Bolivian cuisine with Marsia Taha Mohamed
and her recipe for paiche en tacuara

Market in Bolivia

Bolivia

Bolivia is an incredibly biodiverse country, with the Andes in the west and the Amazon rainforest to the east. People of numerous pre-Hispanic cultures make their homes here, preparing food using varying ingredients and techniques. Bolivian chef Marsia Taha Mohamed works enthusiastically to document as many of them as possible, including tacuara, a method of cooking fish, herbs and spices inside bamboo.

What food did you grow up eating?
“I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria to a Bolivian mother and Palestinian/Jordanian father, so I came from a mix of cultures. I remember growing up with South American influences from my mother, but many Arabic influences too, because my paternal grandparents used to send us a lot of products like olives and the best olive oil I’ve ever had.

“I also remember the yoghurt. That’s probably a Bulgarian influence – they have the best yoghurt ever. Until we moved to Bolivia, when I was six, I had a vegetarian diet, but a veggie diet isn’t very common in Bolivia. If your meal doesn’t include a big piece of meat, you haven’t eaten. That’s part of our culture. My grandmother said to my mother: my God, she’s gonna die! Give her some proteins!”

Did your family cook a lot?
“Not really. I grew up with my mother, her sisters and my grandmother, but none of them really knew how to cook. My grandmother used to take me to street food markets that were full of delicacies like intestines and brains. In Bolivia, we take advantage of almost every part of the animal, which came as a shock to me at first. I wasn’t used to eating meat, let alone brains! But I got used to it and even fell in love with it.

“I began cooking with my stepfather (who in contrast to my mum, actually knew how to cook), when I was eight. I was his commis, so to say, but was soon cooking alone and realised I really liked it. When my family came over for holidays, I always tried to cook something special and they always thought it was delicious.

“It didn’t really occur to me that gastronomy could be a career choice, so I started studying chemistry. I wasn’t good at it, so my mum said: why don’t you go to culinary school? I started and loved it right from day one. I was very dedicated – did lots of researching and started working in restaurants from the start.”

Women selling street food in Bolivia

Mark Pitt Images / Shutterstock.com

And now you’re 32 and leading Bolivia’s best restaurant!
“I’m quite young for that position but at the same time, I have about 14 years of experience already. I realise at the same time that I’ve got a career in which you never stop learning. Especially in Bolivia, there are so many things that have yet to be discovered. I’m involved in a project called Sabores Silvestres (‘wild flavours’ in English), which involves a lot of research. We’re very lucky to have the opportunity to travel around the country to uncover new ingredients or methods.

“During a trip to Sri Lanka I learnt that they use the banana flowers in a lot of their traditional food. In Bolivia we have tons of bananas, however no one seems to use the flowers. During the following trip with Sabores Silvestres, I began to ask around to gain more knowledge of what they do with the banana flowers and we started harvesting them to create a dish. I guess I tend to use inspiration from both outside as well as inside the Bolivian borders in one mix of my own creations.”

What are your favourite ingredients to work with?
“There are so many! In season right now [late November] are achacanos, a type of cactus. It would traditionally be used in stews, but there are not many people who still eat them unfortunately. I love to work with it though, it’s delicious! The flavour could be a little similar to that of nopal [another cactus] that’s used in Mexican cuisine. Achaconas are a bit more tricky to process because they’re super bitter; you have to cure them in salt, then cook them numerous times, discarding the water each time. After all these processes, they’re easy to use. They have an artichoke-like texture, and can be eaten like that, or you can confit them, grill them.

Achacanos, a type of cactus

Achaconas

“La Paz, where I live, is located in the Andes area and is known for its beautiful potatoes. They have so many colours, so many shapes – I really like to use them. Bolivia and Peru are the mother countries of potatoes, but in most markets you’ll only find 10-15 varieties. We have more than 600! The communities we visit often have very special types: beautiful potatoes that are darkish-red on the outside and bright yellow on the inside. The tiny ones have the best flavour, and are usually kept within the communities. The bigger ones are easier to peel, and have a better commercial value, so those get sold.

“Speaking of potatoes, we also have something called tunta here. Sun-dried potatoes that are very typical for Bolivia. It’s a preservation method that has been used for thousands of years. On a cold night, the potatoes are frozen in the soil. The next day, they are dried in the sun. You can keep them for years, because they lose almost their entire water content.

“When you want to use them in the kitchen, you rehydrate them for a couple of hours and then boil them. Potatoes are usually flavoursome as they are, but these sun-dried ones are just super delicious and full of umami as they’ve been through a fermentation process. We often eat the tuntas with some raw peanuts, boiled (regular) potatoes and a simple tomato and onion salad.”

