Chairo Paceño, A Taste of La Paz
In Bolivia, lunch is the largest and longest meal of the day, usually consisting of at least three courses: soup (sopa), main dish (segundo) and dessert (postre). A traditional Bolivian lunch begins with a hearty and nutritious soup such as sopa de maní (peanut soup) or chairo paceño, the signature dish of highland La Paz. More like a thick stew, chairo (which comes from the Aymara word for ‘soup’), is a classic mestizo dish, combining native Andean ingredients with Old World foods introduced by the Spanish, such as beef and lamb (llama or alpaca meat can also be used). Andean herbs like quilquiña and huacatay give the soup its traditional flavor, as does chuño, the famous Andean freeze-dried potato.
A traditional campesino subsistence food, chuño is produced by following an ancient pre-Inca process. The long and labor-intensive process begins immediately after harvest. Small, frost-resistant potato varieties are selected specifically for the production of chuño. They are spread out on the flat ground outside to freeze in the low nighttime temperatures. The following day they are exposed to sunlight and stepped on with bare feet to eliminate the potatoes’ excess moisture and remove the skins. The entire process takes about five days, resulting in preserved potatoes or chuños. In recent years, climate change—especially the occurrence of fewer frost days—has threatened this ancient practice, which ensures the food security of highland families during non-harvest months.
I attempted to make a vegetarian version of chairo paceño, which turned out to be delicious and very filling. Below, I have included the changes I made to the traditional recipe.
Ingredients:8 cups of water* 1/4 kilo of beef cut into 8 pieces* 1/4 kilo chalona (dry and salty lamb meat) cut into 8 pieces* 1 tablespoon salt 1/2 cup lima or fava beans 1/2 cup green peas 1/2 cup carrots, cut into thin strips 4 cups potato, cut into thin strips 1 cup chuño, crushed or finely chopped (soak overnight to avoid bitterness) 1 cup white corn 1 cup wheat grains (I opted for quinoa, a native Andean grain) 2 teaspoons oil 1 cup white onion, cut into thin strips 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon crumbled oregano 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/4 cup green onion, cut into strips 1 teaspoon fresh minced parsley (to serve) 1/2 teaspoon fresh minced oregano (to serve) 1 teaspoon fresh mint (to serve) .
*For vegetarian version, use 8 cups of vegetable broth instead of water and omit the beef and chalona
Pour the water (or vegetable broth) in large pot. Place the pot over medium heat. As soon it is warm, add the meat and chalona. Before it begins to boil, stir and add salt. Let it cook for at least one hour (skip this step for vegetarian version). To this broth, add green beans, peas, carrots and potato. Let boil for fifteen minutes. Then add chuño and let it boil for another five minutes. Add white corn and wheat or quinoa. Let it boil until potato is cooked.
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In a small pan put oil and heat it at a medium temperature. Sauté the onion. Then add the cayenne pepper, cumin, oregano and black pepper; let it cook for ten minutes. Finally, add these spices to the chairo so that the mixture cooks for ten more minutes. Remove from heat and add the green onion, parsley, oregano and mint. Serve one piece of meat and one piece of chalona in each serving plate. Try to maintain the initial amount of broth. If necessary, add boiling water so that the stew does not get overly thick. For a little added heat, chairo is traditionally eaten with a couple spoonfuls of llajua, a spicy Bolivian salsa.
Chairo Paceño as Indicator of Food Sovereignty?
Chairo paceño is a symbol of national pride, so much so that a recent editorial in the Bolivian daily La Prensa decried the increasingly common use of imported Peruvian products in the traditional Bolivian dish. According to the article, ten out of the 17 key ingredients in chairo paceño are now commonly imported from Peru including carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, garlic, cumin and oregano.
To re-localize chairo paceño, and promote Bolivian food sovereignty, campesino food producers must be protected and supported.
The phenomenon has its roots in part in the free trade policies of the 1980s and 90s that put Bolivian campesinos at a strong disadvantage in the face of cheaper imports (or contraband) from countries like Chile, Peru and Brazil. The trade liberalization policies implemented in 1985 were among the most radical in Latin America, and Bolivia entered the Andean Group free trade zone in 1992 with no protections against imports from its economically stronger neighbors. As a result, the production of traditional campesino products in Bolivia has decreased, with damaging effects on the rural sector. To re-localize chairo paceño, and promote Bolivian food sovereignty, campesino food producers must be protected and supported.