Plurinational State of Bolivia

Bolivian food is neat. I actually ended up cooking the two regional attractions for this entry months apart from each other, partially because they have such different roles in Bolivian cuisine but also since they both took a lot of work to prepare. One of them – pique macho – is basically a drunken inside joke but also kind of brilliant, in the same vein as poutine, or even chili-cheese fries. Salteñas, on the other hand, are more a mid-morning snack – rich, warming and one of the best breakfasts I could ever imagine having.

If you’ve ever had xiaolong bao, or Chinese “soup dumplings”, you’ll have no problem adjusting to the concept of the salteña – it’s basically your garden variety empanada filled with spicy, juicy beef stew. The crust is made from a buttery, greasy dough that is colored with ruddy, achiote-stained oil and ground ají amarillo.

But whoa, whoa whoa. Slow down. Lots to explain here. OK:

Bolivians love peppers of all kinds. They like them fresh, they like them dried. I can’t blame them – they have some really unique and delicious varieties in the Andes, stuff that most of us have probably never tasted. Please allow me to nerd out here for a moment.

Whole and ground ají amarillo (left) and ají panca (right)

We get lots of capsicum annuum in the U.S. – these peppers (which include cayenne, bell, jalapeño, serrano… you’ve seen these, right?) are native to South America, but they grow easily in temperate climates, which makes them the preferred cultivar here and part of our palette’s comfort zone. Over time, we’ve also come to appreciate our native capsicum chinense (habanero, anyone?) and, to a point, capsicum frutescens (Thai birdseye chilis!). Tropical South America (and other tropical zones on Earth), on the other hand, is home to some wild and/or marginally cultivated varieties, like the intensely fruity capsicum baccatum and the fiery, black-seeded capsicum pubescens. The aforementioned ají amarillo, so revered to Bolivians and Peruvians, belongs to the baccatum cultivar, along with its berry-and-smoke-flavored counterpart, ají panca. Remind me later to tell you the story of how I found mine*. They also extensively employ the searing flesh of the rocoto (aka locoto), one of extremely few members of the ultra-exclusive pubescens variety.

Plump, albeit slightly freezerburned, rocotos (left) and limp-and-defrosted-but-good-enough huacatay (right)

In addition to these fiery little dudes, I also needed one more strange ingredient for the llajua, a hot sauce that accompanies both dishes I would be making. Huacatay, also known as Peruvian black mint (but not the same as just “black mint”!), tastes like a cross between basil, mint, tarragon and maybe dill, too. It’s a little weird, your brain doesn’t really know where to categorize it the first time you taste it. Also, a little goes a long way. Like, miles and miles. People like to argue on the internet about whether real llajua should include quirquiña rather than huacatay. My findings showed that different regions of Bolivia prefer different herbs in their llajua – the version I’m making would please the residents of both La Paz and Sucre, if I’m not mistaken. I could be, though.

Time to cook.

I roughly chopped some tomatoes, onion, several rocotos and a wet chunk of huacatay and then mashed them all together by hand, in my molcajete. It seemed right to do it this way – everything I’d read said that a Bolivian could tell a mechanically-processed llajua from a mile away, and would then heap opprobrium upon me. Teeeeechnically I was supposed to use a batán to do the mashing, but jeez guys. Seriously. You have too many rules about making hot sauce.

Fresh llajua, ready to punish your mouth

With my condiment at the ready, I got to work on the stew for the salteñas. Chunks of beef, potatoes, peas and lots of both ají get simmered for a good long while with marrow bones. Once the stock is good and rich and the meat is falling-apart tender, you toss the marrow bones and mix in some unflavored gelatin, cool and refrigerate to basically create an aspic. This gelatinization of the stew is what will let me get it into the soft empanada dough without it just spilling and leaking everywhere – it makes a liquid into a solid, temporarily. Once I heat it, the liquid will de-gel and become juicy again, but stay safely inside the dough. Pretty cool, huh?

The best Jell-O mold I've ever made

The next morning, I made my dough by first frying some achiote seeds in oil, and then mixing it while warm with flour and ever more ají amarillo. I kneaded the bright yellow dough well, broke it down into 2-inch nuggets and then, with a rolling pin and lots of flour, rolled out each nugget into a circle about five inches in diameter. This part is important – one tablespoon of stew-jelly goes into the center of the circle, in addition to one pitted black olive (I used the mild canned ones), one small slice of hard-boiled egg, and no more than three golden raisins (I had briefly soaked them in hot water to soften them).

