Being Vegetarian in Bolivia – Not a Missed Steak
“Being vegetarian is a big missed steak” said the waiter’s t-shirt as he spun around to our table, grinning at the wholly vegetarian dish he was serving me. It took me a second to appreciate the wordplay, and two to raucously disagree as I dug into the awesomeness of my grilled-to-perfection dinner.
After barely a day in La Paz I’d gotten used to puzzled-sympathetic looks from locals for being beheteriano, as if I’d just told them I’d renounced the material world in hopes of growing a halo. Well-meaning and well-fed Latin American friends had warned me that being vegetarian in any part of their continent was a bad idea at best, and a call for starvation at worst. A dietary handicap that would hugely limit my travels. My experience, however, was quite the contrary. To anyone who pities vegetarians their fifty shades of green and questions their survival ability in a carnivorous continent, I say the proof of the pudding (or in this case, the Chiaro, a traditional Bolivian vegetarian soup).
Eat I did, over the course of two weeks in Bolivia. Soups with herbs and yucca roots, potatoes in various forms, vegetarian saltenas (the Indian samosa’s Bolivian cousin), rice with vegetables and corn, pasta, fruits and hot chocolate were my main sustenance. The food wasn’t anywhere as spicy as I like it, but the uphill walking always worked up an appetite and made me grateful for every vegetarian meal I could find. As the old Spanish saying goes – A pan de quince dias, hambre de tres semanas – For a good appetite, there is no hard bread.
I’d gotten used to puzzled-sympathetic looks from locals for being beheteriano, as if I’d just told them I’d renounced the material world in hopes of growing a halo.
Given the setting – a ravenously non-vegetarian restaurant called The Steakhouse – that t-shirt did have a point. Up to a point. Beyond which, as I discovered, being vegetarian can be just as fun as the meanest steak in the steakhouse, if not more so. As a former meat eater, I could well have slipped back into my old carnivorous ways and dug into all the meat that was available, but convenience and predictability hardly make for an authentic adventure. For anyone with as much of an appetite for adventure as for food, there is an extra dash of the former as a vegetarian in Bolivia – hunting for food, exploring unassuming eateries tucked away from mainstream touristy haunts using newly acquired language skills. And generally living on more optimism than certainty about the whereabouts and ingredients of your next meal in a meat-centric land.
Precisely because it isn’t the norm in this part of the world, a vegetarian appetite has a way of spicing things up. My herbivorous food-hunting took me to parts and people of the city I otherwise wouldn’t have wandered into, if the usual and ubiquitous non-vegetarian fare was the answer to my hunger and tastes. Those unassuming eateries where Google’s cartographers may never drop a pin. Where the food is the draw, not the ratings or the Wifi. Such as an almuerzo (local-run lunch place) where I saw locals of various sizes digging into huge cobs of corn with rice and vegetables. About four blocks and as many decades behind the city’s dynamic centre, it occupied an unassuming corner at the start of Calle Jaen. With wide doors and a quiet chatter, it had a vibe as non-touristy and warm as its baked potatoes, dissuading me from inflicting a camera on its insides.
As a compulsive explorer-on-foot, I set out everyday with no list or recommendations of vegetarian restaurants to guide me to my next vegetarian meal. And with more than enough basic Spanish to say ‘Soy beheteriano’ (I’m a vegetarian) – which makes enough sense, except that here ‘vegetarian’ means various things, depending on who you ask, and there’s a general mistrust in the idea that anyone can survive on ‘only’ vegetables. But despite a plan that revolved around ‘winging it’, ‘going with the flow’, ‘seeing what happens’ or some such light-headed variant sprinkled with hopes of serendipity, I got by just as fine, if not better, than those on the other side of the fork.
Well-meaning and well-fed Latin American friends had warned me that being vegetarian in Bolivia was a bad idea at best, and a call for starvation at worst.
My first stop on my first morning in La Paz turned out to be Cafe Sol y Luna.. This Dutch-run hangout, with its international music and cuisine, is not exactly the true Bolivian experience, but it gave me a slice of familiarity in the midst of all the newness. As I stood at a three-lane intersection trying to pick a lane, the catchy strains of Michael Jackson’s Thriller had me at the first verse, and by the second, I was indoors, warm, and taking in the cozy-meets-cheerful decor of the place. The menu lived up to this beginning, with three thoughtfully printed carrots against every vegetarian item, and there were many of these. While their $5 gado-gado (an Indonesian dish made of boiled vegetables with soya and rice and topped with peanut sauce, served with tofu or a boiled egg) was delectable, their hot chocolate was from heaven. I came back for more towards the end of the trip.
In a fortnight full of uphill scrambles in thin air, three-day-long drives out of civilization, a few basic hotels for a night’s rest, and walking everyday, being well-fed was imperative. In Sucre, one of those long walks led to the local food market (Mercado Central) with fresh produce, dried legumes and freshly squeezed juices for every imaginable ailment. This particular corner had 300 varieties of potatoes. That’s a few more than I can sample in one lifetime. Bolivians clearly love and live by their potatoes and if you called someone a couch potato here they’d probably be flattered with the comparison.
Just like that, two vegetarian weeks flew by. I’m glad to have missed the steak and discovered a whole other side of this quirky country instead.
Top image: Being vegetarian in Bolivia photo credit: unsplash