EDITOR’S NOTE: The author just started a two year hitch in rural Paraguay.
BY ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH Tesho* and I were sharing maté**, passing the guampa** back and forth in the shadows of the kitchen, an attached hut with a smoke-blackened thatch ceiling, an open fireplace and its ash-encrusted pots, and a wooden table that held a motley array of bowls, pans and enamel cups.
“Santo***, you should make some mandio chiryry****,” he said.
“Ok,” I said. “Are you going to eat it if I make it?”
“Yea, I’m hungry,” he said.
Mildly perplexed, I skipped out of the kitchen to look for Ña Dora*****(pictured above), who was grinding corn with her daughter and granddaughter for chipa****** later in the week.
“Na Dora, Tesho wants me to cook some mandio chiryry,” I said. “Can I make some?”
The three women traded looks and started giggling. That should have been my first clue.
“Ok Santo, I’ll help you,” Na Dora said.
Men cook in many parts of Paraguay. There are even men on my blog who I’ve seen slinging knives while grilling asado, or whipping up some pasta for the mid-day meal. But I have been eating with Na Dora and her family for the last month. The most they’ve seen me cook was American style coffee. Confidence is not at its highest, even for a dish like mandio chiryry – souped up hash browns made with egg, meat, cassava root, and green onion.
Still, my experience here has taught me that a “why not?” policy is the best way to go, if only to entertain my Paraguayan friends.
I started washing the green onion. Na Dora stood to the side, all mother hen, not even trying to resist giving instructions.
“You have to peel the tomato,” she said.
In the half-light of the single bulb in the room, I couldn’t see the frying pan. The stomach-grabbing giggling started when I poured just a few drops of oil into the pan.
In Na Dora’s family, the cooking experience of the men is limited to boiling water and pouring hot milk.
“No, not like that!” she yelped, reworking the chunks I’d just cut up, before dissolving in a high pitched fit of giggles that made her lean against the table for support. Her 14-year-old granddaughter was just as carbonated.
Tomato puree, meat, and water all goes into the pan, then the mandioca******* and a few pinches of salt.
“Use the other salt!” Na Dora said, hobbling over to the fire and chucking a fistful of the stuff into the pan. “It better be good,” she said. “If it isn’t good, you have to eat it all.”
We finished a few minutes later. Na Dora’s daughter and granddaughter refused to sample the stuff, and (after all that!) Tesho put it aside after a couple of nibbles, looking for his chewing tobacco. But Na Dora gave it a try.
“It’s not that bad,” she said.
The next day, she wandered over to my house while I was working on my new vegetable garden.
“Santo, come help in the kitchen!”
*The landlord of the house I live in – I often hang out with him and drink Mate.
**Maté is a sort of tea drunk in parts of Argentina and Brazil and Paraguay and Uruguay. To make it you put yerba (an herbe) in a guampa (a cup) along with a straw with a filter on the bottom of it. You pour hot water into it to create an infusion with the herbs and suck it up through the straw.
***Santo is what they call me here. St. John is too hard, so I made a play off of San Juan – which is St. John in Spanish.
****Mandio chiryry is basically stir fried meat, cassava root, and assorted veggies in an oil/tomato paste reduction. Pretty yummy.
*****Ña Dora is Tesho’s wife. It’s pronounced Nyah, the shortened form of Dona – which is the title for older women.
******Chipa is bread made with corn flour and almidon flour. Almidon is a flour made from cassava root, its really sticky.
*******Mandioca is just one of the names for cassava root – also known as yucca, mandio. It’s like a long fibrous potato, but more chewy after its been boiled.