Paraguay and Uruguay are not extremely similar countries from a culinary point of view. In fact, they aren’t even neighbours, being separated by Argentina. However, they are both a bit too small/culinarily limited (at least, from what I can find on the internet) to address separately, and are surrounded by relative giants of cuisine, so I decided to explore them together. Also, they both end in “guay”, so that’s similar enough, right? The two countries do share some similarities, such as a deep and passionate love of “asado” (barbeque), as well as a mix between indigenous ingredients and Mediterranean influences. Uruguay, however, has retained fewer traditional indigenous recipes, as the colonists reportedly didn’t trust the native food, choosing to maintain their traditional European ways the best they could. Whereas only 2.4% of Uruguayans report having indigenous ancestry, 95% of the Paraguayan population is of partial indigenous descent. This may be part of the reason that indigenous ingredients and preparations are more prevalent in Paraguay. Another quirk of Paraguayan cuisine is that it is traditionally all heavily calorific, containing liberal dashes of lard and cheese in most recipes. This is thought to stem from the aftermath of the Paraguayan War in the 1800s, when food was limited and so home cooks sought to adapt everyday recipes to make them as filling and nourishing as possible in order to stretch them a little further among family members.
Chivito is widely considered to be the national dish of Uruguay, and, at the risk of sounding ineloquent, it can be best described as a super awesome sandwich. It starts with white bread or buns, filled with mayonnaise, tomatoes, olives, lettuce, cheese, pancetta or ham and a fried egg, finally topped with a succulent piece of grilled beef steak. This last ingredient is called churrasco, and in itself barbecued steak is a close contender for the national dish of Uruguay, with the country producing some of the finest beef in the world. A Uruguayan barbecue over hot coals (called an “asado”) is famous for being the ultimate dream of a hungry carnivore. Like all great sandwiches, chivito is flexible, and other potential ingredients therefore include salad items such as cucumber, beetroot, or red capsicum. The word “chivito” is a diminutive of the word for goat “chivo”, referring to a young goat/kid. Young goats are commonly barbecued in neighbouring Argentina and legend has it that the name for the sandwich was born when an Argentinian woman requested some in a Uruguayan restaurant on the final day of 1944. The famous chef, Antonio Carbonaro, lacking goat meat, gave her a steak sandwich instead, and so chivito was born! The sandwich is undeniably delicious, and often commented on as greater than the sum of its parts. So beloved is this dish in Uruguay that there has been speculation that infamous Uruguayan football star, Luis Suárez, bit the ear of the opposing team player because he was having withdrawals from chivito while staying in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Nobody could argue that chivito is truly a sandwich you can sink your teeth into!
Bori bori, also sometimes called vori vori, is a yellow Paraguayan soup that contains little dumpling balls made of cornmeal and cheese. It usually contains a protein, such as beef shank, or, as I’ve used, chicken. The name comes originally from the Spanish word “bolita” meaning little ball, and was then modified by the indigenous Guarani language, in which repetition signifies abundance, and therefore “bori bori” would mean “many little balls”. Apparently the size of the balls is important, and should be around the size of a large grape. There is even a name for balls that are made too small: “tu’i rupi’a” meaning “parakeet eggs”: how shameful! I made my soup by browning whole chicken breasts in oil, then frying some onion, carrot, celery and capsicum. To this I added chopped tomato, the shredded chicken and chicken stock, and then boiled until the ingredients were soft and melded. I made the little balls by combining while cornmeal, white cheese, fat from the top of the soup and egg, then boiled them separately so as not to cloud my soup. I found that Paraguay is no exception to my suspicion that every country has a version of a restorative chicken soup that is nourishing and delicious. Indeed, bori bori is purportedly one of the few traditional Paraguayan meals that transcends class boundaries and is eaten in every layer of society, from the most humble of rustic dinner tables, to the fanciest of elegant banquets.
Pastel de carne
The Uruguayan “pastel de carne” means “meat pie”, and is basically a lot like a cottage pie, with a few South American flairs. Beef mince is first fried along with onions, garlic, capsicum and celery and spiced with plenty of pepper and oregano. This is combined with hard boiled eggs, and, optionally, some raisins and olives, then topped with a thick layer of fluffy mashed potato. Grated cheese is finally added to the top, and the casserole is cooked in the oven until the top is brown and bubbling. I’ve always loved cottage pie, but honestly, pastel de carne is much better. Whoever thought of adding cheese to the top is a genius, and the addition of eggs, sweet raisins, and salty olives is a wonderful improvement. Usually I refrain from presenting meals partially eaten, because I know that if I start eating them, I may get a little carried away and, before you know it, there’ll only be three photos for the week. However, I made an exception to this rule because I couldn’t stand not showing the wonderful mince filling under the potato crust!
Pira caldo and sopa Paraguaya
If, like me, you have a smattering of Spanish, you may have already inferred that “sopa Paraguaya” means “Paraguayan soup” and refers to the red soup in the picture, and that “pira caldo” must mean something else? You would be wrong, however, and I was very confused by the terminology in the planning for this week! Pira caldo refers to the pictured Paraguayan fish soup, with “pira” meaning “fish” in the indigenous Guarani language, and “caldo” meaning “broth” in Spanish. As Paraguay is landlocked, the fish in question is usually freshwater, such as catfish. Vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and capsicums are first fried with fat, and then the fish stock, tomato puree along with herbs and spices, such as chilli, coriander and parsley, are added to make a hearty broth. The triangular yellow thing on the side of the soup in my picture is called sopa Paraguaya, and despite being called a soup, is actually more like a cornbread. There are a few stories behind the name, one of which involves the first constitutional president of Paraguay, Don Carlos Antonio López, whose large physique advertised his deep love of food, especially thick soups flavoured with milk, cheese, eggs and corn flour. One day, one of his cooks added a bit too much corn flour to his lunch of soup, and, lacking the time to start over again, decided to just put it in the clay oven and see how it went. Inevitably it made a moist dense bread, which the governor adored, jokingly naming the solid soup “sopa Paraguaya” thereafter. It’s made by first combining yellow corn meal, white cheese, yellow cheese, fat, milk, sugar and fried, finely diced vegetables such as onion, capsicum and corn, into a very thick dough. This is then placed in a skillet and baked in the oven until the outside is browned and the inside is cooked and steaming, sliced, and served as an accompaniment to any other meal. This dish was an absolute winner – I’ve tried and made many types of cornbread from the USA and I judge sopa Paraguaya as far superior to any of these. I think the rustic quality and inclusion of lots of chunky vegetables, including fresh corn, is what makes it so tasty. Oh, and the cheese doesn’t hurt either! The origin of this dish was likely from a fusion of Spanish settlers and indigenous Guaraní people, the latter having a long history of baking doughy breads made from corn or manioc flour wrapped in banana leaves in hot ashes. The Spanish added cheese, eggs and milk to this concept, creating a new dish beloved by both peoples. To my mind this dish is also similar to the many varieties of “chipa” throughout Paraguay, which are small baked bread rolls, often made with manioc flour, eggs and cheese, eaten for breakfast, as a snack, or accompanying any other meal.