Bolivian silpancho

A year-abroad-romance gets really good
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  December 16, 2009

food_bolivian2_cDavidHolman 
THE LOOK OF LOVE The best ground-beef dish ever? Photo: DAVID HOLMAN

The bus had been bumping over potholes through the night in the Andes mountains of Bolivia. A young couple, Rommy and David, were traveling from her hometown to the capital where she was to have an interview at the US embassy. She wanted nothing more than a visa so she could see where David was from. They'd met in Bolivia three years earlier when he was on his year abroad from Carleton College. Her last attempt at getting a tourist visa had failed after a three-minute interview. She doesn't know why. This time she paid an organization three months' salary to help her through the process. Now, instead of straightening her hair and looking like a responsible tourist, she was going for a camp-counselor look. The organization had helped her get a sponsorship from a summer camp to work with special needs kids.

When the bus stopped and turned off its lights and engine in the middle of the mountain road, other travelers pulled on blankets and fell asleep (road blockages were not unusual) but David had a fever and upset stomach. The windows of the bus were all stuck shut, so he walked up to the front. Could you please open the door? As the driver fumbled with the levers, David threw up in his hands. The bus trip lasted 15 hours. Then David stayed at the station while Rommy went to her interview. A man asked him directions — and his accomplice stole David's backpack. Ladron! Ladron! David yelled. Passersby caught the thief, and David got his backpack back. Meanwhile, Rommy's cultural exchange visa was granted! They bought their plane tickets. They were on their way! A week before departure, Rommy gets a text message from the organization: Rommy, llamamé, urgente algo con la visa. Turns out, the summer camp decided they didn't have room for her. On the bus ride back to her hometown, Rommy fell asleep crying in David's arms.

Some months later, David proposed. He loved her. He loved Bolivia. They would see the US eventually. Five months later, she gambled another month's salary on applying for a fiancé visa. Oddly, in an institution that felt like a prison with armed guards and interviewers behind bulletproof glass, they had to prove their true love. They submitted copies of their private love letters from David's trips to the US (to college and to visit his family). Luckily, he was a convincing writer. Last May Rommy and David arrived in Maine and married in his parents' backyard, amid budding red oaks and gardens of promise.

In November, nervous about heading into her first Maine winter, Rommy showed me how to cook her favorite dish from home: Bolivian silpancho. Elegant, satisfying, and beautiful, this dish might just be the best possible use of ground beef in the world. You roll a little ball of it into breadcrumbs and pepper so you have a circular shape as thin as a crepe. Then you sear it. On each plate, layer a mound of rice, golden sautéed potato rounds, the seared beef, a fried egg, and a colorful salad of sweet peppers, tomatoes, and red onion. Top that with homemade hot sauce and a powerful Bolivian herb (quilquiña) and you have a truly amazing dish. What's even more amazing is that finally they could eat it together as a new family in Maine: David, Rommy, and her grateful in-laws.

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  Topics: Food Features , Inside Immigrant Kitchens, David Holman
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