Bolivian cuisine is widely varied, but one constant is that it almost inevitably involves meat. The Andean/Amazon diet is not a vegetarian one, and thus vegetarianism is not common in Bolivia. Vegetarians in the country are mainly Westerners who have brought their eating regime with them from home.
Even in Western countries it can be difficult to have a balanced diet as a vegetarian, comprising all the nutrients the body needs, but it is more difficult in Bolivia. Most typical Bolivian dishes involve meat, and vegetarian restaurants are rare. Josephine Corker, a Westerner and vegetarian who has been living and working in La Paz for 11 years, pointed out that most traditional Bolivian food is in effect unavailable to vegetarians.
There are a few vegetarian restaurants in La Paz but in Mrs Corker’s experience, the majority of other restaurants in the city have a fish or salad option, so being a vegetarian does not necessarily have to dictate where she eats out. However it does affect budget, as the majority of cheap almuerzos are unavailable to vegetarians because they are meat-based. “If you are a vegetarian outside a Western country, sometimes you have to go hungry,” she said.
However Mrs Corker observed that La Paz now offers more variety for vegetarians than when she first came to Bolivia. In her opinion, there are now more vegetarian restaurants, and these are of a better quality. The better restaurants in La Paz now have a clearer understanding of a vegetarian’s needs. She suggested that the increased availability of vegetarian food is because there are now more foreigners in Bolivia, and more people who have been abroad.
As traditional Bolivia cuisine usually entails some form of meat, there is a question as to whether Bolivian restaurateurs ought to serve vegetarian food, just to cater to the needs of a group that are predominantly tourists and ex-pats. Josephine’s response is, “It is not for me to say that a culture should change.” Tourists come to Bolivia to experience a culture (including cuisine) that is different to their own; not to eat exactly the same foods that they do at home.
However vegetarianism is a massive world trend and the number of tourists in Bolivia is constantly increasing. As La Paz becomes a more international city, many Japanese, Chinese and Italian restaurants have opened, but vegetarian restaurants are still scarce.
A vegetarian diet can offer many health benefits. Restaurant Vegetariano Armonía offers an all-you-can lunch buffet, Monday to Saturday, for Bs 21. In an interview, one of the owners observed that it can be difficult for vegetarians to have a balanced diet in Bolivia; hence food in the buffet changes regularly, to offer vegetarians more variety. Every day they check that the food on offer provides ‘una dieta completa’.
The meat substitutes they use at Armonía mean that they are able to serve vegetarian versions of many traditional Bolivian dishes, thus vegetarians are no longer excluded from typical Bolivian cuisine. Many of their customers are not vegetarians, but come to the lunch buffet for health reasons, for example some are diabetic or suffer from rheumatism. Even for people who are not vegetarian and do not have any kind of health problems, the restaurant offers variety from other types of cuisine available in La Paz.
The benefits of a vegetarian diet could go some way toward solving the problem of malnutrition in Bolivia. Crops such as quinoa, kanawa and tarwi, which are all native to the country, have high protein counts and are cheaper protein sources than meat. Mrs Corker suggested that there is a lack of education on nutrition in Bolivia, and mothers could give their children a more balanced diet and save a lot of money by feeding their children high-protein alternatives to meat. Several nutrition campaigns were launched in Bolivia in the 1990s to provide education programs, to develop social information systems, and to improve farming techniques. However, more money could still be saved by substituting meat in many people’s diets.
Although the situation has improved in recent years, there is still a noticeable shortage of vegetarian food available in Bolivia, in comparison to the abundance of other foreign cuisines available in the country. The vegetarian market has potential in Bolivia that is currently virtually overlooked. More vegetarian restaurants and dishes would not only benefit vegetarians in Bolivia, it could also benefit the economy by catering to a social group where there is currently a gap in the market and improve the nutritional levels of the country.