Have A Bowl Of Bolivian Warmth; Sopa de Mani
WHAT TO EAT: Sopa de Mani
WHERE TO EAT IT: In markets found in Bolivia; Cochabamba has the best
If I ask people about Bolivian cuisine, at first many seem puzzled. “You mean the chicken, rice and potatoes?” is usually the response. And fair enough, this country has its share of poultry in many forms, typically served with at least two starches and sometimes bread (ouch to all the carb watchers out there!). But the foods in Bolivia are as rich and varied as its landscape and culture. The soups and stews are a shining point for the gastronomy found here.
I feel like this is where Bolivia really excels. It’s mostly due to practical reasons, as soups and soups are a pretty economical way to eat, not to mention a good part of Bolivia is located in the chilly, high altitude, Andes mountains and thus good for keeping you warm. But it’s precisely the ‘peasant’ foods that help define a country’s cuisine. Think of Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin for France. Both of these dishes started out because they were cheap ways to feed families or use leftover ingredients. Now you can find them on the table at some of the best French restaurants around the world.
Sopa de Mani translates to peanut soup. The soup got its start in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is often referred to as the gastronomic capital of the country due to the wealth of diverse foods found there. Today you can find this soup all throughout Bolivia. Once reserved for just special occasions, like birthdays and holidays, it’s now a staple on almuerzo (lunch) menus in many markets. Surprisingly, the soup doesn’t taste strongly of peanuts. This is because you use unroasted or raw, unsalted nuts. The flavor is subtle and the texture of the ground peanuts mixed with the ‘milk’ that the peanuts make, helps give the soup a creamy look. But even though it looks creamy, this soup is naturally dairy-free.
There are two key things that will help make this soup stand out. You must use fresh peanuts and either real, homemade beef stock (not that cubed stuff) or fresh beef. Traditionally, the peanuts were ground using a batán, a traditional stone grinder. Nowadays, you can just use a mortar & pestle, which will give you nice, authentic results or a food processor if you want to go modern style. Even though this is a meat-based soup, it can easily be made vegan and vegetarian and I will include those versions below.
You might wonder why I always talk about gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan and even offer to give versions and categorize them on my website here. It might seem awfully trendy that I do it because even I cringe at writing those words that you see plastered everywhere these days. A few years ago, when I was living in NYC, I attended a culinary school there called The Natural Gourmet Institute. Funny enough, I was eating a vegetarian diet back then and by the time I had left the school, I started eating meat again! That’s a long story that I’ll save for another post!
The cooking school was unique because it was a health-supportive one. We learned tradtional French techniques but also explored many ways for creating delicious, healthy vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian foods. I found it all fascinating and I have several friends who follow these diets for various reasons and so I decided I would give versions here on eatingsouthamerica too. I like to think about how to covert traditional recipes into ones that even people who follow special diets can use and so the idea was born. I sincerely hope some of you who are following a special diet (vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian) will be able to find my recipes here useful (and tasty!).
I got really lucky when we visited Bolivia because I had a chance to learn how to make sopa de mani from a local family. We were in the south of the country just outside of the wine growing region of Tarija and I found out about a program called EDYFU (Educacion Y Futuro). This is community based, non-profit tourism company owned by an affable Belgian guy who arranged for us to do this class with some of the local ladies. EDYFU run a shop, Eco-Sol, in downtown Tarija but also have many other social programs dedicated to bettering the lives of the local and national people. Basically, it benefits the locals because they can earn an income from tourism and it benefits tourists because it helps them get an insight into the local life. It’s a win-win. If you are planning a trip to Bolivia, check out this amazing program. You can check out some of our photos from Tarija in the photo essay I made here.
I spent the day with a local family and even got to try out using a traditional batán to grind the peanuts. Not so easy (it requires a lot of elbow grease) but I really enjoyed it. After we finished making the soup, Laurent and I sat around with the family and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. It was a lovely afternoon and so much fun to learn about making one of Bolivia’s best soups. I even got a chance to practice my pretty bad Spanish and managed to do okay (they at least understood me!). I really hope to one day be able to become more fluent and conversational (to move beyond just functional) with the language. But for now, most of the time I am just relieved to just get by!
