The Little Known World of Paraguayan Food
As someone who loves food, and who has food-related career, one of the first things I did before deciding to move to Paraguay was research its food. After all, one of my favourite travel-related activities is to eat. I’ll even admit that my second trip to South East Asia was purely motivated by my stomach.
So what did I find when researching Paraguayan food? Well, Paraguayan cuisine is dominated by meat and carbohydrates. Their carbs of choice are a corn-based bread called chipa and a starchy root vegetable called mandioca. Besides the grass-fed beef and starchy accompaniments, Paraguay does have some foods and culinary specialties that I’m particularly fond of, some of which I will have to learn how to make before I leave this country for good.
Pollo al Horno
Now, Paraguay certainly didn’t invent oven baked chicken but I have to tell you, they may have perfected it. I don’t know what it is exactly but the Paraguayan version of oven roasted chicken is absolutely delicious. It’s tender and savoury and full of flavour. It’s my Paraguayan comfort food. I confess that oven roasted chicken wasn’t really something I desired back home. It was good but not something I would ever order in a restaurant. In Paraguay, however, I have no qualms about ordering pollo al horno at a restaurant, even if there are seemingly more exciting dishes on the menu.
What happens when you combine corn bread and quiche? You get a divine invention called chipa guasu. The word chipa is, more or less, a general term for a Paraguayan corn-based bread made with fresh, soft cheese, while the word guasu means big in the native Guarani language.
Chipa guasu is by far one of my favourite starchy treats in Paraguay. It is often found alongside barbecued meats at typical Paraguayan asados. The basic chipa guasu recipe is a mixture of ground fresh corn, onions, queso paraguayo (a soft fresh cheese), eggs, milk, a fat and salt and pepper. And at its best, chipa guasu is crunchy on the edges and creamy and moist on the inside. It is a delight and I almost prefer it to the freshly barbecued sausages and grass-fed beef that it often accompanies.
If you know a little Spanish, you may be familiar with the word corazón, or heart. Corazoncitos (or little hearts in Spanish) refer to chicken hearts. These hearts are particularly delicious when skewered and cooked over a charcoal barbecue. I would never have thought I’d be so enamored with an organ meat but these savory little hearts have found their way into my own heart…and into my belly.
My favourite place to enjoy these tasty little heart skewers is at street side barbecue joint. There is something so alluring about sitting outside on flimsy plastic chairs while the aroma of charcoal grilled meats wafts through the air, all while enjoying hot skewers of freshly cooked chicken hearts. To me, this is one of my favourite Paraguayan experiences.
Passion Fruit (Mburucuya)
Passion fruit, or otherwise known as Mburucuya in Paraguay, is one of my favourite fruit discoveries since moving to the heart of South America. Passion fruit is refreshingly sour and if you cut it properly, it comes in its own little biodegradable cup.
Despite its difficult name (the Mb sound is hard to wrap your tongue around), it hasn’t stopped me from ordering everything I can that is made with passion fruit. Passion fruit mouse: check. Passion fruit ice cream: check. Passion fruit daiquiri: check, check, check. If it’s made with this tart fruit, I’m going to order it. That’s a guarantee.
Our household has even gone so far as trying to grow it. Our passion fruit vine has yet to produce any fruit but we are eagerly waiting, with knives and spoon in hand.
Considering the landlocked geography of Paraguay, fish isn’t exactly a mainstay of the Paraguayan diet. That isn’t to say that there aren’t fish here, because there are. Paraguay has a number of rivers, and in those rivers there is a particularly tasty fish called Surubi.
Surubi is a type of catfish found in several parts of South America. It is a meaty, dense fish and particularly delicious when fried or breaded. One of my favourite Surubi dishes is when it is stuffed with ham and cheese, then breaded and fried. While it’s probably not the most nutritious way to eat it, I sure do enjoy it.
Another great way to enjoy surubi is in a Paraguayan fish soup. This cream-based fish and vegetable soup is a hit during the colder months and is a must try when coming to Paraguay, outside of those sweltering summer season, that is.
Chipa So’o is another Paraguayan corn-based bread. However, instead of being just a cheesy corn bread, which by itself is delicious, chipa so’o has a seasoned ground beef, onion and hard boiled egg filling. In fact, so’o means beef in the Guarani language.
When done right, chipa so’o is amazing. Crunchy and golden brown on the outside and savoury on the inside. It makes a great mid-morning or midday snack when feeling a bit peckish. It is so’o amazing!
I’d first like to say that I think empanadas, in general, are awesome, and I’m not sure why I hadn’t had one before stepping foot on Paraguayan soil. These fried or baked pockets of deliciousness are all over the place in Paraguay (and the rest of Latin America, too).
My favourite empanadas so far, are the Chilenas (or Chilean). From the name I take it that their origin isn’t exactly Paraguayan but I count it as a Paraguayan food as I first tried it here and have not seen it before in my native Canada.
So what makes a Chilean empanada so mouthwatering? Unlike most beef only versions of empanadas, the Chilena has cubes of beef alongside boiled egg, raisins and olives. It’s an amazingly delicious combination.
Mbeju (yes, another difficult Mb Guarani word) is a rich, decedent flat cake often associated with the colder winter months here in Paraguay. There are a number of variations of this dish but, generally, mbeju is made with corn or mandioca flour, eggs, pork fat or oil, Paraguayan cheese and milk. Some interesting variations I’ve seen are with extra cheeses (yum!) and ham.
Mbeju is delicious but it is certainly not a diet food. Someone once told me that it was originally a winter food because it provided extra calories that Paraguayans needed to keep warm in the cold months. Considering very few houses have central heating in Paraguay, having a few extra calories (and layer of insulation) may have been advisable.
Of course, these days extra calories aren’t as hard to come by as they may have been in the past, so the average person here doesn’t really need to load up on this calorie dense treat. For most of us, mbeju is best shared with a friend over a hot cup of yerba mate.
Vori Vori con Pollo
Vori vori con pollo is probably my favourite Paraguayan dish. Essentially, vori vori con pollo is a broth-based soup made with a few vegetables, Paraguayan cheese, chicken, cumin, curry and delicious little cornmeal balls (called vori). It’s like the Paraguayan version of matzo ball soup. The beauty of this soup is that cornmeal balls absorb the broth flavour and if you’ve got a well made broth these balls are especially delicious.
Whether the thermometer reads 10 or 40 degrees Celsius, I am pretty much always up for this Paraguayan soup. And because it is a mix of protein, carbs and vegetables it’s a great one pot meal. This is definitely one of the dishes that I’ll have to master before returning to Canada.
Oh…cupin, where have you been all my life?
Now I’m not particularly crazy about beef. I like it and enjoy a steak or hamburger now and then but I don’t crave it nor do I want it more than a few times a week. Cupin, however, is another story. I could eat it day after day.
Cupin comes from the Brahma cow, more specifically from the hump of the Brahma cow. This meat is the most tender, melt in your mouth meat that you’ll ever have. Of course, it is so tender because it is quite fatty but that’s what makes it so delicious.
Although some of these foods mentioned may not exactly be native to Paraguay, it is where I first encountered them. And when we finally say goodbye to this crazy Paraguayan adventure of ours, these are definitely the foods that will be remembered.
Paraguayan cuisine has come to pleasantly surprise me. While it may not be at the forefront of international cuisine, it certainly does have some excellent foods and dishes to please the palate.
¡Buen provecho everyone!