmas or Easter. We had to explain to him why one puts stars on top of Christmas trees. Yet he has always celebrated other Christian festivals, including the festivals of the Virgin(s), certain saints days, and All Saints’ Day.
The Bolivian trinity isn’t the father, the son, and the holy spirit, but, in a sense, a feminine version. The three worshipped beings here are the Pachamama (mother earth), the Virgin, and God, although it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between them.
The synchretism of the African-derived religions with Christianity so common in the Caribbean and, to some extent, in the US, didn’t really happen with the indigenous Bolivians—at least not in the same way. Instead, Jesus was rejected. As Carlos puts it, he has a beard and white skin—obviously Jesus was a Spaniard. The virgin, on the other hand, easily coexists with the Pachamama—both are mother figures who perform miracles. If you don’t believe in Jesus, Christmas and Easter are meaningless. But the festivals of the Virgin are something else.
Brujeria, or witchcraft, is still a powerful force in the everyday lives of the indigenous people here. Carlos tells stories of the workings of “witch doctors” in his family—witches killed his little sister by casting a spell on his mother; other witches’ medicine has proven miraculous. The traditional offerings to the Pachamama, especially of fetal llamas, thrive. But prayers to the Virgin can produce wonders of equal measure.
And the traditional festivals of the Quechua and Aymara peoples have found corresponding saints days.
The best Bolivian food is the soup. Sunday is the day for sopa de mani, peanut soup, peanut broth with, typically, a beef bone or two, pasta, garbanzo beans, potatoes, chuño (see below), and parsley. Carlos makes an excellent crema de zapallo, whose prime ingredient is a dark green squash, blended with spinach, chard, onions, carrots, and parsley, with plenty of grated cheese mixed in. I had an unforgettable corn-based soup in Potosí which featured a hot volcanic rock in the middle that made it bubble and spurt.
But the fruit here comes a close second. Few fruits that one can get in the States one can’t get here—blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, pomegranates. But plenty of fruit here you can’t get in the States—at least four kinds of bananas, all with their own subtle flavors; mulberries sold by the box; chirimoya, a dark green bulbous thing with super-sweet white insides studded with large black seeds; better figs; guavas that can be eaten whole; the best mangos; melón pepino, which tastes like a canteloupe but has a thin, edible shell and is juicier and prettier, yellow-green with purple stripes; noni, which looks like a cactus fruit but isn’t (I haven’t tasted it yet); maracuya, or passion fruit, one of which can easily smell up the entire house when opened; a relative, granadilla, not as powerful or sweet, and whose inside glistens gray; pineapples whose core is soft enough to eat; starfruit, mouth-puckeringly sour; tumbas, not eaten, but whose juice is ubiquitous; and pacay, my favorite, a foot-long green legume—you open it and eat the flesh that looks exactly like cotton and spit out the huge black seeds.
Most of the indigenous people here don’t eat much meat. Carlos explains that the chickens usually get eaten by foxes and mountain lions, and the milk of the cows and sheep and goat are too valuable to sacrifice (I would guess they sell most of the pigs). They do put some bones in their soups, but on the whole meat—pork, beef, llama—is reserved for special occasions. I find the choices rather limited. It’s easy to get beef or pork in the mercado, though if you want something tender enough for a steak you’d better get there early. The chickens seem to be all factory farmed, probably pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, so I avoid them; the ducks are tough. I think they sell lamb, goat, and llama meat in the campesino market (and perhaps non-factory-farmed chickens too), but I haven’t explored that part of it yet. So I eat mostly beef.
Brazil nuts (called almendras here—if you want almonds you ask for almendras españolas), peanuts, and walnuts are common; pistachios are imported from the US and almonds from somewhere else and are both very expensive; sunflower seeds and hazelnuts are available but not very popular; and forget about pecans.
