Sopa paraguaya is the national dish of Paraguay and isn't a soup at all
Legend has it that a president's cook created it by accident
Residents of Paraguay sip yerba mate, a type of tea, all day long
In Paraguay’s capital city of Asuncion, residents amble down the streets with jugs and insulated cups of all shapes and sizes, sipping yerba mate tea through straws. (Or perhaps it’s terere, yerba mate’s cold counterpart, served heavy over ice.)
Locals and visitors alike might stroll past a food stall hawking bori bori, a thick soup of corn flour dumplings and chicken.
There’s also bife koygua to sample, beef smothered with fried onions and topped with a fried egg.
The more pescatarian-minded might try a bounty of fish like surubi, a type of bottom-dwelling catfish, and dorado, all straight from the Paraguay River.
But almost everyone will want to encounter one of the country’s most intriguing dishes, which came about as a serendipitous failure.
Sopa paraguaya, which means Paraguayan soup, is a misnomer. It is not even close to being a soup; in fact, it’s more akin to a cheesy cornbread.
As with any national dish, there is a certain amount of lore that stews around its origin.
Legend has it that Carlos Antonio Lopez, the corpulent and corrupt president-cum-dictator of Paraguay from 1841 to 1862, decided one day to feast upon a nice warming bowl of corn soup.
The cook accidentally put too much corn flour in the soup, and what came out was a solid rather than a liquid. Fearing Lopez’s notorious iron fist, the cook decided to slice and serve the cake-like soup with a bit of nationalistic advertising as sopa paraguaya.
To the cook’s luck, Lopez liked the marketing and, even more so, the newfangled sopa.
Nowadays, its a dish – the country’s national dish, at that – most often served at special occasions like Holy Week and weddings, but it’s too good a dish not to make at home from time to time.
Excerpted from “Mallmann On Fire” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Santiago Soto Monllor.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1¼ cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
3 onions, finely chopped
1½ cups whole milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1¼ cups finely diced fresh mozzarella
1. Heat an oven to 375°F, with a rack in the lower third. Brush a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan well with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and coat with ¼ cup of the cornmeal.
2. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the onions and saute until tender and translucent; do not let them brown. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
3. In a medium bowl, mix together the milk, beaten eggs, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and cooled onions.
Sprinkle one-third of the remaining cornmeal evenly over the bottom of the pan. Scatter one-third of the mozzarella evenly over it. Ladle one-third of the milk, egg and onion mixture over the cheese. Repeat two more times. The mixture will look quite wet.
4. Set the pan on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour, until puffed and golden brown and quite fluffy; do not let it get too firm, or it will be dry. Cool in the pan on a rack.
5. Run a metal spatula around the sides of the pan to loosen the sopa, place a platter or tray over the top and invert to unmold.