A tour of Paraiso

Latino food learning, pupusa-making, and drinks tasting

Paraiso South notes: Gela Cabrera Loa

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Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

On Canada Day this year, Paraiso Tropical shared an opportunity via Facebook and Instagram to enter a contest and tag up to three guests who’ve never been to the Edmonton Latin food market. The giveaway goodie? A free guided tour to learn about Hispanic food products, dishes, culture, and more!

The lucky winners, who both heard of the contest through Instagram, were Tamara Vineberg, who invited her friends Urmela Scarlett and Shona Nelson to join her for an evening tour at Paraiso North on August 27th; and April Dawn, who invited her partner Rick and her son’s girlfriend Renae, for a late afternoon tour at Paraiso South on September 3rd. The latter group happened to be from Spruce Grove and – out of the two groups – only Vineberg had ever been to Paraiso Tropical. However, Vineberg admits that she’s only ordered take-out the handful of times that she’s visited the store and hasn’t yet tried shopping for other items.

The tour begins

Owner (and tour guide!) Jesus Gonzalez Rivas Jr. first asks each group what Hispanic food items they are familiar with. At Paraiso North, Vineberg shares that she’s tried empanadas. With her two guests, Gonzalez Rivas Jr. starts with the shelves facing the store entrance, which is filled with salsas and hot sauces and explains that most of them are based in Central America.

“A common misconception is that all Hispanic food is spicy – not necessarily the case,” says Gonzalez Rivas Jr. “Mainly [that’s in] Mexico, Central America, and Peru in South America. In Argentina, Colombia and Brazil, they’re not big on spicy foods, but you might find a [spicy] dish here or there.”

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Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

Salsas include those with jalapeño peppers, chipotle peppers, guacamole, taquera, and green tomatillos, visitors learn. They are then asked if they know of the last in that list: tomatillo. No one is familiar with it.“Tomatillo is a green tomato, and it stays green. It’s used to make this type of salsa,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. explains as he points out one particular brand made by a company in Leduc. “[This company] makes them really good.”

The group then proceeds to the dried chiles and spices section and snakes their way through the aisles towards the back as Gonzalez Rivas Jr. continues to talk about various products and how they can be used.

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Photo: Rubén Contreras

Getting hands on with pupusas

The next part of the tour was – surprise! – a chance to learn how to make pupusas, El Salvador’s national dish, with two kinds of fillings: chicharrón (Paraiso’s brand, which is available to buy in store, has cooked pork, mozzarella, and loroco – a green flower native to El Salvador) and queso (with cheese and loroco). At Paraiso North, one of their cooks, Sonia Hernandez, guides the women with how to shape the tortilla flour with their hands. A week later at Paraiso South, one of the store’s founders and Gonzalez Rivas Jr’s mother, Alba Gonzalez Rivas, explains how to use Paraiso’s chicharrón filling.

“We made [the chicharrón], and we freeze it right away,” Alba Gonzalez Rivas shares. “You can put it in the freezer the night before [you plan to use it]. But if you wanna use the microwave, you put it in for one minute.”

Back at Paraiso North, one of the guests notices something about the pupusa dough.

“It feels like Play-Doh,” she says.

“Yes, it feels like Play-Doh!” her friend agrees.

Gonzalez Rivas Jr. assists in the demonstration and shows that once a ball is made with the dough,“In El Salvador, we call this ‘palmear’, which means ‘to palm it on each end,’” he adds that it’s best to move the dough between one’s fingers.

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Photo: Kristina de Guzman

The group then learns how to place their fillings in the middle of their flattened tortilla and wrap the tortilla all around the ball…

“You’re almost creating a volcano,” says co-owner Bruna Campos Gonzalez.

“Do you guys have these parties at home?” Scarlett asks, which causes laughter among the group.

The pupusa-making continues as the group learns to spread the meat filling evenly.

“This is a very hard dish to do, so you guys are all doing great,” says Gonzalez Rivas Jr. encouragingly. “I learned this as a little kid, and I still can’t get it.”

Once the group gets through making two kinds of pupusas, they get a chance to visit the kitchen and place their pupusas on the grill before Hernandez continues to cook them for three to four minutes on each side, using oil to prevent them from sticking.

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Photo: Kristina de Guzman

Part three: a tasting

There’s another surprise: three drinks from three different countries await each tour group for a beverage tasting! Agua de jamaica (hibiscus juice), a common tarty Mexican drink with flor de Jamaica (flower of Jamaica); a Colombian drink called agua de panela, which is made simply with water, lime, and a cane sugar called panela in Colombia and piloncillo in Mexico; and horchata salvadoreña (Salvadoran horchata), which consists of cinnamon, rice, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, nutmeg, sugar, and semilla de morro (morro seeds).

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Photo: Kristina de Guzman

“These are all unique flavours, so maybe you like it; maybe you don’t; and that’s perfectly fine,” says Gonzalez Rivas Jr.

