Cooking a chipa caburé in a tatakua is surprisingly like roasting a marshmallow in a campfire. After wrapping dough around a stick, you place it just barely inside the edge of the domed brick oven and rotate it slowly. Get too close to the wood fire and the exterior burns; rotate it just enough and it browns beautifully as the inside cooks through, ready to be slid off the stick and eaten hot.
I roasted my first ever chipa caburé – a corn, cheese and manioc starch cake the size of a corn dog with a doughnut hole where the dog would be – on a recent Saturday in the home of María Jacinta Leguizamón. Doña Jacinta, as she is known, lives in Asunción, the rarely visited capital of the rarely visited (and landlocked) country of Paraguay. On weekends she runs an informal prepared-foods service out of her humble home for the Loma San Jerónimo neighborhood, selling traditional foods like chicharo huiti (pork meat coated in corn meal) and sopa paraguaya, a tender cornbread. Nearby were the tatakua, a couple of gobbling turkeys and a slew of family members. “She’s anti-commercial,” her daughter-in-law, Zunilda Arce, a pediatrician, told me. “She does it the way you’re supposed to do it.”
I was not there by accident: Loma San Jerónimo is the site of a nascent project by Paraguay’s tourism ministry and local residents to promote the neighborhood, which somehow escaped the grid system that characterizes downtown Asunción, all but eliminating vehicular traffic and making its alleyways and passages perfect for kids to play and visitors to wander. Houses have been painted bright and inviting colors, cute signs put up and a weekend street market organized. (See their Facebook page or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
Cuzco and Rio de Janeiro need not fear: Asunción, a city of about 500,000, is not poised to become the next tourism capital of South America. But it is a fascinating window into Paraguayan history and culture. Over the last 150 years, the country has been beaten up by two punishing wars and one wicked dictatorship, but has emerged with a fierce and peculiar independent spirit represented by (among other things) a national indigenous language — Guaraní — that just about everyone mixes liberally with Spanish. The city…