If there’s one food that defines my two years in Paraguay, it’s chipa. A bagel-shaped bread, chipa is a savory, dense snack food that tastes unique to the American palette. That’s probably because its main ingredients, which include the local staples of cassava flour and Paraguayan cheese, aren’t part of the American diet.
The word chipa originates from Guaraní, the indigenous language of Paraguay, meaning bread or cake. There are many different types of chipa, but the most common one is chipa almidón, made from cassava flour. This is the chipa I’ll be focusing on in this post but I hope to make other types in the future!
For Paraguayans, chipa is the ultimate everyday snack food. You can get it on street corners in Asunción, or from chiperas (chipa vendors) who board local and long distance buses to sell warm chipa to hungry passengers. There’s even the infamous Chipa Barrero truck that drives slowly through Asunción and the surrounding suburbs, selling chipa and simultaneously annoying everyone in its path with a megaphone blasting “Chipa Ba-rre-ro” (listen here and you will see how irritating it can be). (Here is another video about how Chipa Barrero was created, it’s a great example of local entrepreneurship; the video is only in Spanish but fun to watch regardless).
In the rural community that I lived in, chipa was sometimes sold door-to-door as a way for families to earn a bit of extra cash, or at community events like soccer games, parades, holidays, and fundraisers. It’s also made often in homes, using a brick over called a tatakua (literally, fire hole in Guaraní). It’s especially popular during holiday times (see how it’s used at Christmas in my earlier post), preparing for travel, and during Holy Week. Right now, Paraguayan households around the country are baking massive amounts of chipa to feed families and neighbors, as Paraguayan Catholics believe that Good Friday and Holy Saturday are days of rest and not for cooking.
Chipa is made with some key local ingredients, the defining one being cassava (also known as yuca or mandioca/manioc), a starchy root vegetable native to South America. Cassava is a major staple food in Paraguay and features prominently in the cuisine. In my community, most households had their own cassava fields and thus a home-grown cassava supply. The root is usually peeled and boiled, and it’s served alongside every meal. It can also be dried in the sun and then finely ground, producing flour used for baking foods such as chipa.
The other ingredient that gives chipa its defining taste is queso paraguayo (Paraguayan cheese), which is also produced in many Paraguayan households. This cheese is prepared using rennet, part of a cow’s digestive track, which curdles raw milk, allowing the separation of curd and whey. (PS – If this grosses you out, know that most cheeses are produced using rennet so…now you know.) The resulting cheese is unpasteurized, soft, and acidic – it has a very strong flavor when eaten raw which I never grew accustomed to, but it also provides distinctive flavor to traditional baked goods.
Coming into Holy Week, I was nostalgic for chipa and for Paraguay so I decided to attempt my own recipe. It wasn’t easy. First off, cassava flour, which can be found in nearly every Paraguayan household and is super cheap there, is hard to find and insanely expensive here. Ironically, it’s more likely to be found at health food stores because cassava is a gluten-free, paleo-friendly starch. Second, there’s no real way to reproduce the taste of queso paraguayo, but several websites recommended a mix of Parmesan and mozzarella so that’s what I used. And finally, the chipa was a bit trickier to shape and bake than I remembered. In my memory it was relatively easy, but in reality it was not so intuitive without Paraguayan supervision and I found myself getting frustrated quickly. Nevertheless, I was successful at making passable chipa for Holy Week. Happy Easter!
Mix the dry ingredients.
Making a well, whisk the eggs and milk into the flours. After, fold in the cheese and anise seeds.
Let it sit for 20 minutes at room temperature, then shape. Start by rolling the dough into balls…
…then carefully rolling it into a 10″ rope…
…then shaping into a circle!
Once you’ve shaped the chipa, bake for 15 minutes and you’re done! My chipa might not be as professional as a Paraguayan’s, but overall I was pleased. I highly recommend eating chipa directly out of the oven, as this is when they are at their most delicious. They have a tendency to harden over time.
- 2 cups of cassava flour
- 2 cups fine corn meal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup butter, unsalted
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 pound Parmesan cheese, grated
- 1/4 pound Mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1 teaspoon anise seed
- Large bowl
- Baking sheet
- Parchment paper is useful
- Whisk cassava flour, corn meal, and salt in large bowl. Cut in butter, using hands or a pastry cutter, until it is well-mixed with dry ingredients.
- Form a well in the center of the bowl. Whisk eggs and milk together in the well, slowly incorporating the dry mixture, until slightly mixed.
- Fold in the cheese and anise seeds. Mix well – I recommend using your hands to knead. The final dough should be dry, but pliable enough to shape. If you find that the dough is too crumbly to work with, add a tablespoon of milk and mix well.
- Let the dough rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Prepare the baking sheets by lining with parchment paper. Flour your hands and a clean surface for shaping the dough. Measure the dough into 4-ounce balls, then gently roll out each ball into a rope about 10″ in length. Bring the ends together to form a circle. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly golden. As this recipe does not have a rising agent, do not expect them to rise much.
- Enjoy straight out of the oven. Store at room temperature.