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You can pretty much bet all the ingredients you come across in Santa Cruz de la Sierra have passed through the chaotic Mercado Abasto Sur, a 35-year-old market that stands on 2,000 square meters of land. Dirt walkways underneath bright blue, red and yellow tarp roofs wind around armies of vendors who sell mass quantities of produce like rainbows of Andean tubers stacked to the sky, seas of Bolivian chili peppers, unrecognizable (and unpronounceable) Amazonian fruits, and huge plastic vats of multicolored quinoa – and this is all before you have even entered the market.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra is one of the fastest developing cities in the world, and as such, Bolivians – with impressive biodiversity, fresh market produce, quality beef, and a rich food history – are determined to put it on the map as Latin America’s next culinary mecca. Let’s take a look inside the produce labyrinths of one of the most important markets of a nation on the brink of a food revolution.
The market features high quality fruits, vegetables and meat to buy in bulk at cheap prices. Traditionally the Abasto Sur market sold only wholesale to intermediary distributors, but as the food scene has evolved, with an importance placed on quality ingredients, standards have improved and local purveyors are more open to creating relationships directly with cooks.
“All cooks go to Abasto to do their shopping, especially on Tuesdays and Fridays at dawn. That’s when all the new product arrives,” local chef Ricardo Cortez tells me. Cooks from across the region make daily pilgrimages to the market to buy directly from the source, literally grabbing the produce right off of the trucks to find the best ingredients possible.
Chef Jaime Barbas goes to Mercado Abasto four to five times per week to see what kind of gems he can find for his new market-fresh restaurant Sach’a. While he mostly picks up basic fruits and vegetables, he’s always on the lookout for specialty ingredients. “In the market you’ll mostly find standard ingredients like tomatoes, onion, avocado, potatoes, and cilantro,” he says. “But sometimes there are great surprises like hearts of palm, tembe, uchuva, guanabana, and mazorca (cacao).”
A fortress of produce surrounds the vendors, most of which is held in sturdy woven plastic bags. It’s most common to find piles of all sorts of tubers, peppers, carrots, green beans and squash. Fresh aromatic herbs are also in abundance, like huacatay (also known as black mint), kirkiña, and cilantro
Tubers, tubers, everywhere. Dust and dirt fill the air in the largest space inside the market: the potato room. Bolivia has more than one thousand varieties of potatoes, which makes sense considering this has been the major staple for the Andean people for centuries. The market is filled with all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors of tubers, carrying a few dozen of the different varieties: Luk’i and Choquepitus, which are cultivated in colder regions at very high altitudes (above 3700 masl); Ajanhuiris, Qoyllus, Palas, that come from altitudes that range from 2800 – 3000 masl; and Runas come from below 2800 masl. Even though the country is rich in potato diversity, only in the last few years has the tuber become a valued ingredient, especially thanks to the help from NGO’s like Proimpa.
“When people eat the papalisa, they don’t need viagra,” the Bolivian Minister of Foreign Affairs proclaimed at a conference in Washington DC. One of the most common tubers found in the market is the papalisa, a bright-colored root vegetable that is cultivated at more than 2800 masl. Known as the olluco in Peru, the papalisa has a sweet flavor and remains crisp when roasted or boiled. Ají de papalisa, served with meat, potatoes, rice, and ají, and sopa de papalisa, a vegetable soup, are two common dishes to serve the pink tuber.
Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s agricultural capital known for fertile lands that grow many different types of fruits, vegetables and herbs. It’s central location makes delivering produce from the Real Mountain range to the Amazonian tropics easily accessible. When the seasons reach its peak, citric, tropical and exotic fruits are in abundance and the market explodes with pineapples, mangoes, papayas, lychees, noni, achachairu, hibiscus, motoyoé, guava, guapomó, pitón, motojobobo, passion fruit, and carambola.
Noni is referred to as the “miracle fruit” for all its medicinal benefits. Many locals say the fruit treats all sorts of health problems such as pains, ulcers, cramps, inflammations, fevers, food poisoning, and even depression. While some use the unripen fruit topically on cuts and burns, others ferment the ripe fruit and make a juice. Since noni has a pungent bitter taste, it’s common to blend it with other fruits to make it more palatable. You can also buy noni in powder or liquid form.
Although this market is rich in produce, it still is overcome with poverty. Vendors barely make liveable wages, and the entire market lacks a working infrastructure. In fact, it has such serious infestation and garbage problems, the government has set mandatory cleaning days.
Unlike markets around the world, Abasto Sur is not a tourist destination. Foreigners don’t regularly tour the market and when they do, taking photos can be frowned down upon. Pro tip: tour the market with a local who can guide you around the intricate weaving of stalls.
Legumes and grains fill the market and are displayed in large plastic bags. The highest quality quinoa in Bolivia, like red and black, are generally unavailable due to export, but it’s common to find other varieties like quinoa real, a larger grain quinoa.
While high quality grass-fed Bolivian beef and poultry rival that of neighboring countries like Argentina and Paraguay, many restaurants and cooks abstain from buying it at the market, especially during the summer due to lack of refrigeration and hygienic conditions.
There are 20-30 ají pepper varieties that are grown domestically in Bolivia, and each very in flavor and heat intensity. Most of those are found in the bordering department of Chuquisaca, which also holds the Fiesta del Ají (National Ají Pepper Festival). The most common varieties of ají found inside the market include: locoto, arivivi, ulupica, ají colorado, chicotillo, ají amarillo, ají camba, and ají gusanito.
I officially went bananas inside banana room. Everywhere I looked there were traditional bananas, red bananas, ripe plantains, and green plantains. Workers sat for hours meticulously pruning and cutting the branches with machetes, and later lined up enormous piles of bananas by the bushels.
The people in the market sip on mocochinchi to keep cool, a traditional Bolivian refreshment made from a base of peeled, dried peaches. The peaches are left to soak in water overnight, then boiled with sugar and cinnamon, and once cooled and refrigerated, the juice that remains served cold with ice.
Dozens of trucks line up outside the market loading and unloading produce. This truck, filled with thousands of loose onions, has vendors selling to market goers even before they get a chance to unload their goods. Sometimes outside the market sees more action than the inside. Vendors set up shop on the side of the road, in between trucks, or wherever nook they can find. All they need to do is perch a pole, hang some tarp for shade, and watch as the crowds come for their fresh pink watermelon, sweet pineapples or ripe papayas.
A few food stalls stand at the far outskirts of the market catering to feed workers with a quick lunch. They cook up all kinds of pieces of meat on the grill, anticuchos, or prepare dishes like fried chicken and imilla, one of the country’s most cultivated potatoes.
Special thanks to Ricardo Cortez, Jaime Barbas, and Jorge Calvo for showing me this incredible market.