I’m far from a proficient baker – I suck at making sweets, and I’m awful with dough. Salteñas require a sort of braided seam, which looks very lovely in most pictures I’ve seen. Mine came out a little smashed, sort of like if someone with a combined total of three fingers had made them. I gave them a quick egg-white glaze for shine and threw them in the oven anyway.

I think I may not have cut my ingredients into small enough pieces, but other than that… damn. These are GOOD. Holding them vertically, the first bite is crumbly crust and spicy, pepper-fruity aromatic steam. The next one is boiling and juicy, and if you’ve arranged the olive, egg and raisins correctly you should have a varied experience with each subsequent bite. In Bolivia, the first person to spill any juice from their salteña has to pay for that round of pastries. Since mine were free and I was dining alone, I managed to dodge this technicality.

One dish to go. Better get drunk first for this one.

OK, now I’m ready.

Legend has it that pique macho, or a macho portion of piques (small dishes), was invented by the owner of a restaurant in Cochabamba after some dude got blasted, wandered in and insisted on being served even though the restaurant was closing. A waitress grabbed every scrap of what was left from the day and piled it all on one plate. It was garnished, as is the custom, with tomato and onion. Torrents of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard went on after, and, in what was likely a hilarious mock-epic gesture, the justifiably excited reveler finally dumped the last of his beer onto the pile of food and tucked in with gusto. ¡Que macho!

It’s called “pique” (PEE-kay) because everything is chopped up, or “picado”. I’ll spare you the repetitive details – the recipe is below if you’re curious. Basically pan fry a bunch of meats (cocktail wieners, chorizo, thinly-sliced steak) with a little cumin and ají and pile them on a layer of french fries (I again used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for perfect fries). Toss on a couple of halved hard-boiled eggs. Make a little salad out of tomato, onion, rocotos and a splash of beer, and dump it onto the pile. Then come the condiments, and a bunch of llajua if you want. Dig in and hopefully sober up.

Kiss your ass goodbye

This is a gutbomb – it’s assuredly the last thing you will eat on whatever day (or late, late night) you prepare it. If made well, the steak will be juicy, the sausages snappy and well-browned, and the fries saturated in cumin-y grease and beer. The rocotos should keep you awake enough to finish everything on your plate, too. Good luck champ!

*Oh, right, the story:

My trip to Mi Tierra supermarket Jackson Heights and then a sullen, jaded extra jaunt to Kalustyan’s had only yielded ají panca in its compromised, pickled paste form – not what I wanted. Amazon was an option, but I didn’t want to wait ten days for some seller in Florida to ship it to me – I wanted to cook, and soon. I already had my ají amarillo and my frozen rocotos. Come on, man.

I got to Astoria and started trudging home, depressed. On the way to my apartment I passed La Cabana on 30th Ave., a familiar bodega that sells some really good tacos and posole – I’ve inhaled their food on several inebriated very late nights before staggering home and inevitably collapsing into gaseous, fitful slumber. Maybe they sold dried peppers?

The bell on the door jingled as I walked in, but no one looked up. A TV blared the Univision news, and some anonymous brown soup with a long bone jutting from the liquid’s surface was bubbling contentedly on the range behind the deli counter. I started systematically opening every freezer in the place – dried, frozen enormous corn kernels; rocoto peppers; ají amarillo! I saw Producto de Peru printed on one after another of the packages. Oh my god. Ohhhhh my god.

That settled it. I wasn’t leaving this bodega without ají panca.

So I dug, and scoured, and pored. I went deep into the store, deeper than anyone ever goes, past the rack of Cool Ranch Doritos, beyond the cans of Hormel chili and potted Vienna sausages, further still, back where they keep the box full of litter for the bodega kitten. I moved stuff out of the way – weird vinegar, dusty packages of bouillon, milk that you don’t have to refrigerate. My pulse raced as I rapidly ran out of places to look. Down to one shelf, I reached into a box obscured by shadow, grasped a crinkly plastic bag, and held it up to the diffuse light filtering in from the front of the store, virtually miles away. I squinted. Ají panca, read the label. Yes. Yesssssss.

I stood there clutching this dessicated Grail, lightly panting, the dust clinging to my forearms made tacky with claustrophobic perspiration. For two or three seconds, I stared silently at the exhumed bag of dried peppers, grinning from ear to ear. It was then that I accepted that moments like these are among the happiest in my life.

