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Paraguayan Food 101

If you love Latin food, it's easy to become afflicted with the same syndrome that can infect any aficionado: the smugness of thinking you've seen, or in this case, eaten everything. The joy of discovery is replaced by the twin joys of knowing so much and eating the most extraordinary version of your favorite dish (preferably in an obscure, off-the-beaten-path place or by a chef with Michelin stars). And then, suddenly, you find yourself eating a generous serving of humble pie.

This is what happened to me a couple weeks ago when my husband suggested we take a trip to Sunnyside, Queens to try Paraguayan food at New York City's first, and until recently, only, Paraguayan restaurant, I Love PY. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and jockeyed with Paraguayan expats for a couple spots at a table in the small storefront. As we waited for menus, we talked about what we knew of Paraguay. It wasn't much.

Then the menus came and we really realized how little we knew of one of South America's most obscure countries. Francisco, always devoted to caldos and asopados, decided he wanted sopa paraguaya; we ordered tortilla as a side and decided to try a few small plates whose names weren't translated but were listed under a menu section titled “Tradicionales de Paraguay.”

Owner Nancy Ojeda, who opened I Love PY with her husband seven years ago, brought our drinks and cutlery, but as Francisco pointed out, the soup spoon was missing. “Wait,” she said, a mischievous smile playing on her lips. Minutes later she was at the table with his sopa paraguaya, served on a plate, not in a bowl. It turns out that sopa paraguaya isn't a soup at all. In her award-winning pan-Latin cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina, Maricel Presilla describes the dish accurately as “Paraguayan corn bread.” And Paraguayan tortilla is neither a corn or flour disc nor the omelette-like egg dish the Spanish refer to as “tortilla,” but rather a deep fried fritter.

We still had a lot to learn.

If Paraguayan food is new culinary territory for you, here's a primer to the country's most typical dishes, just in time for Paraguayan Independence Day, which will be celebrated on May 14. You can try these and other dishes at one of New York's two Paraguayan restaurants, the more traditional I Love PY in Sunnyside or the fusion-focused Dela Mora, which opened just this year and is located in Jackson Heights.

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