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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Did a delicious mistake lead to this national dish?



Sopa Paraguaya, the dense and cheesy cornbread commonly served alongside grilled meats in Paraguay. Everyone agrees that this beloved national dish is one of a kind, though historians debate whether its creator was really an overzealous presidential chef. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews (David Malosh/The New York Times).

By Christina Morales


If you ever order sopa, or soup, in Paraguay, don’t expect to be served a steaming bowl of broth. What you’ll get instead is a dense and cheesy hunk of cornbread.


This bread, also known as sopa Paraguaya, is one of the country’s most popular dishes. Cornmeal, onion, cheese, milk and eggs are mixed together to make a custardy cornbread, with a texture similar to bread pudding, that is commonly served alongside grilled meats.


The bread can be difficult to find in the United States, where nearly 30,000 Paraguayans live — the smallest Latino group in the country, according to census data.


And it can be challenging for Paraguayan American cooks to ensure that the moist texture of the bread remains the same when using American ingredients. Instead of the creamy queso Paraguaya that’s traditional in the recipe, for instance, many chefs and cooks substitute similar cheeses like mozzarella, Muenster and Monterey Jack.


Nancy Ojeda opened I Love Paraguay, a restaurant in New York, in 2007 after selling three other restaurants in Paraguay. “We’ve seen people cry,” she said in Spanish of her customers’ reactions to her sopa. “They cannot believe it. They say it’s the same taste from Paraguay.”


There are many origin stories about the bread, all with a similar gist: In the mid-1800s, when Carlos Antonio López was the president of Paraguay, corn soup was often served for lunch. But one day, the president’s chef got carried away with the cornmeal and added too much. In an attempt to fix the dish, the chef put the sopa into the oven and served it to the president as cornbread. The leader loved the bread so much that he decreed it a national dish and named it sopa Paraguaya.


Paraguayans have been making the sopa ever since, said Bridget María Chesterton, a history professor at Buffalo State University. But the first published version of the recipe was from a 1931 cookbook by Raquel Livieres de Artecona.


Other Paraguayans, like Liliana Rodas de Araujo, said the bread was being baked for many years before the presidential chef’s mistake. Rodas de Araujo said the Cario-Guaraní — a group of Indigenous Paraguayans who lived near her native city, Asunción — likely used native corn and baked a similar type of bread when they learned about dairy from Spanish colonists.


Rodas de Araujo opened Café Guaraní in 2019 in Pacific Grove, California, and has always served the sopa, but she is constantly tinkering with the recipe. She misses the techniques that made the bread unique in Paraguay, like using banana leaves as parchment paper or baking the bread in a mud oven. She hopes to recreate at least one of those elements soon with a pizza oven at her restaurant.


The recipe for the sopa Paraguaya served at Cafe Nena’i in Austin, Texas, was passed down to Gladys Benitez by her 85-year-old grandmother, who was a chef for a Paraguayan president. Every day, Benitez and her mother, Elena Sanguinetti, make about 20 thick pieces of the cornbread. They’ve also served the sopa with chorizo, as an appetizer during the pop-up dinners they started about a year ago.


Benitez was eager to connect with her roots, so she repeatedly asked her mother how to cook her grandmother’s Paraguayan recipes. “I would beg and cry to please get these recipes from my grandma,” she said.



Sopa Paraguaya (cheesy cornbread)


Recipe from Nancy Ojeda

Adapted by Christina Morales


Crisp at the edges and creamy in the center, this dense, cheesy cornbread from I Love Paraguay, a Paraguayan restaurant in New York City, has a texture similar to bread pudding. Paraguayans serve it for many meals in the country, but especially alongside asado (grilled meats). Although the bread is extremely popular, its true origins are murky. Many people will tell a similar story: In the mid-1800s, when Carlos Antonio López was the president of Paraguay, he liked to eat corn soup. But his chef made a mistake and added too much cornmeal, and instead served the president a cornbread. The president reportedly loved it so much that he named it sopa Paraguaya. But others say that the bread has deeper roots from the Cario-Guaraní, a group of Indigenous people in Paraguay, who made a similar type of cornbread.


Yield: 12 to 16 servings

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours



Ingredients:


1 cup corn oil

1 large yellow onion, finely diced

1½ teaspoons fine sea salt

1 cup corn kernels (canned or fresh)

8 large eggs, whites and yolks separated

4 cups/566 grams precooked yellow cornmeal (preferably P.A.N.)

4 cups whole milk

2 1/4 cups/8 ounces grated Muenster or mozzarella



Preparation:


1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a little bit of the oil, grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, add the oil and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the salt and let the onions cool down for 5 to 10 minutes.

3. While that cools, transfer the corn kernels to a blender and blend them into a coarse purée, scraping down the side of the blender as needed; set aside.

4. In a stand mixer (or large bowl), beat the egg whites on medium-high with the whisk attachment until they are light, frothy and uniformly white, about 2 minutes (or 3 to 4 minutes if whisking by hand). They should at least triple in volume. Next, whisk in the yolks, one at a time; set aside.

5. In a very large bowl, combine the cornmeal and the puréed corn, mixing by hand with a rubber spatula until well incorporated. Then add the cooked onion with all of the corn oil and mix again until no dry streaks remain. Stir in about half the milk. Next, add all of the cheese and about half of the egg mixture and fold until combined, pulling the wet mixture from the edges into the center. Add the rest of the egg mixture and milk and fold until fully combined. (The mixture will look wet, similar to a cake batter.) Transfer to the baking pan.

6. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the top is golden brown. (If you place a toothpick or knife through the center, it should come out clean.) Let it cool for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. (The sopa is best enjoyed while still warm. It will firm up as it rests.) The sopa will keep, covered tightly in aluminum foil, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, or frozen for up to one month.

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