A tasteless pandemic is not a pandemic

A short story about the hassle of cooking bolivian food abroad.
Estimated reading time : 5 Minutes, 37 Seconds

I am in a tiny town in northern Italy, it will be about two weeks before the confinement. I keep going round and round in the kitchen, opening and closing drawers. I promised to prepare a Bolivian dish for the guests. What a difficult thing to prepare something like that when you don’t have the ingredients or the abilities. I admit it, at home I barely got close to the stove. Here I learned to light the oven, to burn boiled water and all the culinary jokes that exist.

I waste my time philosophizing. I think the cheapest way to travel is to go to an international restaurant. For a couple of hours you can feel the aromas and flavors of another land. Even the decoration makes you feel out of your surroundings. Going to any pizzeria in the world is in a way visiting Naples. Chewing a baguette or a croissant is a visit of a few seconds to any town in France.

Of all the cultural areas, I think culinary is the most important. I share the same nostalgia for a salteña that almost all the Bolivians I met in the old world. You can eventually find them in some bolivian restaurant, or even homemade experiments are done. But it is not the same and it shows.

My mind goes back to the kitchen, I don’t have much time. I remember I had half a kilo of llama meat left to prepare a charque. Perfect. I boil potatoes, eggs, and cut some cheese. The products go to the table next to the empty plates. I prefer that each person serves what they want, finally only one knows the humor of his belly.

Janek and Sofia are excellent guests. He is a very peculiar Pole. Unlike many of his compatriots, he is fascinated by conversations and knows how to handle them very well. He understands that a conversation is something alive. He can cleverly jump from topic to topic, from the character of Nixon to a Russian film of the 1990s, from the communist depression to the joy over his new purple bicycle.

Sofia has all the virtues of Italian society, in addition to a huge heart. She loves all existing forms of art. She enjoys every day of life to the fullest and the best of all is that she shares those emotions. I think she is always happy. I imagine that even when she is sad she is happy.

Luckily in those times the virus had not infected our talks so much. However, Janek said, somewhat emotionally, that he was interested in experiencing a pandemic of such magnitude firsthand. In his entire life the closest thing to the apocalypse was the Chernobyl disaster. He found out three days later about that event and it didn’t matter much. Sure, apart from the fear of a radioactive fallout that never came. In a way he was right, we are living through a milestone in human history.

The night passes with a lot of laughter thanks to the bolivian wine, the italian prosecco and a bit of the cold polish vodka. For Janek and Sofia it is the first time they eat llama meat. Luckily it does not have a strong taste or unpleasant texture. They ask me lots of questions about its origin. I elaborate on the procedure, I tell them about the rows of dried meat that I saw as a boy in Uyuni. I explain them how agricultural bartering still worked in Bolivia not long ago. And right there, I realize that I completely forgot about the corn on the dish. I feel totally ashamed. They console me by saying that they have just had the best charque of their lives. True, original things are not always the best, but they surely are rarely forgotten. We close the night with lots of hugs and cute words that echo in the lockdown.

Weeks after the confinement we meet again. Gee, what an eternity. Luckily friendship does not oxygenate over time. Years can go by without seeing a friend and the friendship goes back to its course very quickly. For that occasion, I promised to prepare something Bolivian that contains the forgotten ingredient. There was no room for debate, it had to be the delicious humintas.

In this town there is not much difference between the new and the old normality. I imagine that all the towns are like that. While in the capitals the political future of a country is defined, in the towns the parents are concerned with repairing the children’s playground. And they are not trifles, simple things are much more important to a community than abstract social ideologies.

That said, I leave the house in search of corn to prepare the delicious feast. After visiting about three supermarkets I realize that the corn here comes wrapped in plastic or shredded in cans. I cannot translate the word “chala” in any language. I try to explain that it is the large leaves that cover the vegetable and I only receive amazed looks. I look like a crazy person showing pictures of corn to the cashiers so they understand me.

I can’t believe that having huge cornfields near my house I can’t prepare some humintas. I keep all my childish morals and I sneak into one to steal four corns. Yes, there are fewer and fewer commandments on my list. But I have certain consolations. Agriculture in these countries is not sad as in mine. More than once I saw entire fields dry up from overproduction. In addition, my cause is noble, I am going to make my European friends taste a delicacy of Latin American cuisine.

Italy has like four hundred types of cheeses, France has a similar amount. Of all of them, none is useful for the humintas. I think a combination of mozzarella and grana padano will do the job. I think very badly. It’s not even five minutes in the oven and my preparation turns into a bowl of soup. The corn leaves are floating, smoking, the cheese has turned into water, and the corn dough is rotting.

To save the occasion I take everything that seems edible and mix it in a separate plate. It goes back to the oven in the form of a cake. It does not taste bad, in fact it does not taste at all. I serve it gourmet style, that is, small portions on a huge plate with lots of decoration. They say that sometimes you eat with your eyes, I hope that is the case.

Yes. The humintas were a terrible failure. Getting back together, as always, will be a total success.

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