Search This Blog

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Chipa II

       Last year, I wrote a long entry about Paraguayan cuisine that specifically focused around what the famous Paraguayan author Agusto Roa Basto described as “fragrant, golden rings” in his well-known book entitled “Hijo del Hombre” (Son of Man). What I was referring to is more than just a simple food that people here enjoy with a passion unparalleled by any equivalent food in America. It is called chipa, and to say that it is just a food would be an insult to the Paraguayan way of life. Simply put, chipa is more or less a tough corn and manioc flour cake that is consumed in every corner of the country, and I am certain would illegal in the States to make without serious oversight of the necessary ingredients. Despite individual families’ variations it is essentially made using the same ingredients with little variation. Every Paraguayan from infancy throughout their entire lives is exposed to copious amounts of the biscuit like treat. However, its importance stretches into the religious fabric of the country because during Easter and the week leading up to Easter, families bake bountiful amounts of chipa in their back yard ovens known as tatakuas. The chipas are to be eaten as the primary source of food starting on good Friday and ending on Easter Sunday. In other country’s the tradition is to fast or just to avoid meat, but in Paraguay all you eat is chipa, which let me tell you after two days is sort of sitting out on the table, the chipa transforms into a sort of crumbling rock that even the dogs struggle to chump through. This time last year, I was starving on Easter Sunday because of said tradition, and was immensely relieved once Easter was over that our diets could resume normally through the reintroduction of proteins.
      This year my perspective was different in that I now live alone. That allows me the privilege to make chipa, receive chipa, but not depend on it as my only form of sustenance during the week. Having made chipa already one time before with my host family during the three month training period I was somewhat familiar with what the primary components to construct the perfect chipa were, but didn't truly appreciate the importance of the process until recently. For the record, I find chipa to be a food I only choose to eat when no other options exist, or when it is given to me by someone who asks if I’m hungry. With time, I have grown to appreciate the taste and the subtle nuances that exist between different kinds, but to date, I cannot say I will be craving it once I am not longer in position to purchase it back in America. I think my personal taste preferences initially limited my ability to appreciate chipa for what it is to Paraguayans. I cannot honestly say I have never met a Paraguayan who doesn't like chipa or doesn't know how to make it. You would have to blind not to know what it is especially because it can be purchased on any long distance bus going anywhere in the country.
      Bus companies have unspoken agreements with chipa individual chipa vendors for the right to sell their chipa on their buses  Women, normally heavier set women for reasons that become obvious upon a brief glace at the ingredients that go into chipa, board the buses with an enormous basket containing hundreds of chipas that sell for roughly $0.50 each. You can always tell when the chipa lady, most often it is a woman, by how everyone on the bus starts digging around their wallets and purses, and how everyone seems to come to life as the lady bumps back and forward in between the aisle with basket that appears almost as big as the woman carrying it on her shoulder. Remarkably the women usually sell most of her stock on one bus, particularly if it is early in the morning. Her enormous basket with the intricately folded white cloth that contains and maintains the chipas temperature gradually shrinks from mountain to a small mound in a matter of minutes. The ladies selling the chipas somehow are able to maintain balance in spite the ridiculous speeds the lunatic bus drivers seem to maintain no matter how much traffic there is on the road. They are also simultaneously able to break change and put each chipa in a small plastic bag with the logo of the chipa company on the front. Aside from the comically large basket these women hoist on their shoulders, the uniform of the chipa vendor is usually a shirt polo shirt with a certain color fringe and the logo of the company over the heart. Usually the woman wears shorts skirts and hose the former of which matches the tinge of the polo. I don’t know exactly how many runs the average vendor does in a day, but I do know that they are apart of an elite group of contributors to the economy that work rain or shine and on weekends and holidays. They will board a bus whether it has 10 people sitting rows away from each other, or whether it has 100 passengers crammed in every seat and stuffed in every square foot of the aisle. Nevertheless, if you by some horrible stroke of bad luck are on a bus where a chipa lady doesn't get on, lets just say because one couldn't hop aboard the bus with a 30 pound basket on her shoulder with a bus driver that refuses to go slower that 10 mph when passing, there is no need to fret because at every bus terminal in the country one will be accosted by 5-15 people each selling one of six things one of which will always be chipa. In fact, on the four-and-a-half hour bus ride from Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, to Juan E. O’Leary, where I live, the average patron will have no less than four opportunities to buy chipa from someone and often times more than that.
       The culture of bus chipa, in many ways, is its own unique subculture from the traditional heritage that developed over hundreds of years. Sure the ingredients are the same, but they are mass produced for the populace and only half the times are backed in the traditional tatakua. For me that commercialization is sort of the equivalent of eating grandmas home made biscuits versus Pillsbury ready to bake. Sure the commercialized version that claims to taste like grandmas are good, but it’s just not the same. That feeling is very analogous to the chipa industry here. Despite commercialization efforts to push grandma so-and-so’s chipa or patron saint of whatever’s chipa nothing tastes quite the same as the stuff made at home.
       Making chipa is a simple enough process, but like all true homemade delicacies there is a procedure that has been mastered only after the knowledge has been passed down for generations and with years of practice under one’s belt. So to say that my abilities are novice-like is spectacular understatement. Sure I can get the method down easily enough, but the making of the chipa doesn't have roots in my genetic heritage, so I have to willingly accepted that I will always, in spite of my best efforts, be a goofy outsider when it comes to making the Paraguayan snack of the Gods. This past Wednesday I was invited over by a neighbor who let me help her make her chipa for the week. The following is her process that is pretty much universally accepted throughout all corners of Paraguay. Describing chipa and its production method in a way that truly hits home for most Americans I will once again emphasize the analogy of mom or grandma’s homemade rolls or biscuits. Sure the frozen ones are good, but they aren't the same. A reason for that might be because somehow grandmas knows better than to settle for whatever the grocery store has to offer as a substitute to an important component. But in America today, a lot of the ingredients are things that we no longer have ready access to because we didn't grow up on a farm or close to an area where we could get fresh milk or eggs. Paraguayans, for the most part, still have access to those fresh ingredients that seem to have disappeared from the American household, and therefore the rustic identity of homemade chipa is still very much a part of the cultural identity.

