Traditional drinks and teas
What other traditions might we consider here, most especially beverage-related? Here in the lowlands, mocochinchi is widely consumed—a thick, syrupy drink made from dehydrated peaches that have been boiled and with huge amounts of sugar mixed in. This presents at best a semi-unique ingredient, but doesn’t really represent a tradition per se. Then there are the teas to consider, most especially coca tea, yerba mate/terere, and, I would add, trimate. Some preliminary experiments using coca in brewing have been largely disappointing—it adds very little beyond a generic vegetal flavor and aroma, but it’s nothing too exciting to begin with.
One innovation that might be particularly interesting, would be to mimic the method used to extract the caffeine-like alkaloids when people chew coca in their mouths with small additions of organic-derived lye in the mouth to raise the pH. (Note: this is nowhere close to the process involved with making cocaine—that requires myriad highly toxic chemicals and oils—this would extract a non-addictive, mild stimulant that is indeed roughly similar to caffeine in its physiological effects). I’ve wondered if there’s a way to do this while brewing or in adding an extract of sorts, but I’m not sure how much the conditions of the human mouth go into the extraction process. It’s something to ask the biochemists, I suppose.
Yerba mate is suggested by Mosher in his article as an ounce-for-ounce aroma hop substitute. I have an ongoing experiment fermenting that involved mate as a bittering and aroma substitute, so we’ll see how that turns out [EDIT: It added nothing noteworthy. Further research has suggested it should be thrown in when the wort has cooled down to the 160 F range or so, not boiled]. Nonetheless, this is largely a regional pastime of the lowlands, and really is more commonly associated with the Chaco, Argentina, and Paraguay, so it’s not quite fundamentally (or exclusively) Bolivian. Then there’s trimate, an herbal blend of anise, chamomile, and coca that’s brewed as tea that I’ve only encountered here in Bolivia. This might in fact be one of the stronger suggestions, though perhaps in cross of the second category of a set ingredient bill and the third that is focused on unique ingredients. But it only sort-of-not-quite fits those distinctions, so let’s keep in mind and not get carried away.
In terms of culinary traditions or palette generalizations, Bolivian food is not bland, but it doesn’t quite have the same pronounced and easily defined flavors or blends that might be associated with other regional foods. Indeed, if you were to generalize about the standard lunch entree, you’d say there’s almost always a good-sized piece of meat, with a variety of starches—potatoes, rice, noodles, yucca, etc., and sometimes a slaw-like side salad. There are a lot of small fried or baked goods like empanadas, salteñas, and cuñapé. Queso fresco (farmer’s cheese) is fairly ubiquitous (and always loaded with lactobacillus cultures). Still, it’s not the most straightforward task to discern or distill a tradition or standard flavors out of it.
One option might be to hone in on the ever-present house aji/picante sauce that comes with every lunch, made of blended chile peppers, onion, and sometimes tomato. This might be another starting point, but it begs the question, what makes it distinct from or able to compete with a New Mexican green chile beer, that has the benefit of roasting along traditional lines (since inevitably they will get compared)?
I find myself at a bit of an impasse at this point, but I suspect much of that has to do with my own inexperience and lack of knowledge about the larger Bolivian palette. Again, I’m no expert—certainly not in Bolivian gastronomy—and it might actually be much easier task if approached regionally. Before moving on, let me just sum up the possibilities of what I just briefly touched on for this criterion, “Tradition based in a historical narrative that is geographically distinct.”
- Chicha’s influence as a standalone brewing tradition (other than beer), potential for maize as an ingredient to dig into deeper, yeast cultures from chicha brewing, and possible technique variations—sour mashes, mashing using saliva enzymes, etc.
- Mocochinchi as a fruit addition
- Coca tea and/or extract for flavor
- Yerba Mate/Terere and Trimate as a tea blend for aroma additions
- Cheese-derived lactobacillus cultures
- Aji/picante sauce for heat
While I suppose that’s a start, I wouldn’t really call it an overwhelmingly successful one, and I would say I’m very open to criticism because I know so little about the general flavor palettes that are balanced and managed here in Bolivia. It’s something I need to explore more on my own. Nonetheless, I’ll move on to the next requisite, a fairly set ingredient bill.