In this interview, the kilometres and the altitude separate us. From Madrid (600 masl), I called Marsia, head chef at the Gustu restaurant, in La Paz, Bolivia. To ask her how she cooks in the highest city in the world. In this metropolis with greatly uneven latitudes, the highest part exceeds 4,000 masl and the lowest is over 3,200. 

A few weeks ago, Harvard University invited her, along with her colleague Natalie Espinoza, to the annual “Science & Cooking” conference, a meeting where Harvard professors meet with leading chefs and world-renowned food experts. It is a way of showing the science behind culinary techniques.

We agreed to talk on the same day that she arrived in Bolivia from the United States, but upon landing, she had to stay at the airport for two hours due to a demonstration caused by the political crisis that her country is sadly going through. More calmly, we managed to talk the next day.

And she told me: “Here super-famous and great Danish bakers have arrived, they suddenly wanted to teach us how to make bread, but they get super frustrated because they don’t know what it’s going on”.

And in La Paz, what happens is that there are many physical and chemical changes compared to any other city in the world. The high altitude is already a great challenge, because it generates less atmospheric pressure, therefore, less air. And weather conditions also vary this pressure. On the same day, you live all four seasons of the year.

“Here in Bolivia, we cooks have a problem, we buy books of bread, of masitas with all the recipes and it will NEVER EVER come out as it says in the recipes”.

Therefore, the topic presented at Harvard University: “Exploring Heat Transfer in Bolivian  Haute Cuisine”, consisted of how the recipes made at sea level are adapted to high altitudes, quantities and ingredients have to be modified, the cooking time of the dishes. Can this be a challenge?

 

By Fabiola Gálvez

 

There, the water boils at 86º as you mentioned in the Harvard exposition. What does this mean for the culinary world?

There is a physical and chemical change of food, it is mostly because of the atmospheric pressure: the higher the altitude, the less atmospheric pressure we have. Above, due to lack of oxygen, the air molecules are divided into 3: oxygen, hydrogen and gases. The oxygen ones are the heaviest, the higher the altitude we have, much fewer oxygen molecules we’ll have. So, what happens with the water is that for every 300 meters high, 1 degree of cooking is lowered, then at 4,150 meters where we are located, the boiling point of the water would become 86º, and at sea level, It is 100 degrees, that is 14 degrees less than boiling.

What happens is that the water evaporates much faster because it cooks at a much lower temperature. Afterwards, food takes twice as long to cook, for example, if something is cooked in 20 minutes, in high altitude it is cooked twice as long.

 

So, how are these adaptations of sea-level recipe books made for high altitudes?

More water to cook

Add much more water, because the water evaporates much faster.

 

Less yeast, because the dough could collapse

Put a lot less yeast, because the atmospheric pressure basically works like a yeast, pressing towards the bread or the keke, then, without pressure, all things grow much faster.

 

Time

The reduction of the time, measure the time.

 

Seeking balance

In many cases, increasing the quantity of flour or egg to give stability to the doughs, more than anything it is about how to modify a recipe at sea level so that it works at high altitudes. I have set the example of fried foods, cooking doughs, bread, kekes (in Harvard talk).

 

 

Over low heat, more nutritional properties

At high altitude, you have to cook slowly because the cooking point is much lower. So, in theory, the slower the food is cooked, one will obtain nutritional benefits that remain in the products and not so much in the water, and at the same time, the meat cooking time is much slower. The crystallization, for example, crystallize at low temperature for a long time, is our most demanded cooking in the restaurant, and at lower temperatures, they are always the best results.

 

So, as everything goes slower, how long do you have to cook beef? Or is a pressure cooker better?

If you want to cook, in general, much faster at high altitudes, it is not solved by increasing the heat, but a pressure cooker would be the answer since you basically press all the steam and that causes temperatures to rise much more. Then a pressure cooker saves your life, you can have the same cooking as at sea level.

 

In the fried foods, as you commented, what would the cooking process be like?

At high altitudes, the oil temperature will not change. What does have to change is the cooking time, because if we follow the recipes that are at sea level, with the fried food you get to burn the product, you get a product burned on the outside and raw inside, you have to lower the temperature of the oil so that there is the perfect balance between internal and crispy cooking of the outside. Here, we went down 1 degree by 300 meters high, that would be the conversion.

It is basically a perfect balance between internal cooking and external cooking, and that applies with cookies, bread, kekes, for baking more than anything.

 

What would you say is the food that has cost you more effort to prepare, or the most rebellious, in the kitchen?

The bread. Here super-famous and great Danish bakers have arrived, they suddenly wanted to teach us how to make bread, but they get super frustrated because they don’t know what it’s going on, until they stay a whole week, and then they keep trying, modify their recipes 100%, and then they get it because they already have the technique and everything, but they have to modify their recipe completely.

***

In short, at high altitudes, you can do many things while cooking, make the purchase, read a book or watch TV. Joking aside, the reality is that the food is unlikely to burn. If we want to cook faster, it is not solved by raising the fire. Error. Patience is a virtue. Also, did you know that in the heights you need to increase salt in meals? According to what Chef Marsia commented, in the Harvard University forum published on YouTube, a study ensures that the palate does not know how to recognize it. And I can corroborate that statement, when I travel to La Paz, I felt I needed to add extra salt to meals. In addition, he said that if you put your finger in the boiling water, you do not have the sensation of burning. And in summary, the recipe books of the world are made to be cooked at the sea level, and Bolivian students or chefs have to be like alchemists to adapt them to the heavenly flavours.

 

Thank you very much, Chef Marsia for sharing the best-kept secrets of the recipes of high altitudes.

PORTRAIT OF THE CHEF

Friendly, competitive, and of a great social spirit. Marsia Taha, 30 years old, was born in La Paz, Bolivia. She studied cooking at the first School of Hospitality and Tourism in Bolivia, and while studying, she had the opportunity to compete in the international Bocuse d’Or championship in Mexico. Then, she travelled to Spain with a scholarship to study at the Center for Hotel Studies of the Canary Islands. With everything she’s learned, she returned to her country. In 2013, Gustu opens in La Paz, and she joined the project from the beginning since it involved two aspects that she loves: the social and the cooking. She grew up with the restaurant, going through all the kitchen areas. In this period, she made a break of just one year to travel to Denmark, with internships for the Studio and Geist restaurants. And since 2017, she is head of the kitchen and promoter of the  Sabores Silvestres (Wild Flavors) project.

Gustu is an haute cuisine restaurant with Bolivian products kilometre zero. The current menu tastes like the South Altiplano, from a banana flower pond, grilled tenderloin sealed with beef demi-glase and Andean tubers or a murmunta with Amazonian almond milk and huacataya with cheese. Unparalleled flavours, a kitchen proud of its roots and with social commitment. The winery is wide, with 112 references of wines, 30 of singanis, 20 types of beers and national distillates. At noon, there is a lunch menu, Monday through Friday.

 

More of Gustu’s cuisine, here.

 

If you want to be part of the Gustu team, contact: mtaha@gustu.bo

Reservations:

+591 2 2117491

Email: booking@gustu.bo

Address: Calacota, 10th Street No. 300, between Costanero and Los Sauces, La Paz, Bolivia.