In the Bolivian city of Potosí, local geology has been a blessing and a curse. After the discovery of its mountain’s silver resources in 1545, Potosí went from a nearly empty plateau to a bustling city. From the 16th to 18th centuries, Cerro Rico, or the “Rich Mountain,” bankrolled the Spanish Empire, helping it produce 80 percent of the world’s silver. But all this success came at a cost. Thousands of miners, particularly conscripted Indians and African slaves, perished in hazardous conditions. Though the silver boom has passed, its history is inescapable: Cerro Rico continues to loom over Potosí and the silver mines remain open.
As Potosino history is intertwined with local minerals, so is its cuisine. There is no better example of this than k’alapurka, a bowl of soup that smolders with the heat of a volcanic rock from Cerro Rico. (Long before it was the world’s source of silver, the mountain was a volcano.)
On its own, k’alapurka is a fine, hearty meal. But when the server drops a hot stone inside the earthenware bowl, the soup is transformed into a cauldron of spice and savoriness. A steaming ripple appears in the stone’s wake, and the yellow, corn flour–based broth bubbles inside a colorful ring of ground chili pepper, oregano, ají sauce, and aromatic chachacoma leaves. Potatoes and a savory meat—such as beef jerky or fried pork—soften the spices and add heft to the meal.
At an altitude of 13,000 feet, the Andean city experiences harsh winds and frigid temperatures. With its warming blend of spice, hearty meat, and volcanic heat, k’alapurka is a favorite Potosino breakfast on chilly mornings.
During the height of the city’s prosperity, particularly after it began minting its own coins, the phrase valer un Potosí (“to be worth a Potosí”) became a popular way to describe anything of great value. While silver may have been its most lucrative resource, k’alapurka makes it clear that Potosí still has plenty of treasures to share.