by Mario Machado—
Yesterday I wrote about a fish soup served by my Paraguayan host family, and today I’ll continue on that theme. Disclaimer: This meal is not for the weak of heart. When the meal begins, the situation resembles more or less a familial version of culinary anarchy. Utensils lurch forward, every man for himself, grasping at chunks of fish and mouthfuls of broth. Each bite brings the inevitable crunch of bones, which must then be “fished” out of one’s mouth and tossed to the ground. The family dogs dodge expertly between legs and under the table; for animals that don’t get fed often, fish soup is the best meal of the week.
Inevitably, when the level of broth has dropped disproportionately to the level of piled fillets, family members reach for full sides of the fish and eat them by hand. My host father then does something that will never cease to amaze me. Somewhere in the mix and mash of fish anatomy, he locates the first fish head. Removing it from the bowl with his favorite ladle (which he prefers over a small spoon on fish soup nights), he begins to literally suck the face off of the underlying fish facial bone. Nothing is spared—lips, brains, eyes—everything is sucked dry in less than a minute. When he is finished, a stark white fish skull is left resting in his hand. The dogs never flock to my host father—he doesn’t waste a thing, not a single slice of flesh. He tosses the skull, the ultimate trophy of his fishing and consumptive prowess, and continues the wildness that is fish soup. Viva Paraguay.
I have tried eating a fish face and I must say, it is much more difficult than it looks. One must carefully navigate the small bone structure and strip away small pieces of flesh from around the eyes and mouth. When it comes to internals such as brains, sucking usually works best. As for lips, they are easy to figure out, for one only need give the fish a light kiss and breathe deeply and the entire front of the face slides right off the bone. The eyes, oh the eyes, I have never quite been able to get my head around—it might take a little more time to work up to those. From what I hear, the eyes are quite salty and taste wonderful with a slice of Paraguayan cheese. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Fish soup represents the best of Paraguay. Although they live in one of the poorest countries in South America (in front of only Bolivia), Paraguayans have risen to the occasion and created a culture that embraces challenges and remains perpetually tranquilo. The nation itself has gone through drastic changes throughout history—losing 90 percent of its male population in the Triple Alliance war, suffering under 30 years of the Stroessner dictatorship, and, currently, finding its way with a fledgling and often faltering democracy—but this has not dampened the Paraguayan spirit. Despite everything, fish soup brings families together to eat and laugh after long days of work and following brief games of soccer, played in haste before the sun sets over the palm trees. No matter what the future might have in store for this beautiful country, there will always be fish soup and everything else uniquely Paraguayan on which to rely.
Feeling well fed today,
by Mario Machado—
When you don’t have a lot, you eat what you do have and waste nothing; rural Paraguay is no exception to this fundamental rule. In a country dominated by widespread poverty and weak infrastructure, the food culture represents a symptom of—as well as an antidote to—difficult economic conditions. Starches are cheap and abundant, meat is of low quality but high on everyone’s wish list, and vegetables and fruits (while fresh and abundant) are expensive and seasonal. Chicken, low-grade beef, and several types of game (including rabbit and birds) are all consumed often and in variable quantities, with the rare treat of a slaughtered family pig thrown into the mix. Mandioc, a fibrous starchy root plant, is incredibly cheap and immensely resilient as a crop. It therefore finds its way onto every lunch or dinner table; the one thing that there is no shortage of in Paraguay is mandioc.
For my host family, living at or below the poverty line has meant that food must be adaptable, with recipes that can tolerate a number of substitute ingredients and do not rely on too many spices (as many are expensive and difficult to come by). Still, the food is delicious and extremely rich, with plenty of natural flavors and often an excess of salt. We must count ourselves lucky to at least be able to say that we never go hungry and that there is always something on the table; not all in Paraguay or in many places in the world can say as much. My host father, a wise and good-natured farmer, has taken to fishing as both a beloved pastime as well as a great way to supplement protein in the family’s diet. Twice a week, he clambers onto a small-engine motorcycle with his brother and drives several hours along “paved” roads with fishing gear in hand. On these days, he wakes at 3 a.m. in order to catch a few in the Rio Pirana and return home in time for dinner with the family.
This is where it gets interesting. There are several main ways that Paraguayans eat fish: pescado milanese (lightly breaded and fried), pescado frito (pan-fried in oil), and the family favorite, sopa de pescado, or fish soup. Fish soup is less a meal and more an experience. My sisters spend all day slowly cooking a heavy broth with tomatoes and onions. Then the fish is added. The preparation of a fish for this meal involves gutting, scaling, and then cutting the entire carcass into four or five large pieces (head, tail and everything in between) before tossing it into the broth. This stews for around two hours while family members gather.
When the fish soup is ready, a table is brought out in front of the house; no chairs are placed around its perimeter. The entire cauldron of fish soup is then placed in the center of the table while eager family members select and wield their respective spoons. How the soup is consumed is a topic worthy of its own blog post; I’ll get to that tomorrow.
From the land of fish,
by Mario Machado—
The heat has broken, shattered while we slept and in a tremendous fashion by a storm that was as fierce as it was brief. The fields surrounding my new home outside Guarambare bear the scars of heavy clouds passing in the night—and yet, the Paraguayan family I am living with and the rest of our Paraguayan friends remain ever so tranquilo.
I awoke at around one in the morning to the sounds of chaos: animals going off one after the other, people outside scrambling and yelling, and all the while a continuous chorus of wind and water and lightning and thunder. I left my room to find my host family huddled under the small awning in the front of the house as rain came down like a sheet in front of our faces. Already several trees had fallen. The uuvas (a small bush that bears delicious fruit) had been uprooted and strewn in shreds across the yard. The television antenna had also been downed by a wind that seemed quite pointed and strong. My host father mumbled something about his peppers being ruined and retired to the house to wait and hopefully sleep out the storm.
The next morning brought some relief as the violent clouds receded on the horizon, surrendering the sky to a gentle morning sun. But the damage had been done. Twenty rows of peppers had been tossed around in the night, leaving the crop in shambles. The net used shelter and shade the peppers had collapsed. The zapallos, zapallitos, tomatoes, mandioc, pesto, and orange trees seemed to be all right, but it was the peppers that represent the biggest cash crop for my host family. This storm had certainly made a point.
My family is lucky in the sense that my host father is a seasoned farmer and therefore had the foresight to diversify his crops according to price, ease of maintenance, and seasonality. The large-scale loss of the peppers is not crippling to my family, for there are other crops to rely on—however, none of them are currently ready for harvest. The peppers, being the best cash crop but also the crop of highest maintenance needs in the Paraguayan climate, provided a huge source of income for the family at several tens of dollars a week. With that income lost, it’s time to start over and begin replanting. For a poor farmer with limited financial capital, that prospect is daunting but certainly not cause for lengthy deliberation; this afternoon, my host father was already back in the field fixing the netting, salvaging the peppers, and setting the ground for the next round. The realities of farming change drastically when the food you grow represents not only your nourishment but also your livelihood. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
The storm has passed and all will return to normal in due time. The perpetually “tranquilo” Paraguayan outlook will surely iron out any lasting damage as it cradles the simple lifestyles of these beautiful people. One should never idealize the situation of poverty or the challenges it presents to countless real people across the globe, but it does seem—and I have seen this over and over—that the less you have, the happier you are. Peppers or no peppers, we will talk and smile and laugh over dinner tonight. So it goes.
From the other side of the storm,