Thursday, May 1, 2014

Semana Santa 3 Ways | Part 1

Paraguay’s National Snack, Chipa: Fat, Eggs, Cheese, Anise Seed, Salt, Milk, Mandioca Starch, and Corn Meal.

Kevin and I started hearing about Semana Santa the week we arrived in our community. An event bigger than Christmas, our host mom made it clear from day one that she expected us to participate in her celebration and did not want to hear any nonsense about us visiting friends in other sites. Next year, she explained, we could do what we wanted. This first year we belonged to her. In an afternoon in August, she cemented our plans for the following April.

Semana Santa refers to the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. Growing up, I remember solemnly observing Holy Thursday and Good Friday, but didn’t pay much mind to the rest of the week. In Paraguay, most preparations start on Wednesday--the principle day for preparing food (primarily chipa) for the rest of the week.

A side note about Queso Paraguaya: Somewhere between mozzarella and feta, this cheese plays a role in most Paraguayan dishes. Consumed both fresh or when it’s mature, some cooks speed the aging process up by leaving young cheese in the sun for a few hours. Volunteers either love or hate Queso Paraguaya. There is no in between.

By siesta on Thursday afternoon, no one engages in anything high energy. The local parish priest serving in our highly conservative, proudly Catholic town recommends that on Friday people avoid even speaking. As all the women in our host family work outside the home and did not have Wednesday off, we planned to cook all morning on Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, our host mom informed us that she intended to start preparing chipa around 7am. After nine months with this woman, we understood this figure as an early estimate. Although we arrived in her kitchen technically an hour late, we still beat our sister-in-law by forty minutes. Greeted by a mountain of flour and an oversized bag of pork fat, we quickly learned a hitch in the plan. Our host father, who maintained an informal business selling eggs to the neighbors, sold off nearly his entire stock the night previous.

During the brief period where we had power, the television program switched between infomercials for the George Foreman grill and a cartoon where Jackie Chan (the actor, not the Paraguayan dog) battled Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers.
Evidently he assumed the chickens would line up their “A” game for the big holiday, however these birds missed the memo. Our meal required only eight ingredients; and we were missing a big one. Already off to a late start--and with every store in town closed for the holiday weekend--we had no choice but to wait for the hens.

Bad Journalism Alert: This photo is fraudulent. My 
host mom only allowed me to touch the chipa batter 
long enough to take one picture. Luckily, that was 
plenty of time to leave my hands stinking of 
pork fat and old cheese for the rest of the day.
Luckily, we had enough raw material to make a tiny batch of “special” chipa for our lactose intolerant nephew. Our host mom had me watch as she kneaded anise seeds, salt, mandioca starch, and corn flour with non-dairy fats and a splash of water. Once the mixture hit just the right consistency, she rolled out the dough into tube shapes and sliced the bread into bite size pieces. Carefully she laid each piece across a large banana leaf before setting it aside to wait for its turn in the oven.

As my family refuses to believe that I have any culinary experience, I was not allowed to help prepare the chipa in any sort of meaningful way. Instead, my host mother insisted on taking one photograph where she had me pretend to roll out dough and then relegated me chicken chopping duty. Unfortunately, years of vegetarianism have hindered my development in the meat department and my mediocre deboning only served to perpetuate my reputation as a poor cook.

By a quarter to ten the hens finally got on board and offered up enough bounty for sopa, but not yet chipa. About the same time, wild weather moved into town. Grey clouds made their presence known from dawn, but when the wind picked up it brought with a dust storm of biblical proportions. Eventually the near microbursts transitioned into a downpour for the remainder of the afternoon.

Kevin runs to close up our house in the dust storm.
Then the lights went out. As we sat in the dark, I watched my host mom and sister-in-law fill empanada shells by candle light. (Some of you may recall the one incident when they allowed me to help with this task. During my first try, a couple of my pouches opened up while cooking, thus forever banning me from this job.) The indoor electric oven rendered useless by the power failure and the outdoor setup unavailable due to heavy rain, we arrived at an impasse. Eventually, the candles burnt out. For what felt like an eternity, we sat in the dark in silence waiting for chickens to lay eggs.

By late in the afternoon, the power restored and the hens cooperating, we made up for the morning’s hiccups and gathered for a big family lunch--a la the Last Supper. After the meal, we all retired to our homes for rest and reflection. Other neighbors brought us more chipa and the town went into hibernation throughout the weekend.

On Sunday morning, signs of life crept back in view, and we met again for Easter asado. Although that famous bunny never came up, my host sisters-in-law hide some candy around the house for the kids. After dinner we asked our host mom about how other parts of Paraguay celebrated this holiest of weeks. She furrowed her brow, grumbled something about fire in San Ignacio, assured us that it wasn’t worth the trouble, and suggested we confirm our plans to spend next Semana Santa with her as well.

My host mother supervises as Kevin adds woods to the oven. Many families bake their chipa (and other items) in a large, brick outdoor oven called a tatakua (very similar to the outdoor pizza ovens that you see featured on HGTV high-end remodeling jobs.) My host family prefers to use this smaller, wood-burning metal oven.

My host parents carefully load a batch of chipa into the oven. During Semana Santa, many people have fun with their chipa and sculpt their bread into different shapes. Since one of the grandkids has allergy issues, we kept things simple and baked pieces in two shapes: one safe for him to eat and the other hands off.

Chipa Central: pieces ready for baking, banana leaves, mate dulce, and coquitos (think plain croutons) for snacking.

¡Chipa Caliente! The banana leaves act like parchment paper. 

Fresh chipa is airy and soft. After a few hours, however, this snack turns into a weapon, harder than most rocks.

Stayed tuned to learn if the trip to San Ignacio was worth the trouble in Semana Santa 3 Ways | Part 2!

Mima, aka Chipa Cat, loves chipa like Garfield loves lasagna.

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