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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Paraguayan Cuisine

            A question that I get asked often from people back home is how’s the food there in Paraguay? That question can mean a number of different things to me depending on my state of mind at any given time. I think the best way to transition into a conversation about Paraguayan cuisine would be to first share a brief anecdote that happened to me last weekend. I had just gotten back to O’Leary after spending a period of time in Asuncion. For months this older couple named Armando and Augustina had been inviting me over for lunch. They have a kid, Francisco, who goes to the school, and during my time here I have developed a nice relationship with all three of them. The cool part about them is how long they have known about Peace Corps, and the amount of volunteers they have met or interacted with during their lives, so they have these really interesting insights into the challenges that come with living and working as a volunteer in the area. They have been friendly and have said on many occasions that if I need anything all I have to do is ask, so I guess my point in telling you all this is that it was far past time that I went to have lunch with them
            They told me to come over at 11 o’clock Saturday morning. I went over after my first solo radio show with a big appetite. They told me that they would be killing a pig, which for those of you who have never hear a pig squeal when it is being killed let me tell you that the sounds it makes are blood curdling to say the least. Despite the horrendous sounds that emanate from the pig during the brutal slaughter pork is easily the best tasting meat you can get on a regular basis. I arrived shortly after the pig was killed, but got a first hand look at the butchering process. Armando has been raising pigs his whole life, so the procedure went rather smoothly. I even got to take part in the shaving process, which needless to say was a first for me. Now at this point I’m thinking that we are going to be eating the choicer parts of the pig because why wouldn’t we? I should know better because after the pig was fully butchered I noticed that they had removed some less desirable parts earlier, so they could be cooked. When I was told the food was ready Augustina put a huge steaming pile of pig liver in front of me, and said “I hope you like pig liver.” Now I’ll admit that liver is not the worst thing in the world. On the contrary in certain circumstances it actually isn’t that bad. What killed me about this particular situation was that I had a plate that was overflowing with dark brown chewy liver that honestly looked like someone had defecated on my plate and added onions. To make matters more challenging is that Paraguayans rarely to never drink something while simultaneously eating, so if you are chewing on a bad piece, or you want to get the taste out of your mouth, tough luck you got suck it up until everyone finishes and the beverages are mercifully served. When it comes to liver, I tend to eat slowly because I can’t handle large spoonfuls. Not having the aid of a drink makes that strategy all the harder. Thankfully for me I was given a drink before I had to chomp on some of the chewier parts, but the initial plateful was enough to leave my stomach feeling a tad bit queasier than I am accustomed to. It was the first time that I had been consciously served pig liver, and now it joins the ranks with cow, chicken, duck, and horse. I would put it in the middle of the pack with regards to that list for no particular reason except that, as one of my Paraguayan friends recently said, “liver is liver no matter what kind of animal it comes from.”
            That situation got me thinking a lot about food here in Paraguay, and why people eat the things they do. If I had to break down Paraguayan food in 3 words it would be meat, heavy starch, and mandioca (yucca). Vegetables make appearances as finely chopped up morsels whose tastes are usually unrecognizable after the meal has been cooked to completion. Paraguay has a lot of fertil landthat is great for producing corn, wheat, beans and mandioca. Therefore the staple foods in here are usually some variation of the 4 with often time the least choice parts of whatever animal you are eating that day. It is no wonder that Paraguayan’s eat tripe, liver, animal heads, cow udder, and the toughest parts of beef humanly possible because meat here can be very expensive depending on the cut. If I wanted to buy 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of pork chops that would cost me 22,000 Guaranis (about $5), which is a lot of money when you compare it to 2 kilos of mandioca at a measly 1,000 Guaranis a kilo ($0.22). That is a huge price difference when the average person makes about $380 a month (like I do). When you can get a week supply of pasta or rice for the price of enough pork to feed a family of 4 for a meal of course you are going to buy the cheaper cuts of meat like the liver. People can sell choice meat for a lot of money, eat the parts that don’t go for as much, and get in some cases more protein for less cost. This trend occurs for generations and people develop taste preferences that yours truly isn’t used to eating.
