An unforgiving sun beats down on the estancia Santa Irene, an isolated ranch in the province of Concepción, deep in the heart of rural Paraguay. Although the ranch is situated along the cool river Tagatiya, the heat and humidity are so unbearable at noon that everyone, from the family members who work there to my group of culinary adventurers, takes a nap to escape the oppressive, 107-degree day at its worst.
Paraguay is a country of extremes. Extreme poverty, extreme wealth, extreme heat, and extreme subtropical rainfall dictate the way of life. We found ourselves at the estancia only because we couldn’t drive any farther. The roads were impassable, flooded by the downpours of the previous three days. Despite the fact that Paraguay is a landlocked country sandwiched between Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, with all of its trade and travel carried out by land, only 11 percent of its roads are paved.1 When the rain is as heavy as it was during our journey, the country is paralyzed.
Firewood vendors on the red dirt road leading to the estancia Santa Irene, Concepción, Paraguay. Photograph by Sanra Ritten © 2007
But the unscheduled stop turned out to be a fortuitous one. After our sweaty naps (during which no one actually managed to sleep), our hosts invited us into their kitchen to learn how to make Paraguay’s single most important staple, the chipa. Balanced atop the head of every street vendor in the city and sold alongside every country roadside, these small, savory breads are sold by the bagful for under a dollar. The vendors, known as chiperas (a word that also refers to those who make them), have helped to transform the chipa into an identifying symbol of Paraguay throughout Latin America.
The primary ingredient of chipa is manioc flour, ground from a native tuber that is also known as mandioca, yucca, cassava, and tapioca root. Long before the Spanish introduced wheat to the New World in the fifteenth century, the indigenous Guaraní depended for sustenance on this tuber-of-many-names, as much as they depended on corn. Historically important in Brazil as well as in Paraguay, manioc is found throughout much of the Americas. Yet evidence of the calorie-rich root’s ancient cultivation was discovered only recently, in an ancient Mayan village of El Salvador.2
Fresh milk, an important ingredient for chipa. Photograph by Sanra Ritten © 2007
In Paraguay, manioc dishes are the mainstay of the rural poor because the vegetable thrives in poor to mediocre soil. Manioc is used to make mbeju, a flat, pancake-like bread usually eaten in the morning. It is also often the agent used to thicken soups and sauces. As for the iconic chipa, its ingredients, in addition to manioc flour, are lard, eggs, milk, anise, salt, and, optionally, a Paraguayan farmer’s cheese that is hard and salty.
At the estancia, I watch as Armi Vera and Anastasia Coronel, who live and work on the ranch with their families, mix together lard and eggs. They laugh at my notebook and fancy camera, amused by my interest in something so mundane as the bread for their daily meals. Almost everyone in their world knows the simple technique of making chipas.
Chipa, the iconic Paraguayan food, is made and sold by men, women, and children alike. Photograph by Sanra Ritten © 2007
Armi adds the anise and salt, and then slowly pours in the milk, which comes from cows milked each morning at sunrise by Andrés and Juan Carlos, two young men who also work on the ranch. Only a bucket a day is necessary for the needs of the ranch; the rest of the milk is sold to people nearby and made into cheese, including the one that enhances this bread.
Anastasia adds the flour, and then the two women take turns kneading the dough until it has a dry, lumpy consistency. Meanwhile, their children run around the kitchen, distracting everyone and generally making a ruckus. To get them to sit still for a while, they are given some cocido negro. In rural Paraguay, cocido negro is a popular beverage, especially loved by children because of its caramel sweetness. The process of making it had begun the night before, when Juan Carlos mixed equal parts of sugar and the South American herbal tea yerba maté in a metal bowl with a piece of hot charcoal. By stirring the dry ingredients with the fiery chunk of wood, he caramelized the sugar, turning the mixture into a dark-brown liquid. After adding boiling water, Juan Carlos poured the contents of the bowl through a strainer into a kettle. The resulting cocido negro resembles coffee.
The chipa dough is placed on banana leaves to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the oven. Photograph by Sanra Ritten © 2007
When the dough for the chipas is ready, Armi and Anastasia prepare large banana leaves by tearing them into strips along their fibrous veins. Then they break off portions of dough the size of their palms, rolling and flattening each one into a rectangle to fit onto a piece of leaf. Together they roll out over eighty chipas because, as Armi says, if you are going to bother making them, you should make a lot.
The banana leaves keep the chipas from sticking to the bottom of the tatakúa, the traditional brick-and-mud oven in which chipas are baked. Andrés gathers small branches and prepares the fire, and soon flames spew from the front and back openings of the tatakúa, which means “fire hole” in Guaraní. When the flames die down, Andrés rakes the oven floor with a large wooden pole, leaving only glowing charcoal behind. Although the tatakúa can be used to bake several other foods, it is essential for making chipas. The prepared dough is slipped into the oven on a wooden paddle. Then the oven’s openings are stuffed with leaves and sticks to trap the heat.
After the wood coals have been shoveled out of the traditional brick-and-mud oven, the chipa is baked in the heat left behind. Photographs by Sanra Ritten © 2007
During the hour it takes for the chipas to bake, the adults gather at the table for a refreshing round of tereré. Like cocido negro, tereré is a drink based on yerba maté. It is sipped through metal straws, or bombillas, from large cups, guampas, which are hollowed-out bull’s horns. Paraguayans drink their tereré cold, mixed with water kept in large coolers. The coolers are also filled with fresh medicinal and aromatic herbs. Tereré is essential for surviving the heat, and the yuyos, or herbs, provide important vitamins and minerals to a people who have a rather restricted diet of manioc and meat.
When the chipas are done, the women lay them out on a table to cool. Soon enough, they are ready to eat. They are more than chewy—they’re very dense, almost hard, yet the anise and cheese lend a subtle, almost delicate flavor. Diego, a chef from Buenos Aires who is part of our group, suggests adding baking powder to make the dough rise higher and the bread softer. “But then it wouldn’t be chipa!” Armi exclaims. The simple, traditional recipe must be followed exactly to recall the essence of rural Paraguay: its subtropical forests, red dirt roads, and brutal heat.
2. “First Ancient Manioc Fields In Americas Discovered,” Science Daily, 24 August 2007. See www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070820122541.htm.