Now you go:


Makes about 20 empanadas!

Aguado (watery stew)
1 lb top round steak, minced (or 1 lb ground beef)
1/2 pound of beef marrow bones, split
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/4 inch cubes
1 cup frozen peas
2 cups finely chopped onions
1 tbsp ají panca
2 tbsp ají amarillo
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp oregano
1 tbsp black pepper
4 cups hot water
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
4 hard-boiled eggs, halved and then thinly sliced
4 oz seedless golden raisins, soaked in hot water and drained
1 6-ounce can black ripe olives, pitted

Masa (dough)
6 cups flour
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp ají amarillo
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp achiote seeds (slowly fried in the oil and then strained out)

In a large pot, gently sauté the onion, garlic, oregano and parsley in vegetable oil for about 15 min. Add the ají panca, ají amarillo, cumin, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, raw beef, marrow bones and enough hot water to cover. Simmer covered on low heat for approximately 45 min. Add 1 1/2 cups water, remove cover and reduce on low for about 30 minutes. Remove marrow bones and discard (being sure to not throw away the marrow itself – this should remain in the pot).

Boil peas and potato separately. Drain and reserve. Add the potatoes and peas to the aguado. Thoroughly dissolve gelatin powder in about 1/2 cup boiling water, add to aguado and mix thoroughly. Turn off heat and allow mixture to fully cool. Transfer mixture to an airtight container, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Fry the achiote seeds in 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and strain, reserving the colored oil. Keep it warm.

Sift the flour into a large bowl, adding the sugar, salt and pepper. Add the warm achiote oil and eggs. Mix thoroughly. Add warm water about 1tbsp at a time until the dough is smooth and dry enough to knead. Knead well, about 5 minutes. Cut into pieces and roll into balls of approximately 2-inch diameter. With a floured rolling pin, flatten the balls until you have a stack of round, very thin skins (5″ diameter).

Put 1 tablespoon of gelled aguado on each pastry round, adding 1 thin slice of egg, 3 raisins and 1 olive. Moisten the edges of the pastry with water, bring the edges together and seal them, rolling them with your thumb so that the closing looks like twisted rope. This is hard.

GENTLY brush with whisked egg white. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until golden brown and serve immediately and piping hot, with llajua.

Pique Macho
2 lbs beef round in paper-thin slices
1/2 lb cocktail wieners
1/2 lb chorizo, cut into rounds
6 peeled potatoes
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 rocoto peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 beer (Bolivian or Peruvian, of course – I used Cusqueña)
4 hard-boiled eggs
1 tsp cumin
salt to taste
black pepper

Use the potatoes to make french fries – this recipe is a good one:
Anthony Bourdain’s French Fry Recipe

In a hot pan, fry the beef strips with a little oil, salt, pepper, and the cumin. This may need to be done in batches. Next, brown the chorizo rounds and cocktail wieners. Toss all these meats together in a covered bowl and keep warm.

In another bowl, toss the onions, rocotos, tomatoes and a little salt together. Add a few splashes of beer. Drink the rest of the beer immediately. Might as well do a shot of something, too.

Lay the fries flat on a platter. Then, dump the mixed meats onto the fries, spreading to cover. Do the same for the onion/tomato/pepper salad. Add the beer too!

Top with hard-boiled egg halves, mayo, mustard, ketchup and llajua.

Eat quickly and pass out.

4 roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 rocoto peppers, seeded and chopped
1 cup thawed, previously frozen huacatay leaves, chopped (use 2 cups if fresh)
2 tbsp minced white onion
Salt (add just before serving)

Grind all ingredients in molcajete or food processor till it reaches the consistency of salsa. Add salt to taste. Eat with everything.


3 thoughts on “Plurinational State of Bolivia

  1. Mark, this looks amazing and something I would like to eat. I love the photographs and striped tablecloth! Nice touch. Keep up the good work.

  2. Only mom would comment on the tablecloth! (Honestly I noticed it and like it as well). Good work, when are you visiting CT and inviting us all over for a ‘Cooked Earth’ meal. I enjoy following the adventure on-line…. Enjoy the New Year! ~ J

  3. Salteñas are one of my favorite things to eat, ever. I go to a Bolivian/Peruvian restaurant in Providence, RI whenever I am there, and I always buy a few to take home with me.
    Awesome job, Mark!

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