Who invented freeze-drying? Some scientist at Kraft or General Foods, you think? Wrong! This seemingly high-tech endeavor was perfected millennia ago by South American Aymara Indians, who cultivated over 200 varieties of potato on the Titicaca altiplano. Newly dug tubers were left out overnight to freeze. After thawing the next morning, they were trampled by the farmer in a highland fling, which squeezed out moisture and sloughed the peels. This was repeated on subsequent days, until the chalky, shrunken orbs were ready for a weeklong soak in cold water to remove any bitterness. Redried in direct sunlight till a protective white pellicle formed on the outside, they would keep for four or five years. When the conquistadors landed in South America, Indians were using freeze-dried spuds as currency.
You can't help admiring these chuños every time you dine at Mi Bolivia, on the awning still Rumi Huasi, which means "stone house" in Aymara. They show up in nearly everything. Sopa de cordero ($3.50) is a broad bowl of lamb soup with a generous portion of rib meat planted in the middle, surrounded by potatoes and rice. But go treasure-hunting beneath the surface and find ghostly white chuños, which have a waxy and airy texture. The soup's garlicky broth, too, is a revelation, based on a long-boiled and carefully seasoned stock. This could be French foodso good you could throw away the other ingredients and still have a consommé worth gloating over.
The menu at this Bolivian restaurant is short on starters. If you have a large party, you might share the head-cheese platter ($9.95), an enormous butte of carrots, fresh jalapeños, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, slices of homemade head cheese, and funky boiled feet, ears, and snoots dressed with a light, parsley-strewn vinaigrette. There's also a credible Bolivian empanada stuffed with onions and very juicy meat called a salteña ($1.95). You don't really need hors d'oeuvres, of course, because each entrée is a diverse and voluminous platter. This is true of the regular menu ($9), and even truer of the $10 weekend menu, where the amount of food verges on the absurd. And some of the dishes are pretty strange, too.
Though it translates "mock rabbit," falso conejo is no relation to hare. Several well-tenderized beef cutlets sprawl over a heap of potatoes, chuños, and comically huge kernels of white corn. The brownish gravy is fascinatingon the gritty side, tasting of mustard, and oozing red oil. Maybe the joke is that the compact white mound under the cutlets resembles a rabbit hiding in her lair. The plate concludes with a flying saucer of sculpted rice, and beet cubes that fling off scarlet tendrils. Rabbit blood?
There are a couple of even odder dishes, including pique lo macho ("prick to the manhood")a stir-fry of beef strips, hot and sweet peppers, tomato wedges, white cheese, purple onions, french fries, and cocktail franks (hey, maybe that's the manhood part) doused with a fiery saucebut there are more things that are just plain good. Leading the pack is thimpu, a New England-style boiled dinner of cabbage and mutton with a sweet sauce that looks and tastes just like Polish cabbage soup. A close second is picante surtido, a spicy shower of shredded jerky and beef strips atop a pile of potatoes that conceals a chicken leg. If you want to cover all the bases, pick plato paceño, named after the Bolivian capital, La Paz. This city slicker's delight features yuca, plain-cooked fresh fava beans, an ear of corn with shovel-shaped kernels, and a log of fried cheese on top of a pounded-thin, and nearly full-pound, beefsteak. And peeking out from under the steak? Freeze-dried chuños, of course.
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