What is Paraguayan cuisine? Does it even exist? Would I want to eat it if it did?
As a New Yorker used to sampling the world’s cuisines at my doorstep, I was excited to answer these questions when I arrived in Paraguay. After consulting with my concierge I found my way through the dark outskirts of Asunción, the country’s capital, in search of a humble but innovative restaurant called Kamambu. Evidently others had asked this same question, for Kamambu’s proprietor and chef, a voluble pleasant man in his forties named Vidal Dominguez (pictured above), had thrown the full weight of his talents into unearthing his country’s gustatory roots even as a rising tide of international fast food threatens to bury them forever.
It was 7:00 PM, American dinner time, but in Paraguay it was still several hours off so when I stepped into the restaurant I had Chef Vidal all to myself. He quickly whisked me over to a corner table and began a procession of dishes that opened my eyes not only to the country’s flavors, but its very essence.
First up was a soup called vori vori moroti, cornmeal dumplings in a broth of wine and chicken made vaguely white by milk and artisan Paraguayan cheese. Like much of Paraguay, it is a soup of many cultures. The wine came to Paraguay from the Middle East and the dumplings are a reversioning of Jewish kneidlakh, which hitched a ride with the Andalusian Spaniards in the conquest of America.
Next up came a combination plate split in two to represent the diverse tastes of Marshal Francisco Solano Lopez, the second constitutional president of Paraguay, and Madam Eliza Lynch, his Irish consort. On the left side of the plate was a partridge sautéed with bechamel sauce, cheese, and tomatoes with olive oil and oregano. The dish—called chululu—was the madame’s preference. Alongside this partridge was president Lopez’s favorite, a beef tenderloin marinated in lemon, pepper, garlic, and cumin. In the 19th century, the two traversed the country gathering recipes and putting them together into what is the only compendium of recipes to be found in the country.
With these various dishes, chef Vidal had pretty much filled up every place I had for food in my body. But there was still so much more to try. I told him that I was due to go fishing on one of the country’s great rivers. He told me to bring the fish back and he’d cook it up for me. Fates were against me though and I failed to land a fish. “Come anyway” he texted me from Asuncion. “We’ll still eat Paraguayan fish.”
He wasn’t kidding. After a brief sip of the traditional terere drink, we dove in fin first. A pira package came out first. It was, according to Chef Vidal, one of eleven cooking techniques that the Guarani Indians invented. A kind of papillot but made naturally. Within a sheet of banana leaf was a deliciously poached suribit fish in a light and pleasant sauce of oregano, tomato, onion, and garlic cream cheese. Afterwards came a grilled pacu fish, a creature that looks vaguely like a piranha in its whole form. Bony but tasty. I still had room. Good thing, too, for next was mandi, a creamy oregano-flecked concoction with a whole fish, head and all, poached at the bottom. For those not interested in fighting bones there was still more. A surubi milanese—the famed Paraguyan catfish—sliced thin, marinated in lemon pepper, lightly breaded, and fried with lime as a spritzer.
There was no room again but still dessert came. Three preserved fruit flans accompanied by queso paraguayano, a salty feta like substance that was less harsh than its European equivalent.
I can safely say that Paraguyan cuisine, while threatened with extinction, does in fact exist. That it is subtle but full of grandiose ambitions. And that I loved eating it and would eat it again if I only could. And I just might. Rumor has it, Chef Vidal is considering opening up a branch in Queens.
Photos courtesy of Kamambu
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