            When I was living with my family in O'Leary, I once asked my host brother Mathias what his top 5 favorite foods were. Here they are in ascending order beans, rice salad, the pizza that I had at the time made for him twice, grilled meat, and first fried cow stomach known hear as milanesa de mondungo. Cow stomach is one of the harsher things I have eaten here and probably my least favorite part of the cow that I have eaten to this point, but it is cheap to buy. If I was fed cow stomach once a week during my childhood I would probably like it too. I think with development comes an evolution in what becomes available to a society. I’m sure that Americans at the turn of the century were more accustomed to eating things that I was never exposed to. Does that mean they ate it throughout their lives as incomes rose and markets changed? I am sure in some cases it did, but I was not served steaming plates of liver and onions growing up and I am likely not going to buy liver at the supermarket when I get home. My grandmother on the other hand always tells me how much she likes chicken livers. Not many restaurants in America still have them, but every once in a while we would stumble across them. She would eat her fill while I can barely get one down. That was something she had growing up and still enjoys to this day sort of like how Paraguayan’s like their liver.
            It is funny to think about that from a development standpoint. If Paraguay keeps growing in wealth will the food change? My bet is it will, but not dramatically. As I said in the last entry Paraguay’s relative isolation in the world makes it difficult to have a large international import market. To get food diversity, infrastructure needs to expand to the point where it is easy to transport goods from the much larger Brazilian and Argentine economies. The fact remains that the largest international highway in Paraguay is only 2 lanes.  If I wanted to get to a major coastline it would take at least 18 hours by bus, so it is no mystery that there isn’t much diversity in people’s diets. What they have is cheap, what they don’t have is extremely expensive. For the record I admit I like a lot of Paraguayan foods. They strangely enough have a lot of pasta and every once and a while make gnocchi from scratch, something I haven’t seen any other country make outside of Italy, which Paraguay has little to no historical ties with.
Making Chipa Guasu sort of a greasy corn bread
            Most of the food is pretty bland overall probably due to the lack of spices native to the region, and the cost to import them. I am not the biggest fan of spicy food, so I have tended to shy away from anything too spicy during my life. That was until I came here, and saw what it really meant to not like spicy food. A bottle of hot sauce in Paraguay would be roughly equivalent to mild BBQ sauce in America. A shockingly high number of people consider ketchup spicy. Every family that I have interacted with tends to have a small bottle of “hot sauce” in the fridge that they’ll occasionally put a drop or two on their rice or empanadas. Any more then two drops and they look at you like you were just served a death sentence. When I lived with a family I would dump the mild sauce on most of my food to give the usually salty bland flavor of the dish as much of a kick as possible. The kids I lived with didn’t understand how I was able to eat after that. On several occasions I saw them spit up their food after putting one drop of the bland concoction on whatever they were eating. The same reaction can be seen with certain types of chewing gum. On several occasions I have received packages containing Dentyne Ice or Eclipse peppermint gum. I would often give it to the kids after they incessantly asked me for hours apiece. They all seemed to like the gum except for the 3-year-old Damian, who would fan his mouth while chewing as if he were trying to fan a fire in his mouth. I can’t recall one instance where he actually chewed the gum for a period of time longer than 5 seconds, but everyday he would ask me for more as if he didn’t remember the day before.

            To recap, Paraguayan meat can at time be a bit tough on the stomach. Food is pretty basic with most dishes containing high amounts of salt or sugar. Paraguayans hate spicy food, and consider what I would consider very bland as super spicy. There are many things, particularly the pastas that I find delicious, but there are a lot of things, like tripe, that I struggle with. Is Paraguay one of the tougher Peace Corps food countries? I’d say no, but lets just say I’m glad that I’m finally able to cook on my own.

1 comment:

  1. You are very brave. Didn't you eat pork liver while you were in Taiwan? How different is it?