by Mario Machado—
Yesterday I wrote about a fish soup served by my Paraguayan host family, and today I’ll continue on that theme. Disclaimer: This meal is not for the weak of heart. When the meal begins, the situation resembles more or less a familial version of culinary anarchy. Utensils lurch forward, every man for himself, grasping at chunks of fish and mouthfuls of broth. Each bite brings the inevitable crunch of bones, which must then be “fished” out of one’s mouth and tossed to the ground. The family dogs dodge expertly between legs and under the table; for animals that don’t get fed often, fish soup is the best meal of the week.
Inevitably, when the level of broth has dropped disproportionately to the level of piled fillets, family members reach for full sides of the fish and eat them by hand. My host father then does something that will never cease to amaze me. Somewhere in the mix and mash of fish anatomy, he locates the first fish head. Removing it from the bowl with his favorite ladle (which he prefers over a small spoon on fish soup nights), he begins to literally suck the face off of the underlying fish facial bone. Nothing is spared—lips, brains, eyes—everything is sucked dry in less than a minute. When he is finished, a stark white fish skull is left resting in his hand. The dogs never flock to my host father—he doesn’t waste a thing, not a single slice of flesh. He tosses the skull, the ultimate trophy of his fishing and consumptive prowess, and continues the wildness that is fish soup. Viva Paraguay.
I have tried eating a fish face and I must say, it is much more difficult than it looks. One must carefully navigate the small bone structure and strip away small pieces of flesh from around the eyes and mouth. When it comes to internals such as brains, sucking usually works best. As for lips, they are easy to figure out, for one only need give the fish a light kiss and breathe deeply and the entire front of the face slides right off the bone. The eyes, oh the eyes, I have never quite been able to get my head around—it might take a little more time to work up to those. From what I hear, the eyes are quite salty and taste wonderful with a slice of Paraguayan cheese. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Fish soup represents the best of Paraguay. Although they live in one of the poorest countries in South America (in front of only Bolivia), Paraguayans have risen to the occasion and created a culture that embraces challenges and remains perpetually tranquilo. The nation itself has gone through drastic changes throughout history—losing 90 percent of its male population in the Triple Alliance war, suffering under 30 years of the Stroessner dictatorship, and, currently, finding its way with a fledgling and often faltering democracy—but this has not dampened the Paraguayan spirit. Despite everything, fish soup brings families together to eat and laugh after long days of work and following brief games of soccer, played in haste before the sun sets over the palm trees. No matter what the future might have in store for this beautiful country, there will always be fish soup and everything else uniquely Paraguayan on which to rely.
Feeling well fed today,