In preparation for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Paraguayan families prepare gratuitous amounts of chipá, a traditional Paraguayan food I described in a previous post. Such a quantity of chipá is necessary because, in addition to the fact that it is consumed all week, it is also the exclusive food eaten on Good Friday—a Paraguayan version of fasting.
On the Wednesday before Easter, the chipá bonanza begins. It starts by firing up the tatakuaa, a large igloo-shaped mud-brick oven used for baking chipá and only chipá.
Next, the chipá batter must be mixed. Several kilograms of pig fat (both solid and liquid) are put into a large wooden tub and stirred into a soupy blend. Dozens of eggs are mixed with the batter while cheese is crumbled in as well. Then, several packets of anise are added. I had never seen or used this spice before coming to Paraguay, but here it is extremely common in almost all types of bread.
Next come fresh milk and almidón, flour made from cassava roots. Ground corn is the last addition before the mixture’s moisture content is adjusted slightly with more milk. Family members—kids included—work the pasty, speckled dough into shapes, usually circles or loaves, but also into birds or crosses or other such shapes with religious symbolism in reference to the coming Easter. The dough is baked and in 20 minutes the chipá is ready.
The first bite of chipá is delicious, I discovered during this year’s observation of Holy Week. It is warm and gooey on the inside, crispy and crunchy on the outside, and very filling. After two or three pieces, however, things go downhill quickly. Chipá is heavy on the carbohydrates and fat (pig fat, to be more precise). Therefore, eating it in huge quantities feels (to me at least) like eating a comparable number of McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I learned to draw my limit at one or two, knowing that each family I visited would insist that I try some of their chipá (despite the fact once you have tried one, you really have tried them all). I spent the week after Easter recovering from the food shock my body had experienced. —Mario Machado
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter is one of the most important holidays in Paraguay. In this predominantly Catholic country (reputedly between 80 and 90 percent of the population), the celebration of Semana Santa or Holy Week occupies a position of utmost importance for families. Like all Paraguayan parties and festivals (including Christmas; quinceañeras, the coming-of-age celebrations of 15-year-old girls; and festivals of patron saints), the drill is mostly the same: large gatherings of family and friends, huge amounts of traditional Paraguayan food, singing and dancing to Paraguayan polkas, and drinking in circles as a designated server refills and passes the cup.
Unlike other holidays, however, Holy Week continues for almost 5 days (culminating in Easter Sunday, or Domingo de Pascua in Spanish). In a country of farmers and laborers, Holy Week represents the only real time off for people who work seven days a week, every week, toiling in the fields or working around the house. Another important aspect of this holiday, which sets it apart from others, is chipá, the traditional Paraguayan cheese-flavored bread that can be delicious if consumed in moderation, but if consumed in excessive amounts can feel like a slow death.
The entire family (usually not including the males, unfortunately) enters chipá-preparation mode weeks before the holiday arrives. Tens or even hundreds of pounds of materials need to be saved up to produce the massive amounts of chipá necessary for an entire week of parties. For a month before Holy Week, I could not find cheese for sale within a 5-kilometer radius of my house. Usually, the matriarch of a household prepares several pounds of fresh cheese after milking the cows each morning. Prior to Holy Week, however, this supply is not sold but instead guarded jealously. Those people lacking milk cows, such as myself, remain cheeseless for weeks on end. —Mario Machado