On hot days after strong rains, almost every able-bodied man and boy from my village takes to the winding cow paths that meander carelessly through the surrounding marshy lowlands. They are seeking any one of a number of calm, muddy pools, and they are willing to brave hordes of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, intense heat, and life-sapping humidity to reach them. The prize at the end of this typically Paraguayan ordeal is a heap of minuscule fish, in the end all bloodied and tethered by the gills to a strong reed, which is then slung over their shoulders to carry home. If they are lucky, they might catch a few marsh eels.
Several days ago, on a dusty walk home under a peak noonday sun, I passed a group of neighborhood youngsters intently engaged at one of the ponds that line the wetlands. From the look of things, they wouldn’t have much to eat for dinner that night—a small catfish-like thing, a few half-palm-sized sunfish, and various other assorted pond treasures, each one seemingly smaller than the one before. Perhaps my arrival brought some good luck, or maybe it was just the heat of midday that drew better prospects for the boys. Either way, soon we were no longer dodging empty hooks as they orbited our heads, but instead foot-long marsh eels that wriggled madly at the sudden shock of being mercilessly ejected from their aquatic home.
One boy, the unusually small and high-pitched Willy, was the expert eel-smasher. The moment an eel would exit the muddy shallows, he went into action, grabbing the line and unhooking the poor creature in a matter of seconds, then quickly ending its life by bringing its head down onto a large stone. Once several eels had been dispatched in this manner, the boys seemed satisfied with their haul and triumphantly invited me to dinner.
I spent that evening hunched over a few small bowls of eel stew with the 12 members of Willy’s family, making quick work of that day’s catch. For those who have never eaten eel, it has all the flavor and texture of fish without the infinite little spines that typically irritate efforts at eating other aquatic animals. Once one has cut the flaps of ligaments around the head, the rest of the eel’s slimy skin slides off easily like a coat. Sometimes, to loosen up the outer layer so that it can be more easily stripped from the body, the whole eel is placed on the ground and rolled like a rolling pin, which not only helps to release the skin from the flesh but also to tenderize the meat.
Once the skin is peeled and the organs removed and tossed aside (unless of course, the eel is full of eggs, which can be eaten as well—Paraguayan caviar), the whole eel can simply be sliced into segments and cooked as is. The final product, a thin and salty fish soup, is a prized favorite of rural Paraguayans who live far from the riparian borders of the country. The soft eel flesh can be effortlessly slurped off the bone—a single continuous spinal column that runs the length of the creature but without the additional eating hazards of tiny ribs. In my humble opinion, and speaking with the authority of my extensive experience with other Paraguayan rarities, I must say that eel stew is quite delicious. —Mario Machado