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 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, birds) are all consumed often and in variable quantities with the rare treat of a slaughtered family pig thrown in the mix. Mandioc, a fibrous starchy root plant, is incredibly cheap and immensely resilient as a crop and therefore, finds its way easily onto every lunchtime or diner-time table; the one thing that there is no shortage of in Paraguay is mandioc.
For my host family, 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 times, 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 families diet. Twice a week, he clambers onto 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 am in order to catch a few in the Rio Pirana and return home in time for diner with the family.
This is where it gets interesting. There are several main ways that Paraguayans eat their fish: pescado milanese (which is lightly breaded and fried), pescado frita (which is just pan fried in oil) and the family favorite, sopa de peascado, 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 several steps: gutting, descaling, then cutting the entire carcass into 4 or 5 large pieces (head, tail and everything in between) before tossing it into the broth. This stews for around 2 hours or so 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 select and wield their respective spoons. Just a 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 like vultures at a christmas feast; for animals that don’t get fed often, fish soup is the best day of the week.
Inevitably, when the level of broth has dropped disproportionately to the level of piled filets, family members reach for full sides of the fish and eat them by hand. My host father then accomplishes a task 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 then begins to literally suck the face off of the underlying fish facial bone. Nothing is spared--lips, brains, eyes--everything is sucked dry and 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 usually waste a single 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 Paraguaya.
I have tried eating a fish face before 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 the mouth. Then, 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 breath 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. As one of the poorest countries in South America (in front of only Bolivia), there is certainly no lack of poverty and no lack of need. And yet, with a simple grace and demeanor, 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--loosing 90% of its male population in the Triple Alliance war, suffering under 30 years of the Strossner 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.
From the land of fish,