Tuyu tuyu

"Tuyu tuyu taste like the fruit that grows from the tree in which they live."

Marsia Taha Mohamed

You also work a lot with insects, right?
“Yes! I believe that insects are the food of the future. They have so many good proteins, are easy to produce and often delicious. We have, for instance, the tuyu tuyu here in the Amazon: it’s a larva that grows inside palm trees. Their flavour depends on the type of palm tree it grows in! The tuyu tuyu will taste like the fruit that grows from the tree. They can grow up to eight centimetres, but the tiniest ones that actually grow inside the fruits are the most delicious.

“They know when the day comes because it’s always the day after a huge storm in December. They’re eaten raw, or roasted to accompany a fish dish. The beautiful thing is that these communities are keeping these traditions alive. Whatever they have left, they sell to us.”

What a variety of ingredients to work with! That probably makes Bolivian cuisine hard to define.
“We’re so culturally diverse and have such great biodiversity, that it’s indeed very difficult to pick one thing that defines our cuisine. People outside Bolivia have the image that the country is full of mountains, snow and llamas, but 70% of our country is rainforest! The western part of the country, where the mountainous Andes are, has always been politically stronger than the rest of the country, which may have had an influence on other peoples’ image of Bolivia.

Laguna Colorada in the Andes

Laguna Colorada in the Andes

“To highlight a few differences: the people in the Amazon forage, hunt or fish, while the people in the Andes (including the capital La Paz) rely on production/farming. The Andes doesn’t have 10% of products that you’ll find in the Amazon. Here in La Paz we’re at 4000 metres altitude, so many things are impossible to grow up here. It’s mostly roots, tubers, some seeds like quinoa.

“The Amazon has an abundance of fruits, fish and a wide variety of animals that are hunted. Many of the animals can only be hunted by the local communities. People in the Amazon prepare a lot of dishes over on open fire, or use huge leaves to cook the food in.”

Paiche en tacuara

The Dish

The dish you picked, paiche en tacuara, is a traditional preparation from the Amazon. Could you explain?
Tacuara just means bamboo and depicts a method rather than a dish. People in the Amazon put everything they hunt (fish, alligator, turtle) in bamboo, together with some salt, some spices and fresh leaves, and cook it on open fire. They would also use this as a form of thermo-lunchbox when they go out at night to hunt. The bamboo will keep the food warm during the colder nights.

“This recipe calls for the biggest fish we have: paiche, which is native to Peru and Brazil. The fish came to the Amazon waters and is a predator that kills all native fish in the Amazon. It’s a fish that needs to be hunted, otherwise we’ll lose many other fish species. That’s the reason we’re using it a lot now, but you can use any meaty fish. I’ve tried it with tuna and it came out really nice.”

Is there an alternative to using bamboo?
You could also use big leaves if you can find those. In the Amazon they get leaves that are up to a metre square, but banana leaves could work as well. Just wrap all ingredients tightly in an envelope of leaves. The tricky part about this type of cooking, be it in leaves or in bamboo, is not overcooking it. It’s difficult to control the temperature and you cannot touch the fish. If you have a thermometer, then it’s much easier. We aim for 45°C/113°F for paiche.”

The Ingredients

450 g
paiche or other (freshwater) fish fillets, skinless
1
large white onion, diced
1
large bell pepper, diced
4 tsp
garlic, finely chopped
1
thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp
salt
a few
coriander leaves
2 tsp
copuazu (an acidic Amazon fruit) or passionfruit pulp
1
bamboo trunk (or banana leaves)
16 oz
paiche or other (freshwater) fish fillets, skinless
1
large white onion, diced
1
large bell pepper, diced
4 tsp
garlic, finely chopped
1
thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp
salt
a few
coriander leaves
2 tsp
copuazu (an acidic Amazon fruit) or passionfruit pulp
1
bamboo trunk (or banana leaves)

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1 hour | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

  1. Marinate the fish with half the garlic and the coriander stems for half an hour.
  2. In a blender, combine the onion, bell pepper, the remaining garlic, ginger, coriander leaves, salt, copuazu (or passionfruit) pulp and process to a paste.
  3. Stuff the mixture inside the bamboo and close the top with a piece of foil or banana leaf. If using banana leaves, make a small parcel with the fish and wrap securely. Bake at 180ºC for 9 minutes.
  4. To serve, remove the cooked mixture from the bamboo by firmly hitting one end (as if you are hitting a sauce bottle).
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