Keeping Bolivia’s culture alive through food

On Sustainable Gastronomy Day, guest blogger Angel Ramos explores initiatives that are helping to preserve Bolivia’s rich food heritage.

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18 June 2019

Angel Ramos is executive director of MIGA

A women puts food into an outdoor oven

We need food for much more than nurturing our bodies. Food is crucial for building and strengthening cultures. It brings societies together, connects generations and bridges identities.

We also need to recognise the critical role that food can play in achieving sustainable development. Given the economic, social and environmental dimensions of food systems, the way we produce and consume food will be fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN’s Sustainable Gastronomy Day highlights how culture plays out in the way people connect with food – how they grow it and prepare it, how they serve it and eat it. In this respect, culture lies at the core of sustainable development.

Reawakening tastes for traditional food 

Bolivia has immense cultural richness and food is deeply ingrained in its ancestral heritage. But a rapid shift toward international cuisine and imported fast food is seeing traditional foods that have long been central to Bolivian culture, disappear from the plate.

IIED, Hivos and the Bolivian Movement for the Integration of Gastronomy (MIGA) are working to keep Bolivian food heritage alive. MIGA works to promote the diversity of the country’s traditional food as a source of national pride. It also helps connect producers, chefs, restaurateurs and customers to get traditional Bolivian food back on the menu.

To do so they use MIGA’s ‘Regional Food Heritage (RFG)’ approach. This involves studying, revaluing, documenting and reviving the techniques for preparing traditional dishes. At festivals and social gatherings, local food producers and providers invite visitors to share in local culture and history by sharing food-related legends and customs. Visitors learn about different produce and are invited to taste local dishes.

In short, the approach is designed to help the Bolivian people fall (back) in love with their country’s indigenous foods.

On a mission to bump up supply of cañahua 

A great example of the RFG approach is the work MIGA has been doing to revitalise the commercialisation of cañahua, an ancient indigenous Andean grain similar to quinoa. Cañahua has been dubbed a ‘super food’ because of its nutritious value and its ability to withstand climate change. It used to be a staple of the Bolivian diet but demand for the grain is slowly dying out.

Last year, MIGA, alongside the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), held the event ‘Sowing encounters of flavours and knowledge” (Sembrando Encuentros de Saberes y Sabores) to help turn the tide.

Manufacturers, cooks, gastronomy students and cañahua producers gathered to discuss how to supply cañahua to companies for manufacturing or direct to restaurants. Producing more cañahua on family-run farms and encouraging larger city food stores to stock cañahua were some ideas put forward that MIGA is now championing.

Multi-stakeholder processes such as these are an integral part of IIED and Hivos’ Sustainable diets for all programme, which commits to bringing more voices and alliances into the promotion of indigenous and sustainable food.

Food stories at the Posoka festival 

Every year, MIGA collaborates with the Centro de Promoción Agropecuaria Campesina (CEPAC), the Hotels and Gastronomy Association of San Josè (AJHOGA), and local government to host the Posoka festival (Facebook page) in San Josè de Chiquitos in the Santa Cruz district, east of the Andean mountains. This annual fiesta showcases the diversity of Bolivia’s traditional foods through storytelling. 

Two women show off food with their arms around one another

Last year’s festival included a ‘gastronomic ecosystem tour’ organised by MIGA, where local natural and cultural heritage served as a backdrop to explain the colourful origins of different food types, followed by live demonstrations of the traditional ways to prepare the food (Facebook page), many of which have begun to disappear.

Women in Bolivia have always played a key role in growing, selling, buying, preparing and distributing food. They are the custodians of Bolivian culinary traditions and MIGA’s work focuses on bringing women together.

Grandmothers, mothers and daughters gathered at the fiesta to prepare delicious food and drinks in the traditional way. These included the crunchy maize-based chicha snacks slow-roasted on an open fire, the refreshing somò maize drink sweetened with molasses, and the traditional rice bread pan de arroz baked in wood-fired ovens. This year, the Posoka festival will take place in September.

Firing up healthy appetites with sustainable gastronomy

Gastronomy – which boils down to the art of cooking and enjoying food – taps into the creative, cultural, and emotional dimensions of food.

But gastronomy is more than that. From high-end restauranteurs to street food sellers and families preparing home-cooked meals, the gastronomy movement in Bolivia – buoyed by organisations such as MIGA – is not only keeping Bolivian food heritage alive, it is firing up appetites for healthy and sustainable food one dish at a time.

About the author

Angel Ramos is executive director of MIGA

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