Bolivian cuisine 101: The “llajwa”, an idyll with the Bolivian palate

Jessica Vargas reports for Los Tiempos, photos by Gerardo Bravo:

48 years ago, when Juana Fuentes opened her food stall in the 27 de Mayo market, the first thing she installed was her batán to make llajwa. Before preparing his menu – which includes mixed spicy, lawas, sillpancho, among others – she prepares to create this indispensable complement to the cuisine of Cochabamba.

Already worn, but with the impregnated flavor this stone utensil accompanies in her kitchen, next to the stove and the oven.

Cut the tomatoes and locotos, with peel and seed, and with a natural rhythm begins to grind the ingredients to achieve the much desired llajwa that will later be in the small bowls of the two tables where she receives her guests.

There is green llajwa for those who prefer it without tomato and brown for those who enjoy it with onion and quirquiña.

There is not one of the more than 15 market stalls that does not have this delicious complement on their table.

“Llajwa”, in Quechua

Centuries before, the aji [chili] was already a basic element of Bolivian culture.

Its name comes from Quechua and consumption dates back to the 17th century when it was used to accompany and moisten dry foods.

According to the Peruvian researcher Eduardo Guillén, at this time the “cleanliness of the soul and body” could only be achieved by leaving the most important earthly things of life, such as aji.

The story tells that one of the eight first Incas that came to earth was called Uchu, ají in Quechua.

“The most powerful Incas were buried with aji, since then the chili for us as a people rooted in their customs (llajwa) has that value, it has to do with that, with that tradition,” recounts the renowned chef Carlos Araujo .

In the book “Ají, regalo para el mundo” [Aji, gift to the world], Rita del Solar and Lupe Andrade, reveal that the origin is in Bolivia. Based on studies of the 70s by Professor W. Hardy Eshbaugh, who showed that the DNA of all the peppers in the world, had the same origin and was Bolivian.

The ingredient has been used for 7500 years, scientifically known as Capsicum.

The results of an international cooperation project presented in the text “Value chains of the native peppers of Bolivia”, show that for millennia, they have been one of the most popular food crops and the main condiment for the inhabitants of the Americas.

“In the era of pre-Inca cultures, the aji was used not only in the preparation of their food and was one of the most important components of their diets, but was also used as a representation of their art, and even, their uses were extended to religion,” the book mentions.

Today, although 90 percent of the production of peppers is concentrated in the department of Chuquisaca, 27 percent of the product has the final destination Sucre and 26 percent Cochabamba.

Sixty-seven percent of households consume fresh aji, that is, locoto, and see it as a product of great importance for food.

Its production comes mainly from the tropical regions of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz.

While 66% consider their consumption at home to be very important, the study says.

In 1946, the journalist Luis Tellez Herrero from Oruro, after a long tour of each dish of the nine departments, wrote his book “What is eaten in Bolivia.” In the chronicle he described his time in Cochabamba with the record of the succulent gastronomy of the towns and the valley city.

“It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and we already have an appetite. Is that the long blocks we have walked have opened us more effectively than ten appetizers. My friend takes us to Cala Cala. At last we came to a small house shaded by robust Schinus molles. (Important note – everything in Cochabamba is robust: from the thick calves of the “llajtamasis”, to the trees and the plump palm trees that shade its plaza.) Installed in the patio around a small table we wait … “.

In his story of La Llajta, where the devotees of good food are, he says, the llajwa can not be absent:

In the Sipe Sipe central market located in the main square, as in most of the municipalities on the outskirts, there are two places to eat. One down near the entrance where there are no seats but the “cholitas” sitting next to a pot offer phiri and phisara with quesillo and llajwa. Another on the second floor, where they offer soups and laguas, also with llajwa.

From south to north, low valley and high valley, llajwa is in all Cochabamba dishes.

But, in Bolivia, each of the variations in its preparation are related to the zones of its consumption.

The llajwa with guacataya has a link with the Andean areas, due to the production of this herb.

While the quirquiña is a Cochabamba herb, the same as the one with onion and parsley. “The llajwa is like that transverse gastronomy, because it is eaten all over Bolivia, versatility allows it, but essentially the base is the locoto and the tomato (…) It is one of the essential elements for our gastronomy”, says Araujo .

For him, the concept of food and consumption of the llajwa, too, is a ceremony whose essence is sharing.

Chef Gloria Jordán, part of the Culinary Academy of France, agrees that each region has its llajwa variety.

She says that the onion is not part of the traditional ingredients but is added as one of the additives in the valley.

While in the highlands the traditional spicy sauce is called Hallpahuayca, with chili in fire-roasted pod and guacataya, characteristic elements of this region.

In the east, the llajwa is prepared with chili peppers such as cumarito and ulupica, chopped with onion, oil, vinegar and oil. [to watch how llajwa is prepared,  in the following video, please do it by using the link at the bottom]


“Without llajwita it is not the same”

For Marcelino Antezana, member of the Center for Andean-Amazon Intercultural Encounters, “the nature of aji is related to joy, for that reason uchus is usually consumed in wakes because it has a power to fill those who eat with satisfaction”.

The “rich llajwa” never tastes the same if it is not made in the fulling mill [batán], he says. However, there are other myths surrounding the making of this sauce.

“You should have been in a bad mood because that llajua is hot,” they say.

The elaboration of the llajwa is so ingrained with our customs that in a burlesque way they relate the state of mind, explains Jordán.

The truth is that this typical sauce has been present in the life of Bolivians in their dishes and in their cultural identity, but above all in that of the inhabitants of the gastronomic capital of Bolivia who have more than three main meals. And definitely, none would be the same without the llajwita.

The llajwa in its different variations, tastes and presentations, can not be outside the gastronomic customs of Bolivia because it has become an experience that is almost an idyll with the palate.

Published by Bolivian Thoughts

Senior managerial experience on sustainable development projects.

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