How To Eat Bolivian Street Food (Without Shame)

street foodThere’s a certain breed of traveler who will, often to their detriment, go to extreme lengths to avoid looking like a tourist. I know, because I’m one of them. Whatever spawned this phobia is anyone’s guess, but I really, really, really dislike standing out in a crowd, especially if that crowd is foreign, and I’m eating.

While I also sneak looks at maps and guidebooks on the DL when I’m lost, the thing that really troubles me is being clueless about local or national etiquette while dining, especially when it comes to street food (my raison d’être). I always research beforehand – learning, for example, that in Thailand the spoon is the primary eating utensil; it’s abhorrent to insert a fork into your mouth and chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes and primarily in the North. But it’s sometimes impossible to know local custom until you’re actually in the moment (above, Bolivian lustrabotas, or shoe shine men, eat on the street)

I’m pretty sure it was a long-ago trip to Vietnam that scarred me. I’d been in the country all of a couple of hours, and was eating my first meal. I was sitting at a miniscule table on the sidewalk in coastal Nha Trang, happily wolfing down báhn cuon. That is, until the young Vietnamese guy next to me, who unfortunately spoke some English, informed me that I was eating it the wrong way, and making something of an ass of myself (yet providing entertainment for our less vocal tablemates). I was mortified, and sure enough, I noticed the snickers and giggles due to how the silly round-eye was eating her rice noodle roll. To be honest, I can’t even remember how to eat bánh cuon, but at the time, it was clearly emotionally challenging.saltenaWhile I appreciated the advice, I didn’t particularly feel it was given so much to be helpful as it was to make me feel stupid. Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it. But ever since, my policy regarding street food in vastly different cultures has been to adopt a watch-and-wait policy.

When I arrived in Bolivia two weeks ago, I leapt of out bed my first morning to head to the Mercado Lanza to try some salteñas and tucumanas– two Bolivian street specialties that are variations on the ubiquitous empanada. Empanadas are my Kryptonite, so I was ready to do some damage. Best of all, there’s no learning curve. Insert in mouth; enjoy. I naively assumed their Bolivian cousins are just as easy to gobble.

Salteñas (right) are baked pastries formed into domed half-moons. They’re usually filled with a spiced meat and egg mixture, but their essential purpose is to be full of juice. I knew this, but grossly underestimated just how much they’re the Shanghai soup dumplings of pastry. The proper way to eat them is not to simply purchase and take a huge bite (note to self), because that will result in a.) scalding, meaty juice exploding in your mouth and singing its way down your esophagus, and b.) greasy, aromatic, meaty juice squirting all over your clothes (like, say, your really expensive microlight down jacket that you use for backpacking). You’ll also attract the attention of passerby, who will smirk at the idiot gringa who just had a salteña explode in her face.

I later learned, from a menu photo at a salteñeria, that one is supposed to eat them with a spoon. I’m not sure how that applies to the street, but let’s just say my second go was much more successful, and less humiliating. That said, I’m not a big salteña fan, as it turns out.
Tucumanas are basically the same shape as empanadas, except they’re always fried. They’re often filled with a mixture of chicken and potato, and my first taste occurred about 15 minutes after my unfortunate salteña encounter.
street food
Determined not to be the same fool twice, I watched a crazy-busy street vendor (right) frying and serving tucumanas at warp speed. My street food credo is to only purchase from stalls or carts that are doing a rapid business, to ensure a fresh product (plus, it’s a sign that the food is good, if not great). I observed the various patrons eating their tucumanas, and when I felt ready, I ordered one.

It was rapturous – light as air, yet fragrant and savory. I stood hovering next to the cart, squirting a bit of mayonnaise-based salsa into the tucumana after each bite. I hunched, so as not to dribble any bits of filling. I shared the salsa squeeze bottle. I wiped my mouth with the square of paper it had been wrapped in. Then I ordered another. You know you’ve achieved street food nirvana when the vendor doesn’t demand money until you’ve eaten your fill. Bless you, Bolivia.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]