By Patrick Hieger

[Suma Phayata]

[Suma Phayata]

What do you do when the man who owns your restaurant comes from Denmark and wants to eat street food when he arrives but, due either to a mishandling of the raw products, or perhaps poor hygiene, he gets sick nearly every time he indulges?  You don’t say no.  You fix the system.

This was the problem facing the chefs at La Paz’s Gustu each time their owner, Claus Meyer, would come for a visit.  As both Gustu chefs Michelangelo and Kamilla tell it, Meyer is a fanatic about the delicacies that can be found hidden in the multi-level street markets and food stalls.  He’s also a fanatic about staying healthy.  So they had to come up with a to let Meyer enjoy the foods that keep him coming back to the streets of La Paz without running a risk of being bedridden on each of his visits.

Thus, Suma Phayata was born, the first official street food tour in La Paz, that launched just last week.  As much a cultural as a culinary tour of La Paz, Suma Phayata, which means “well-cooked” in Aymara, one of Bolivia’s original native languages, is a chance for both locals and visitors to discover the delicacies that, for many have been hidden in plain sight.  It’s also a chance for vendors, who have been hiding in the shadows, some for more than 30 years, to get a new dose of recognition for the groundwork they’ve laid for Bolivian cuisine.

[Suma Phayata]

[Suma Phayata]

Coral Ayoroa, who heads up the educational wing of Melting Pot, teaching young cooks who will eventually become part of the team at Gustu, took on the role of talking with each of the vendors and convincing them to take part in the tour.  At first, it wasn’t easy, she told us.  Many asked why they should change what they’ve been doing for years, just to feed a few new guests.  As Coral, and other team members spent time with the vendors, though, and helped them understand why better hygiene, and even a little marketing are a good thing, they started to come around.  It’s not just about business.  It’s a chance to give a name to a product, and to pull these dark corners out of the dark ages of Bolivian cuisine.  It’s a chance to celebrate local flavors.

For now, Suma Phayata is made of just five vendors, each selling one item that they’ve been selling now for decades.  Options range from a beef chorizo choripan oozing in mustard, fresh pickled vegetables, and locally-made crusty bread to a spicy beef tripe soup served with potatoes and a fresh salad.  Trust me when I say that if this is the tip of the iceberg for what Bolivian cuisine has to offer, Peru could seriously be in for some competition.  Each of the dishes currently offered as part of the tour are hearty and meat-heavy, but the variety of products used in each shows a diverse larder that is only being discovered in Bolivia.

As the idea of street food starts to catch on and more people (hopefully) take to the streets to try these local delicacies that they might have overlooked for years, the idea is to add more vendors, and even more cities.  Suma Phayata is a joint project between Melting Pot, the non-profit organization that oversees Gustu and the new Manq’a schools, as well as ICCO, whose goal is fair economic development across South America.  La Paz is just the starting point.  As symposiums like Tambo continue to bring together a wide variety of groups trying to kick-start the Bolivian economy through gastronomy, projects like Suma Phayata will be able to take off and play their own role in the bigger picture.  Either way, diners benefit.

[Suma Phayata]

[Suma Phayata]

There is no fee for the tour, no tour guide.  Suma Phayata currently works on good old initiative, and an empty stomach.  If you head to the website, here, you’ll find a detailed map with specific locations of where you can find the individual dishes.  At each location, you’ll find a sign detailing the ingredients that go into each dish, which lets you know you’re in the right place.  By taking part in the tour, talking about it, and encouraging others to do the same, intrepid culinary tourists aren’t just benefiting local businesses.  They’re helping to push forward an entire nation’s gastronomy, by saying that even at street level, you can eat well here.  It is, perhaps, the simplest form of the message that many around Latin America are trying to promote–food is what connects us, so let’s make sure we’re eating well, and that we’re proud of what we eat.

[Suma Phayata]

[Suma Phayata]

Dishes at each of the stops run about seven Bolivianos, which shakes out to around one U.S. dollar.  For what you’re getting, it’s an exceptional steal.  Do, though, take a recommendation, and split the tour into a couple of days.  No matter how good the new systems might be, one day worth of pork, beef sausage, beef tripe, fried empanadas, and beef hearts might just knock you out.  That, and the altitude might have something to say about you charging through the city eating like a maniac.

Eat street food.  Support the local economy, the local producers, the local cuisine.  And get a tour of one of the most fascinating cities in South America while doing it.  Provecho.

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