Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Doña Cucha's Kitchen

Situated in the fertile breadbasket region in the heart of Bolivia, Cochabambinos get to enjoy the produce of the whole country: giant Andean corn on the cob, delicious sweet potatoes and yuca from the tropical lowlands, meaty surubi fish from tributaries of the Amazon, crunchy whole ispis from Lake Titicaca, grapes from Tarija, ... it's a paradise for lovers of good, natural food.

I lived with the Amestegui family for six months, during which time grandmother Doña Cucha was in charge of the kitchen from Monday to Friday.  Her husband is from La Paz, her daughter-in-law's family from Oruro, but she is a true Cochala in her roots - and her love of good food.

On the few occasions when I cooked for friends, I hid the supermarket receipts from her view.  She could have bought the ingredients much cheaper and probably better quality then I ever could as a gringo in the ferocious La Cancha, the city's huge market, the biggest in Latin America.  
The nerve shattering La Cancha Market

To be honest, I didn't learn much practical technique from her.  I think the idea that a foreign male could ever make a decent sopa de mani or plato paceño tickled her.  Anyways, I'd only have held her back.  Soon after breakfast, when I was starting Spanish lessons for the morning, she was already sitting in the sun peeling broad beans, pounding meat, simmering stock.

Bolivian meals, in the main, are quite simple.  Apart from a few of the hearty soups, most dishes are uncomplicated, with few creamy sauces or fancy accompaniments.  Surprisingly to many visitors, the national cuisine can be quite subtle - rice is gently cooked with a clove of garlic and a piece of green pepper, just to give a hint of the buen sabor.

For example, plato paceño (La Paz lunch plate).  A steamed cob of supersize Andean corn, pale straw-yellow and juicy; some broad beans, a cube of fried cheese, and an assortment of potatoes: a boiled potato, maybe a few ocas (like anyas), and (unfortunately for the uninitiated) chuños, blackening, freeze-dried potato cubes.

Another staple (mostly served on Wednesdays, I think) was plato cubano (Cuban lunch plate).  Rice was mixed with vegetables (carrots, peas), and topped with a fried egg and a few slices of fried plantain.

These dishes were brought to life with a teaspoonful of the fiery llajua, a hot salsa made of tomatoes, onions and the unmistakable bite of local aji chillies.

Now, in one respect, Doña Cucha was not the most typical of Bolivian cooks.  She aimed to make healthy meals, and used a fraction of the oil used in most Cochabamba kitchens, and less meat.  For me, her signature dish was quinoa 'lasagne'.  Her husband Don Lucho took great care to eat well as a preventative medicine.  Every second Bolivian you meet has had or needs to have their gall bladder removed, and/or has terrible gastric problems exacerbated by greasy meals.  So it was when I ate out that I tried the more gut-busting Cochabamba specialities pacumutu, silpancho, and pique a lo macho.

But when I reminisce about Bolivian food, it's Cucha's that I miss.

Looking back on those first six months in Bolivia, some of my happiest memories are around that dining table.  A family, united around traditional, home-cooked food.  All followed by a piece of tropical fruit for dessert (pink mango, chirimoya 'custard apple', pineapple, or papaya), a forceful café destilado, and a little siesta.

Lots of volunteers and missionaries go to Cochabamba to learn Spanish, and many end up staying.  They say it's the eternally spring-like climate that keeps them there - but what tempted me to stay longer was my stomach.

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