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Did a Delicious Mistake Lead to This National Dish?

If you ever order sopa, or soup, in Paraguay, don’t expect to be served a steaming bowl of broth. What you’ll get instead is a dense and cheesy hunk of cornbread.

This bread, also known as sopa Paraguaya, is one of the country’s most popular dishes. Cornmeal, onion, cheese, milk and eggs are mixed together to make a custardy cornbread, with a texture similar to bread pudding, that is commonly served alongside grilled meats.

The bread can be difficult to find in the United States, where nearly 30,000 Paraguayans live — the smallest Latino group in the country, according to census data.

And it can be challenging for Paraguayan American cooks to ensure that the moist texture of the bread remains the same when using American ingredients. Instead of the creamy queso Paraguaya that’s traditional in the recipe, for instance, many chefs and cooks substitute similar cheeses like mozzarella, Muenster and Monterey Jack.

Nancy Ojeda opened I Love Paraguay, a restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens, in 2007 after selling three other restaurants in Paraguay. “We’ve seen people cry,” she said in Spanish of her customers’ reactions to her sopa. “They cannot believe it. They say it’s the same taste from Paraguay.”

There are many origin stories about the bread, all with a similar gist: In the mid-1800s, when Carlos Antonio López was the president of Paraguay, corn soup was often served for lunch. But one day, the president’s chef got carried away with the cornmeal and added too much. In an attempt to fix the dish, the chef put the sopa into the oven and served it to the president as cornbread. The leader loved the bread so much that he decreed it a national dish and named it sopa Paraguaya.

Paraguayans have been making the sopa ever since, said Bridget María Chesterton, a history professor at Buffalo State University. But the first published version of the recipe was from a 1931 cookbook by Raquel Livieres de Artecona.

Other Paraguayans, like Liliana Rodas de Araujo, said the bread was being baked for many years before the presidential chef’s mistake. Ms. Rodas de Araujo said the Cario-Guaraní — a group of Indigenous Paraguayans who lived near her native city, Asunción — likely used native corn and baked a similar type of bread when they learned about dairy from Spanish colonists.

Ms. Rodas de Araujo opened Café Guaraní in 2019 in Pacific Grove, Calif., and has always served the sopa, but she is constantly tinkering with the recipe. She misses the techniques that made the bread unique in Paraguay, like using banana leaves as parchment paper or baking the bread in a mud oven. She hopes to recreate at least one of those elements soon with a pizza oven at her restaurant.

The recipe for the sopa Paraguaya served at Cafe Nena’i in Austin, Texas, was passed down to Gladys Benitez by her 85-year-old grandmother, who was a chef for a Paraguayan president. Every day, Ms. Benitez and her mother, Elena Sanguinetti, make about 20 thick pieces of the cornbread. They’ve also served the sopa with chorizo, as an appetizer during the pop-up dinners they started about a year ago.

Ms. Benitez was eager to connect with her roots, so she repeatedly asked her mother how to cook her grandmother’s Paraguayan recipes. “I would beg and cry to please get these recipes from my grandma,” she said.

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