It appears that for the Paraiso North group, the horchata is hands down the favourite, which happens to be made from scratch by Hernandez herself with feedback from Campos Gonzalez on which spices to use more or less of. Paraiso Tropical also has the mix version, which only needs water or milk added to it.

“Oh, my God. It’s delicious!” Scarlett exclaims once she takes a sip of her horchata.

“You can say, ‘Está rico’ (It’s delicious),” shares Gonzalez Rivas Jr, as the group has been learning a few Spanish phrases throughout the evening. “[Semilla de morro] is what makes the Salvadoran horchata more unique. It’s a type of seed in a type of round fruit and [although] you don’t really consume the fruit, [you can use] the seed.”

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Photo: Gela Carera Loa

What makes a good pupusa?

Last but not least, the groups get to try the pupusas they made.

“So if you’re not Salvadoran, and you eat a pupusa with a fork and a knife, you’re committing a crime,” jokes Campos Gonzalez after Gonzalez Rivas. Jr. tells the ladies that pupusas are a finger dish.

“One more time…” Scarlett hopes to nail the correct pronunciation of the dish. “Pu…”“Pupusa,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. repeats. “So I know a funny way [to remember]. You just think of “poo-poo” and then “sah.”

“Pu-pu-sa,” Scarlett tries again.

“Perfect!” says Campos Gonzalez.

The guests continue to eat their creations as Gonzalez Rivas Jr. describes the makings of a good pupusa, which is one in which the filling is well-rounded within the tortilla.

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Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

“You won’t have any parts of just pure dough. If you have parts of just pure dough…then you’ll get there eventually,” Gonzalez Rivas Jr. says with a laugh.

“A lot of people think that you just grab one tortilla; put the meat; put another tortilla on top, which – technically, you can do – but it doesn’t turn out exactly the same,” he continues. “But that’s basically what [a pupusa] is: two tortillas with meat in the middle.”

The Paraiso Tropical Tour Giveaway guests were all gifted with a recipe and the ingredients to make a particular beverage along with a store discount coupon. We chatted more with some of them to hear what they had to say of their experience!

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Photo: Kristina de Guzman

How did you come to discover Paraiso Tropical?

Tamara: [I came across the store] when we had events on 118th Avenue.

What is your favourite kitchen item?

Tamara: The empanadas.

What part of the city are you guys coming from today?

Tamara: Southside.

Shona: Very west.

Urmela: West, very west – near 170th [Street].

What were questions that you had of Latin food before coming here?

Tamara: Just the different ingredients and knowing what to do with them.

Shona: I had no idea what to expect.

Urmela: Me, too.

Have any of you ever tried to make any Latin American food?

Shona: I have a friend from El Salvador and she has made pupusas for us, but I think they had a bean base inside or something. I’m very excited to tell her now that I got to [make pupusas]!

[The others shake their heads ‘no’].

Are you all originally from Canada or elsewhere?

Urmela: [I’m from] Guyana, [but I’ve been here] for a long time – 40-something years.Shona: I was born in Scotland, but I would say I’m Canadian.

Tamara: Canada.

[To Urmela] Do you make any Caribbean food?

Urmela: I started. I just started making curry and roti, and we also make plantain, eggplant and zucchini.

What did you learn today that was something you didn’t know before?

Shona: I didn’t know anything.

Urmela: Yup. Me, [neither].

Tamara: Just [learning how the food] ranges from appetizers to desserts practically; the things that you can make with the ingredients here; [and] how to make the pupusas.

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Photo by Ruben Contreras

What’s the most interesting thing that you learned today?

Urmela: I love the drinks and [the pupusas]. It’s really good.

Shona: I loved it all. I’m not sure if I’ll make a pupusa myself (chuckles). But definitely I think I can manage the drinks, and I’m gonna try this [agua de Jamaica recipe]. I think I might come back and get the mix for [horchata], ‘cause I’m sure my daughter will love this.

What was your favourite drink out of all the drinks you got to try?

Tamara: I think the horchata.

In a few words, how would you describe this experience today?

Shona: Wonderful. Thank you very much.

Urmela: Excellent, but very personable. The hosts were very nice.

Tamara: It’s very hospitable and friendly.

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Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

What was your favourite thing about the tour?

Rick: The food.

Will you come back?

Rick: Of course. Actually, I work very close to here [Paraiso South], so I’ll probably be back quite a bit.

What do you plan to buy the next time you’re here?

Rick: I wanna get the kit to make these [pupusas]. I do wanna make these again. I never would have thought to try this myself. I always thought it was too daunting.

What would you tell people to encourage them to visit Paraiso?

Rick: Oh, I’m all for supporting local business all the way. When we came back from Mexico, we wanted to experience these foods again, so it’s nice that we know a place now where we can get all these foods.

Check out more of the Tour Giveaway at Paraiso North!