April 2013

Traditional Bolivian Sweets and Their Relevance In Toda y’s Society

There exists a high fondness for sweets in Bolivia. Everywhere you go you can get candies, cookies, and sweets in all different sizes, shapes, and colors. Most of them are produced by big companies and have names such as Oreo and M&M’s. If you want to find some of the more traditional Bolivian sweets, you have to know where to look for them..

By: Joanna Filejski
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Schleswig-Holstein - Germany

The big offer of sweet traditional pastries in La Cancha Market
Photo: Marie Ettrup

Traditional sweets of Bolivia

In Bolivia, a high variety of traditional candies exist. Some of the most popular ones are Tawatawa, Chancaca, Confites, Tantawawa, Maicillos, Rosquetes and Hostias. Although all fall under the definition of candy, some of them are not as sweet as you would expect them to be. Rosquete, for example, is made with flour, butter, yeast, eggs, water, and just a little sugar. Eating this sweet is a rather strange experience as your mouth gets sticky because of the white meringue covering it. However, a sugar shock fails to appear. Same goes for Maicillos, as cornstarch, baking powder, and margarine dominate. They would count more as biscuits and are a good addition to tea or coffee.

Another popular candy is Hostias. Most of us would associate this name with the thing passed out in Catholic mass, but in Bolivia, Hostias are a sweet, approximately the size of a small plate and of a light brown color. They are eaten either with honey or jam on it or used like buns for a dulce de leche “sandwich.” Another popular light snack is Tawatawa. It is made with flour, eggs, and a rising agent such as yeast. Afterwards, the dough is put in hot oil where it turns into a light confection filled with air. To add some sweetness, honey or powdered sugar is added and the Tawatawa is ready to be eaten.

Shaped ice cream cookie
Photo: Marie Ettrup

If you are looking for a great amount of sugar, Chancaca is the right choice. The dehydrated sugar cane juice is consumed all around South America. It has a sweet caramel taste and is sold in solid blocks or in a form of syrup. Although being a candy, it is much healthier than many industrialized sweets, as it is made of unrefined sugar. Therefore, it contains a large amount of minerals, vitamins, and proteins which are lost in the refining process.

Pastry linked to cultural events

There are also pastries associated with special times of the year. One of them is Tantawawas, which appear up to a week before Todos Santos on November 1st . The name derives from Quechua, with tanta meaning “bread” and wawa meaning “baby.” Tantawawa, the “breadbaby,” is an essential element for the spirit of the deceased. They are usually in the shape of a baby, which explains their name, as it is believed that the souls return in this form. Another popular shape is a ladder, which symbolizes the ascent of the soul into heaven. The pastry is only available during this short period of the year and disappears from stores and markets during the remainder.

Selling sweet pastries in Quillacollo fair
Photo: Verena Klotz

The second pastry linked to an event is Confite. Before Carnival, Confites appear in all kinds of colors. They are usually available from January through March and have a special meaning, at least in Cochabamba: the Carnival is a celebration to let out your sins. Things which are sinful, such as drinking alcoholic beverages and excessive eating, are permitted during this time and will be forgiven. Because of their composition, Confites counts as being very sinful, and its consumption is only allowed during Carnival. This tradition stays until today and the candy can only be found during a short period of time.

Industrialized candy taking over the shelves


Chankaka rolls, dried figs, almonds, raisins, and dry bananas
Photo: Verena Klotz

Nowadays, the traditional candy can only be found in La Cancha and some small family-run stores. The little stalls along the streets or supermarkets have concentrated on the sale of industrialized candy wrapped in bright colors. Most of it has English names and is being produced in Brazil or Argentina. There is a reason for that. The traditional candy is natural, which has the disadvantages of having a short date of expiry and mostly being of dull colors. Also, Confites and Tantawawas can only be sold during a short period during the year due to the previously mentioned bond to events, whereas industrialized candy can be sold all throughout the year and because of its heavy content of additives and colorants has a longer eat-by date and more appealing colors.

Maicillos with grapes
Photo: Marie Ettrup

Namely, colors play a huge part in sales. KitKat and Coca-Cola did not choose red for nothing. Products wrapped in red appear sweeter to the consumer. Other colors which are often chosen are orange as it signifies “affordable” or gold meaning “good quality.” The candy itself has often somewhat unnatural colors as the main consumer group, kids and teenagers, like to experiment and rather try neon-dyed pastilles than natural colored goodies.

Are traditional sweets about to be forgotten?

Big Hostias
Photo: Marie Ettrup

The answer to that would be no. The difference today is that the two kinds of candy switched spots for most people. Back in the days, traditional sweets were the everyday treat and industrialized candy was consumed as an exception because of its price. Today it has become the other way around. If you are looking for a little sugar kick in the afternoon, you will probably go over to the next street stall and get a pack of “Rocklets” or so. Since industrialized candy is more widespread than traditional goodies, they are easier to acquire and therefore more popular. However, it will never be able to completely replace traditional candy because, as the name says, it is a tradition. People are proud of their traditions and are unwilling to give them up. Through globalization and industrialization they grasp on to it even more, as it differentiates them from others. Therefore, even they consumed less; people enjoy traditional candy even more and nowadays see them as something special. You will probably never hear anyone say: “Carnival is KitKat time!” but most likely one of the reasons people look forward to Carnival is the consumption of Confite.

Rosquetes with Merengue
Photo: Marie Ettrup

Traditional candy was, is, and will always be an important part of Bolivia’s culture. Although not as prevalent as it used to be, it can still be found in the markets and is known by most Bolivians. Through its link to cultural events, it has even gained in importance, as a Carnival without Confite or a Todos Santos without Tantawawas would seem incomplete. Its composition and flavor are just right for Bolivian taste buds and therefore it is impossible to imagine a Bolivia without its treats.

Variety in Maicillos
Photo: Marie Ettrup

Coca and its “True Elixir”
For the Andean society, before the arrival of the Inca, the consumption of the coca leaf was associated to a religious and political management. Its extensive and expansive practice as an state cultivation were given during the mandate of the Inca Wayna Qapac at the end of the fifteenth century and, according to some documentary sources, its use was found restricted to an Inca elite and to the large ethnic gentlemen. Acosta, in its Natural History and Morale of the Indies, indicates: “The Inca Gentlemen used the coca as a real and given thing; and in their sacrifices it was the most offered thing, burning it in honor of its Idols” for which “was not lawful to the plebeian to use the coca leaf without license of the Inca or its Governor.” Upon remaining associate to the solar state worships and to the Inca (“son of the Sun”), it had a sacred rank.
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