Acaraje

In Rio de Janeiro, we found this street stall selling Afro-Brazilian food. At the time I had no idea what the fried dough and shrimp thing was that I ate. I just knew it was delicious. It was only after reading an article about street vendors protesting FIFA’s resctrictions about selling food near World Cup stadiums that I found out what I ate that day was called acaraje. I’m happy to have finally figured out what it was, and even happier to see that the women vendors in Salvador truimphed over FIFA and were allowed to sell their food outside of the stadium there!

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Salteñas and Tucumanas

Salteñas and Tucumanas. Although these are demonyms for people from Salta and Tucumán, in northern Argentina, they’re also tasty street food snacks in Bolivia.

No one’s really sure how they got their names. Whilst Salta is famous for the best empanadas in Argentina (which I can personally attest to), these bear only a passing resemblance to salteñas from Bolivia. A salteña has a hard, baked pastry shell which encloses a stew-like mixture of meat, potatoes and other vegetables, with an occasional olive or piece of hard-boiled egg. Eating one takes some caution as the liquid tends to squirt out when you bite it. The trick is to bite the top off and then drink the broth before moving onto the solid parts.

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I was told a story about their origin in which two brothers from Bolivia married two sisters from Argentina. When they moved back to Bolivia, the wives started cooking these meat- and vegetable-filled pastries and their business took off. People would say “Let’s go to the salteñas” and over time the word became associated with this style of empanada.

It’s a nice, convenient story but I doubt how true it is. Plus it explains nothing about tucumanas. What I do find particularly interesting is that it attributes the invention of a national icon to non-Bolivians.

Whilst salteñas are not to everyone’s taste (they have a sweet flavour as well as savoury, which I think comes from both the type of pastry and the broth inside), tucumanas are a little more conventional. They’re big, fried empanadas full of juicy meat and vegetables (and probably a piece of egg too). Sort of like a Cornish pasty on steroids (sorry empanadas, but ham and cheese is far too light a filling for me).

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My favourite thing about tucumanas is the stuff that comes with it. Mid-mornings you’ll see people clustered around tucumana stands, spooning vegetables and drizzling sauce onto every bite they take. There’s escabeche (pickled vegetables), diced cucumber and tomato, peanut sauce, llajua (chili salsa), some kind of green and spicy sauce (which I’ve no idea what it’s made of, but is absolutely delicious!), as well as mayonnaise, ketchup and salsa golf (ketchup and mayo mix).

If you’re at all worried about hygiene, you might not want to partake of the vegetables; you serve yourself with a spoon from a big tub, and that spoon touches everyone’s tucumanas which have just touched everyone’s mouths as they chow down.

Where to eat:
The best tucumanas I’ve had are found at the corner of Calle Zoilo Flores and Calle Almirante Grau in the morning when Mercado Rodriguez is open at the weekends. They are always super fresh, fried before your eyes. They cost 5Bs, which is a little more expensive than others around town. Another good place is Calle Mexico, which is lined with portable food stands during the morning, throughout the week. Salteñas are sometimes sold from the same stands as tucumanas, other times they might be sold alone. The ones in Plaza Murillo are the freshest I’ve had. Often, if you see only a few left for sale, they may have been sitting there a while and have probably gone cold. Like tucumanas, they taste better warm.

The best and worst of street food in Tarija

Tarija is full of good food and drink, the kind you can’t get very easily elsewhere in Bolivia; ice cream, coffee, cheese, salad, sandwiches…

But on New Year’s Eve, everything closed by 9pm. It seemed like the weirdest thing to do on the biggest night of the year. But this is not a night for making money, it’s a night to celebrate at your own private party with family or friends.

The only place that was still open was a fast food stand on Plaza Sucre. It was jam-packed (suggesting to me that more places ought to stay open at this time) and a hamburger involved a thirty minute wait. We went for a hotdog instead, ‘completo’ style. Mustard, ketchup and cheese? Of course. Corn? Um, why not? Tiny pieces of fried potato? Might as well.

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It actually tasted pretty good (as far as hotdogs are concerned). We were still hungry afterwards though, so we bought butter-flavour puffed corn snacks called “bird food” (they were actually human food, thankfully).

The next morning, we set off into the rainy, abandoned streets in search of more sustenance. Nothing was open. We went to the central market and even that was closed. But, there were some food stalls under a makeshift shelter along one side of the building. Once again it was crowded with people, wolfing down bowls of food while standing under dripping tarps.

I’m not really a fan of street food in La Paz. It seems to mostly consist of fried meat with a plateful of dry carbohydrates, no sauce or fresh vegetables. But the food in Tarija…looked really good! We didn’t know what any of it was, but we ordered something that had salad, vegetables and mincemeat, and thoroughly enjoyed it (we later found out it’s called saice, although it didn’t look like any saice I’ve seen in La Paz).

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It was, without a doubt, the best street food I’ve had in Bolivia. Perhaps it was a good thing that everything else was closed that day?