“Live your passion and you will never fail.” – inallouryears
October 31, 2014
Halloween is known in Paraguay as The Day of the Witch or El Dia de la Bruja. Appropriately so, my women’s club – who prefer to be called the Witches Club (club de brujas)- met today for a little mischief-making. Rumor got around that yours truly, Bruja Wendia, was wearing true witch’s gear – a green face, black dress, heels, and giant hat – which brought all the kids and the school principal out of class to spy on us through the windows. haha! FUN TIMES!
Earlier in the day I’d been invited to make breakfast with a senora across the street. She was determined to teach me to make mbeju, a classic Paraguayan recipe, before I left. Never had making breakfast been so much fun.
We started by putting the carbs together: mandioca starch (called almidon de mandioca) plus some frozen cornmeal I brought from home. The cornmeal had chunks that required a hammer to break, which was pretty hilarious pounding away at the bag at the crack of dawn. Add butter, sunflower oil, warm milk, and a bit o’ salt and mix with the HANDS. When I reached for a spoon to stir it the senora acted as if I’d committed a felony of some sort. Didn’t I know that the dough is mixed ONLY with the HANDS? We laughed and she retreated to the backyard to prepare the fire. When she returned I was playfully chastised for being slow. I called it being ‘thorough’. Her sister appeared from next door at this time and I said “My teacher is angry. I’m not fast enough.” Not only did we all laugh, they seemed to think it was the best joke ever.
Once the dough, or masa, was ready we made our way to the fogon in the backyard. A fogon is like a brick cookstove, usually with a cook top and an oven. She produced 2 frying pans and we loaded the dough in each.
Essentially, the dough inside congeals to the consistency of a gumdrop and when it becomes golden brown underneath you flip it like a pancake. Here is the senora demonstrating for me (and repeating multiple times to ensure I got a good photo – haha!) then I took my turn. Because we were cooking over an open fire, the timing is sensitive. Here I am flipping mid-bite because when it’s time to flip and you have an ‘angry teacher’, you flip. Just for the record, my teacher was everything BUT angry but she loved when I called her that.
It wasn’t long before word got around the neighborhood that the Norte was learning to make mbeju and no less than seven neighbors showed up to watch. No pressure. And the senora loved retelling the story to each person of how we burned our first mbeju of the day: she put cardboard into the fire which grew the flame too quickly and she wasn’t paying close enough attention to warn me. Thus, a burnt but edible sample. During my few moments alone I took in the sights: a goat wandering in and out of the kitchen, a cocky rooster looking to steal some crumbs, a parade of ducklings, beautiful and fragrant jasmine blossoms, outhouse, biodigester… you know, the usual. haha
It took 2 hours to make 6 mbeju ‘pancakes’, start to finish, two of which she gave me to take home. Early in my service, a senora once said to me “It is good to work for your food.” I’ve always believed that to be satisfyingly true.
I can just smell the dirt, the air, the fire and yes that delicious Mbeju. Thanks for keeping my Paraguayan memories alive.
Sally Head RPCV Paraguay 1992-1995
What an amazing experience you have had. The many friends you have made are woven into the tapestry that is your life. It is now filled with bring Paraguayan designs and colors.