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,