Let’s take a look at how to make this soup. The end result is creamy and rich tasting and will warm you from the inside out! Perfect for a chilly day.
Things You Will Need:
1 Cup raw unsalted peanuts (the salty snacking kind will NOT work here! Neither will peanut butter-even the natural stuff, sorry)
3/4 lb Beef shanks (or bone-in short ribs or any other meat or poultry you want to use-I recommend on the bone for more flavor)
6-8 Cups high quality stock if you are not using any meat (you want the broth to have a rich flavor. If using the meat, simply use water to cover the meat and cook the broth that way but if not using meat, you need to use a quality stock to have a nice flavor)
Diced onion (2 small, 1 large or medium size is good-doesn’t matter what color it is)
Grated carrots (about 2 will do nicely, if they are giant, just use one)
2 Potatoes (or 3 if they are very small) cut in small chunks
2 Fresh tomatoes
Minced garlic (1-2 cloves is recommended but if you are a lover, feel free to add more to suit your taste)
Cumin to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon to a full teaspoon)
Finely chopped fresh oregano and parsley (a big handful of the parsley and about 3 tbps of oregano)
Acelga (like chard) a large handful chopped or more if you like
Peas-fresh or frozen about 1/4-1/2 cup depending on your taste
Canola Oil (or other oil for frying potatoes to garnish)
*Keep in mind that this is just what is traditionally used. If you hate garlic, don’t add it. If you have some celery or bell pepper on hand, feel free to add it in.
How To Prepare Sopa de Mani
(Vegan version to follow)
First, you need to soak the raw peanuts in water until they are softened a bit. Put them in a bowl and cover with water. You can soak them in as little as 30 minutes but a bit more would be helpful. Next, you must grind them; strain first and dump out the water. Traditionally, the batán was used but as I’ve already mentioned, you can use whatever you’d like. Unless you’re Bolivian, I doubt many of you have a batán anyway! A food processor will save you time but if you like to work with your hands, use the mortar and pestle if you have it.
The most important thing is that they get ground up fine to about the texture of ground peppercorns (you don’t want a powder nor big chunks). If you are using the blender or food processor, blend the soaked nuts with about a cup of fresh water-remember to pulse it-you want a few very small pieces for texture. If doing it manually, add one cup of water and stir.
Either boil the beef shanks in some salted water or use a high quality broth but first brown the meat. Remember if you use the meat, then you don’t have to use stock. You can just add water and the meat will flavor your water enough. Of course if you want an increased depth of flavor, use a fresh stock on top of the meat. I strongly suggest browning your meat a bit first for an increased flavor.
This is an important step in most stews and soups when using meat. If you skip it, you will not achieve the great depth of flavor. You can technically skip it but I advise against it. Brown the meat on all sides without crowding the pot. Use a bit of oil so it doesn’t stick.
After the meat is browned, remove it and add the onion, grated carrot, 1 or 2 of the chopped potatoes (reserve one for the garnish), tomatoes and saute for 5-7 minutes until it’s softened. Add the chopped garlic and cumin and salt and pepper to taste. Pour in the peanut mixture with water. Peas and acelga (chard) are added at the end. Cooking the soup for at least an hour ensures that all the flavors will marry but I would cook it for at least 2.
The traditional garnish for this soup are french fries! How cool is that?! You can omit them, if you are watching your diet but I absolutely love french fries so I like this soup with them. Peel and chop the last potato into thin fry slices and fry them in the hot vegetable oil. Strain onto some paper towels and salt. Garnish your soup with the parsley, oregano and fries. Add more salt and pepper depending on your taste.
Try This Vegan Version
Use the above ingredient list but eliminate the meat. For the stock, I would use a roasted vegetable stock which will give the soup a great depth of flavor but use whatever vegan stock you like. In addition to the above ingredients, add in 2 tbps tomato paste along with the onions. This will change the color of the soup but it will provide a richer flavor. Follow the ‘how to prepare’ above the same as you would.
The peanuts will create a thickened, creamy texture and will be deeply satisfying, especially if you miss having dairy sometimes.