Confessions of an (ex) vegetarian
That was that. I had decided to let go of my vegetarian years and my granola, almond milk and chia seeds breakfasts. It was time to embrace a carnivorous Paraguayan life. I present to you reader, an insight into my culinary journey.
Just to give you an idea, meat features in just about every meal in Paraguayan culture and agriculture is indeed the country’s biggest industry. A Sunday lunch would most likely consist of pork or chancho in Castilian. Cassava or yam is an absolute must and it is confusingly referred to in Spanish as both mandioca and yuca in South America.
It was not rare to see a recently sacrificed cow hanging off the back of a motorbike, or unidentifiable ligaments sprawled out on the stone table in the garden being prepped for lunch. As I would head out for a run before the heat of the day set in, I would see meat cuttings being hung out on the porch ready to be cooked for an asado at midday.
My limits were slightly pushed when the pig in my back garden was killed. Luckily my family were thoughtful enough to wait until I had gone away for the day to do the deed. Unfortunately however, that was not the last I saw of Mr. Piggy. That rainy Sunday, I thought it was a good day to bake a Mary Berry lemon drizzle cake for tea. When I opened the oven to cook the bake, a giant pig’s head jumped out at me, eyes in tact, lying peacefully on a baking tray. I felt as though I had been teleported into Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, where the surreal and extraordinary come into force in the kitchen.
Our town Santa Maria de Fe had a magical and stuck in time feel about it, and things never ceased to surprise me. Like everything in a faraway land, one learns to adapt and I do wholeheartedly believe that there is really nothing that brings you closer to a culture than sharing food. Anna, the other volunteer living in the town, invited me to an asado along with a family who had recently moved from Venezuela. Late that night Jose and Diego had just come in from a long day’s work sewing rice in a 38oC to earn what was far from the minimum wage. Spirits were lifted with light jokes and chatter while the barbecue got going. In between trying to keep up with the Venezuelan Spanish, hunks of pork hot off the grill were being tossed about.
The prized piranha came last. Landlocked Paraguay has several rivers running through it (ironically one being named the river Paraná), which make it an excellent source of fresh fish. The animal was identifiable only by its long, sharp teeth and popping eyeballs which half made me think it would leap right off the plate and bite my nose off. Anna bravely went straight for the head which was apparently the most delicious part. I have to say, it was actually delicious; smoky, succulent and by the end we were picking the flesh off the spiky bones. Washed down with some beer and it made for a lovely evening!
I drew the line at cow’s tongue and a number of different organs that Paraguayans like to throw in a stew with cassava. But by the end of my four months in Paraguay, I had come to the conclusion that meat is a whole different business over there. It is an essential part of the diet in a place where variety is extremely limited. The animal is valued and respected because no part is wasted. Despite being quite out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions, I really did try some delicious things and it feels wonderful to look back at my authentically Paraguayan experience. It also set me up for trying pork intestines at an Argentinian Christmas party, followed by roasted ants in Colombia! The culinary tales are to be continued.