I haven’t seen asparagus, brussel sprouts, fennel, kale, or parsnip here, nor the asian vegetables I’m used to, but that’s made up for by the varieties of squash, achojchas (like a cross between a green pepper and a cucumber), peas, herbs, and the freshness of everything else. The most popular beans are fava (habas in Spanish) and tarwi, small white discs sold on the street as a snack; but you can get most other beans (except edamame). There are reputedly 200 different kinds of potatoes here, including some that look like carrots and others like large red berries; most I haven’t yet tried. Chuños are small, gray, freeze-dried potatoes with a peculiar nutty taste.
Most of the bread is feather-light, white, and insubstantial; the whole grain bread tends to be heavy and not very tasty. We have come to depend on three breads: marraqueta paceña, crisp rolls that approach the flavor and density of good French bread; campesino bread, small round pita-like breads made in wood-fueled ovens, just like Carlos’s mother makes; and a seeded flat multigrain roll I get at the Drogería Natural. Corn here is choclo, huge white grains, sometimes with red or yellow stripes; they don’t seem to make flour or tortillas out of it, but just eat it boiled. The rice here usually has a taste that Karen doesn’t like; the Bolivians mostly eat it like risotto, mixed with lots of cheese (usually goat or sheep). The quinoa comes in a wide variety of colors, and tastes better than in the States; another popular grain is amaranth, which I eat popped for breakfast with milk or yogurt and honey or sugar. It’s not hard to get oatmeal here, but forget about most other grains—I’ve seen no barley, buckwheat, bulghur, couscous, farro, millet, sorghum, or wild rice. No bagels, no frozen ravioli, no pita bread, no corn tortillas, no cellophane or soba noodles . . .
And very little fish. There are three kinds here, all from Lake Titicaca: trout, which is excellent; surubi, a huge and very mild catfish; and another fish whose name I forget and which I eat grilled outdoors at the Mercado San Antonio—it can only be eaten with the fingers since it’s so full of bones. Carlos hadn’t eaten fish for ten years or more before he started eating it with us.
About every other day I visit what I call “the farm store,” which sells exclusively products from El Cortijo, a farm that trains youth from the area in the principles of agriculture. All the products are “natural.” There I buy vegetables, cheese, yogurt, butter, and eggs. The cheeses have little bits of oregano, peppers, olives, or spicy peppers in them. (I also buy the goat cheeses at the mercado, which only last a day or two, and are best if you buy them wrapped in aromatic leaves.) Yogurt here is almost always flavored and sweetened, and El Cortijo’s excellent unflavored yogurt is rarely in stock. Their butter is softer and yellower than I’m used to, but nearly odorless when cooked. There is no good milk in Sucre unless you want to take a chance on the unpasteurized milk El Cortijo sells; the best is the leche fresca de Chuquisaca, but the rest is ultrapasteurized and tastes cooked. The dairy here is largely controlled by a company called Pil, which seems to have a monopoly. This may not be a bad thing, since it keeps the products safe. Most of the eggs, like the chickens, are factory farmed, with pale, tasteless yolks since the chickens’ diet, without insects, is low in protein; however, El Cortijo sells excellent (though hard-to-crack) duck eggs. The huevos criollos I buy at the mercado—eggs from hens that wander around—are small and rich, sometimes blue, and often taste a wee bit foul.
Para Ti is the main chocolate company in Sucre, out of about five, and they get good beans (“single origin”) from the Yungas. We go through about five bars of “amargo intenso” a week, and are feeling spoiled. They also sell high-quality chocolate ice cream, cakes, liqueurs, and hot drinks. Weirdly, nobody seems to sell high-quality unsweetened cocoa, and the 75% chocolate bars we get are the strongest in town (no 85% here).
It’s the rainy season now—it rains every day, though not all day. The garbage strike is over. We went to two dance performances this week—the first the university troupe’s Firebird, which made me finally get ballet; the second a riveting performance featuring folklorico troupes from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Argentina (which made me finally get tango). Thalia makes elaborate meals from recipes every Saturday night, and Carlos makes traditional meals from memory on Tuesdays. Children from the campo are coming into town, ringing our doorbell, and asking if we can give them toys (of course we do). And since there are no real Christmas trees for sale here in this relatively treeless part of the world, we bought the most unreal tree we could find: a pink plastic one edged with silver glitter.