Fish soups have been made since early times. Some soups are served with large chunks of fish or vegetables left in the liquid, while a broth is a flavored liquid usually derived from simmering a food or vegetable for a period of time in a stock.
Bisques are heavy cream soups traditionally prepared with shellfish, but can be made with any type of seafood or purée of vegetables or fruits. Cream soups are flavored broths thickened with a white sauce. Although they may be consumed on their own, or with a meal, the canned, condensed form of cream soup is sometimes used as a quick sauce in a variety of meat and pasta convenience food dishes, such as casseroles. Similar to a bisque, chowders are thick soups usually containing seafood and potatoes, milk and cream.
Classification of soups
Traditionally, soups are classified into two main groups: clear soups and thick soups. The established French classifications of clear soups are bouillon and consommé. Thick soups are classified depending upon the type of thickening agent used: bisques are made from puréed shellfish or vegetables thickened with cream; cream soups may be thickened with béchamel sauce; and veloutés are thickened with eggs, butter, and cream. Other ingredients commonly used to thicken soups and broths include rice (like in avgolemono soup from Greece), lentils, flour, and grains or cereals (like in Mexican pozole with hominy); many popular soups also include carrots and potatoes (like in Finnish lohikeitto).
Fish soups are similar to fish stews, and in some cases there may not be a clear distinction between the two (like with Brazilian moqueca de peixe); however, fish soups generally have more liquid than stews.
Sometimes the most satisfying dishes are also the simplest – and Paraguayan pira caldo is a prime example.
Today, we are heading to the South American country of Paraguay to sample their version of a fish soup called pira caldo.
Pira caldo is one of the most common ways to prepare fish in Paraguay. This soup is considered as a standalone meal and not as a starter unless you are planning on a very filling feast!
In order to understand pira caldo as a dish, it’s important to understand the circumstances from which the recipe most likely came.
Brief History of Paraguay
Prior to the Spanish arriving in the 1500s, Paraguay was home to distinct sets of ethnolinguistic indigenous tribes. The Spanish settled into Paraguay for more than 250 years in hopes of creating a Christianity faith-based nation only to have that plan usurped by the country’s first dictator, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, in 1811.
While in power, Rodriguez de Francia envisioned a utopian melting pot society and forced different ethnic groups to intermarry with one another. This policy eventually led to the rise of a separate group of “mixed ethnic” people called mestizos. In the meantime, Rodriguez de Francia cut off relations with the rest of South America, and Paraguay was fairly isolated from the rest of the region until the Paraguayan War of 1864.
At this point, the Paraguayan dictator at the time – Francisco Solano Lopez – led Paraguay into war against a triple alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Over the course of the six years the country was at war, there are estimates that up to 90% of the Paraguayan population was decimated during the grossly overmatched war.
Which brings us back to how pira caldo came about. During the harsh and severely rationed periods of the war, Paraguayans needed to find a way to consume a day’s worth of calories and nutrients in as little as one meal.
The Guaraní people – the largest group of indigenous peoples in Paraguay – were already huge consumers of surubi and other seafood, so pira caldo emerged as an extension of existing eating habits matched with the need to get a lot from a little.
Like we said above, pira caldo is a very rich and wholesome fish soup. With one serving of pira caldo, you might very well get a whole day’s worth of nutrients that covers all nutritional bases.
Before diving into the recipe itself, it’s helpful to break down the actual name pira caldo. In Spanish, the word caldo is translated as “broth” in English, and pira means “fish” in the Guaraní language. Therefore, at its core, pira caldo is a fish broth (but a very rich one at that).
Traditionally, pira caldo is made with a fish called surubi, a freshwater catfish-like species found in river basins throughout South America. Surubi – which has what seems like hundreds of other names for it – is very common in other Paraguayan and Guaraní dishes since it’s a rich source for protein and omega 3 fats.
Along with the surubi, however, is a whole slew of other ingredients for pira caldo. Depending on other recipes you find, there will be all sorts of vegetables added as well. Finally, pira caldo ends with the addition of dairy, from milk and Paraguay cheese (kesú paraguai), a special type of cow milk and curd soft white cheese.
You can serve pira caldo with mandioca (cassava) as a filling side dish.
- 1½ lb surubí (freshwater catfish), or catfish
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 green bell pepper , seeded and diced very finely
- 1 red bell pepper , seeded and diced very finely
- 2 red hot peppers , sliced
- 1 leek , thinly sliced
- 3 stalks celery , finely diced
- 2 medium onions , chopped
- 2 medium carrots , grated
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 cup boiling water (or more if necessary)
- 1½ cup milk
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 whole tomatoes (peeled, seeded and diced)
- 5 oz. Paraguay cheese (queso paraguay or a soft cheese similar to mozzarella, grated)
- 4 sprigs cilantro , chopped
Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add peppers, leeks, celery, onions, carrots, and bay leaf.
Brown for 1 minute without mixing.
Reduce heat to medium-high to soften vegetables for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring very regularly.
As soon as the vegetables begin to sweat, place the fish fillets on the vegetables and cover the pot.
Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent vegetables from sticking to the bottom.
Remove the fish from the pot and chop with a knife.
Pour the white wine into the pot and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.
Add boiling water and stir for 1 minute.
Return the fish to the pot and add the milk, tomato paste and tomato.
Cook, while stirring for 2 minutes.
If all the ingredients are not immersed in the pot, add a cup of boiling water and stir until boiling.
Finally, add the grated cheese and cilantro and turn off the heat. Season with salt and pepper.
Stir carefully until the cheese melts in the soup.