      To make about 100 chipas one must have the following ingredients: 2 dozen eggs (preferably laid from your own chickens), 1.5 kilos of pig fat aka lard (Crisco or another fat substitute has yet to make headwind in the Paraguayan marketplace), 2-3 kilos of finely ground corn flower (again preferably your own corn that you ground yourself), 4 kilos of manioc flower (naturally grown and ground yourself), 100-200 gram packet of anis seed (smells and tastes like black liquorish), 1.5-2.5 kilos of Paraguayan cheese (really difficult to describe this, but imagine taking fresh milk from your cow and being able to make a solid block of slightly smelly, soft, white cheese that is ready to use in a variety of foods the next day), and lastly a pitcher full of salty milk that one adds to taste. Once all your ingredients are gathered the process of mixing takes on its own unique process. First, you mix the lard, the eggs, and a portion of the corn flower together until you create a yellowish paste that masks the smell of the eggs. You add corn flower accordingly until you achieve the desired result. Next you start kneading in the rest of the corn flour and the entire 4 kilos manioc flour along with the anis seed and salt milk until you get lumpy looking dough. Then add the cheese, depending on how cheesy you want it, and fold that into the mixture. The cheese is typically soft, and blends in well if it is fresh. However, that is not a requirement and the older the cheese the worse it tastes when one is unexpectedly given a piece. After the entire tub is in a dough form each chunk is kneaded again until smooth, and it typically shaped in a circle, a think log, or a bun, but it can really be molded into whatever you want because the texture is a lot like Play dough.
                                                     Once the arduous task of forming all the chipas is completed one must cut down 2-3 banana tree leaves that serve as the base for the chipa as it is put in the tatakua. A tatakua is a small brick oven that is made from cheap adobe bricks formed around iron rebar, and covered with adobe paste. One heats the tatakua exclusively by burning wood. Needless to say that Paraguay utilizes the tatakua for many other cooking purposes, and is therefore South America’s number one per capita consumer of firewood as a result. Once oven is hot enough you throw in the chipas much like you would for a pizza in a brick oven, wait 15-20 minutes and before you know it you are chewing on a delicious piece of golden brown chipa. Unfortunately, right out of the oven and hot is really the only time that it is chewable without having the fear of breaking ones teeth. You can reheat it the next day, but it’s not the same, and after 2 days of sitting out it is close to inedible. In reality, chipa can be eaten at all times of day regardless of the weather and temperature. Most commonly it is eaten for breakfast with a steaming cup of cocido, which is burnt yerba mate and burnt sugar brought to a boil with water or milk then drank scalding hot with copious amounts of sugar that makes feel like you are contracting diabetes and cancer at the same time. Families all over Paraguay make chipa the week leading up to Easter, and eat it throughout. It is an important food, but a more important component of a happy family that lives and shares together. It kind of reminds me of making Christmas cookies with my Mom and Grandma during the holiday season.
      As for my personal opinion concerning chipa, all I’ll say is that it is an acquired taste. I’ll eat it, especially when its fresh, but I am not sure that I would be able to eat it frequently without wanting to kill myself as it sits in my stomach like a brick. Since arriving I have seen chipa made in many places, particularly close to where I live, and just like anything everyone has their specific methods and details that go into making their own family’s chipa. I guess what it was about the whole culture of the flaky, rock hard, Paraguayan indulgence that inspired me to write about it again has to do with the fact that it is Easter again, and I am not home with my family, again. Although everything about the taste and the process of making it is totally unique, the values transcend culture, and make me a bit homesick. With that I’d like to say Happy Easter to my family at home particularly to my Mom and Grandma who I am sure made something special, that I cannot wait to have again soon, for everyone at home.


The final product

No comments:

Post a Comment