I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to experience a culture is to eat one’s way through it. More so than any other cultural tradition, food has the ability to illustrate the history, beliefs and physical geography of a people. In La Paz, Bolivia things are no different and eating the street food was one of my favorite ways to explore the city I called home for three months.
Street food in La Paz is as ubiquitous as the number of people or cars. As in much of the developing world, the trend in food leans much more towards the casual than formal dining establishments. To eat like a local in Bolivia’s colorful cultural capital means to take the dining room table to the street. The amount of street food offerings in the city can be quite overwhelming and one would need both an extended stay and extended stomach to sample all the tasty traditional offerings. To help narrow down your gastronomic city tour, I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite street side bites.
Cinnamon Ice Cream
It’s no secret locals in La Paz love their sugar. Heladerias, or ice cream shops, are a time a dozen in the city and many of them offer fresh fruit laden flavors. However to sample a frozen treat that’s unique to Bolivia head straight uptown towards the General Cemetery. Tucked away the back of the adjacent flower market small batch cinnamon ice cream is all the rage. The deep red treat is not like the ice cream available back home. Made without milk, the frozen snack is created fresh from only three ingredients: cinnamon, ice and sugar. A little spicy and not overly sweet, cinnamon ice cream is a fresh local treat especially when the sun is out and the weather is warm.
Seafood is not the first thing that typically comes to mind when one thinks of typical dishes in landlocked Bolivia. However, with Lake Titicaca at La Paz’s doorstep, fish have made their way into the local city diet. Ispi are a small fish brought in from the lake and are eaten fried and whole, seasoned with a blend of herbs, lemon and salt. Intensely flavorful, the small crispy bites are a La Paz delicacy. The tasty fish are perfect for both taking on a walk through the city and also as a sit down meal. Ispi can be found at markets all over the city- just keep an eye out for bubbling woks of hot oil surrounded by hungry local crowds.
Lunch is the big meal for most Bolivianos and Sajta de Pollo is one of the most popular of the traditional almuerzos. Not a street food in the take-with-you-and-walk-around style, sajta is more conducive to a sit down street meal. Sajta is the name of a traditional sauce typically served as a chicken dish and the heart plate fuels the locals of La Paz through their day. The flavorful plate is local to the La Paz region and is made with a delicious mix of ingredients including onion, tomato, peanut, aji powder and the dried Bolivian potato known as chuño. As with most Altiplano fare, sajta is generally served alongside a healthy amount of potato and starch. Dotting the La Paz landscape are thousands of small nameless restaurants and street side stands that serve the dish. My recommendation is to look for a busy one and pull up a stool.
Once the sun sets in La Paz, the anticuchos come out. The savory snack is a popular late night street side meal. Anticuchos are small pieces of skewered and grilled marinated meat- most often in the form of tender beef heart- that are served with potato and topped with a spicy peanut sauce. Don’t let yourself get immediately put off by the cut; anticuchos are wildly flavorful, delicious and incredibly addictive. Moreover, a sampling of anticuchos will take you back in time through Bolivian history. The tradition of skewered meat in South America dates as far back as the 16th century. Costing only 6 B.s. on average, anticuchos are a cheap way to relive the traditions of the Inca Empire.
No trip to Bolivia is complete without trying the local specialty, salteñas. Salteñas are a savory pie the take a form similar to that of the regionally abundant empanada. Usually stuffed with beef, chicken, pork or a mixture of all three, salteñas are topped with a sweet and sometimes spicy sauce containing peas and small bits of potato. Be careful when you bite into one and have plenty napkins on hand, salteñas are not known to be the neatest of street food eats. The traditional bite is a popular mid-morning snack and though salteñas can occasionally be found later in the day, they are best eaten either for or before lunch.
The above are just a few of the hundreds of dishes available to sample along La Paz city streets. Next time you are in the bustling city, take a day to live like a local and street food forage your way through the crowds. If you do chose to eat your way through the city, use your best judgment when picking which street eats to sample- it’s generally best to only eat at stalls that look clean and are busy. You and you’re stomach won’t regret it.