Yuca con chicharrón (cassava with slow baked pork)

A popular, traditional Salvadorian dish

Photo: Rubén Contreras

Last month, Avenue Magazine Edmonton contacted the team at Paraíso Tropical with the surprise news that the grocery store would be featured as “Best Neighbourhood Gem in Edmonton.” This soon led to an invite to feature an in-house dish at Avenue’s Best Restaurants event, which was scheduled for early next week at Edmonton Expo Centre.

While the event has, unfortunately, now been postponed due to efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus, last month’s recognition was still timely for Paraíso Tropical’s owner Jesus Gonzalez Rivas Jr. He has been trying to promote the stores’ kitchen dishes, which include pupusas, tacos, tamales, and yuca con chicharrón, a popular street food found in El Salvador and various parts of Central & South America; and the Caribbean. The latter is the dish that Paraíso’s team had selected to showcase at Avenue’s Best Restaurants Event 2020.

“We are not really aware of how [Avenue] gave us recognition,” Gonzalez Rivas recalls.

“If anything, it was a total ghost customer,” pipes in Bruna Campos Gonzalez, Gonzalez Rivas’ wife and one of Paraíso’s managers. If she has to guess, Avenue Magazine may have found out about the grocery store’s kitchen items from the CBC article on Edmonton’s Best Restaurants 2019, which feature none other than yuca con chicharrón.

Behind the Dish

The dish has Indigenous roots and is a common street food in El Salvador. There, the yuca (cassava), is boiled or fried before the pork or another protein is added, with curtido (pickled cabbage salad with carrots in a vinegar brine) and salsa roja (tomato salsa) following to complete the dish.

“You see [yuca con chicharrón] in the local markets; you see them everywhere on the street,” adds store manager Natalia Marcenaro, who grew up in El Salvador. “You can eat [the yuca] boiled or fried.

“The dish is usually served on a banana leaf as the plate. It looks beautiful. And the curtido is left in jars on top of tables or in front of the stalls that sell the yuca con chicharrón. So you just add it yourself.”

Marcenaro adds that the street food is also served in big bags or containers. The hoja (leaf) is mostly seen outside the cities while in the cities, people can walk and eat yuca con chicharrón like bagged chips.

A Kitchen Staple at Paraíso

Photo: Rubén Contreras

Although Avenue’s Best Restaurants Event is no longer, foodies interested in trying Paraíso Tropical’s yuca con chicharrón can order it right in-store at one of Paraíso’s two locations.

“[Yuca con chicharrón] has been one of our primary dishes since we opened up the kitchen aspect of our store [in 2000],” says Gonzalez Rivas.

For those who don’t know much about the dish, Gonzalez Rivas is happy to give a breakdown of ingredients and cooking methods.

“Yuca is a root vegetable; it’s very starchy, like a potato – almost

flavourless,” he describes. “It’s how you cook it that kind of brings out the flavours in it.”

Paraíso Tropical both boils and fries the yuca, which the store imports from Costa Rica. Gonzalez Rivas shares that typically, the yuca is boiled, but if one decides to fry it, then the best way to cook it is to boil it, then fry it.

“The pork is a pulled pork that’s got a good balance of meat and pork fat in there to give it that juiciness,” continues Gonzalez Rivas, sharing that Paraíso sources it from a local Hutterite community.

Meanwhile, the last two ingredients are prepared at Paraíso in-house and are both available for customer purchase. The produce required for curtido are obtained from local food suppliers.

“We usually try to prepare [our pickled cabbage] three or four days ahead of time, ‘cause it’s a type of fermented cabbage salad – so it gets that flavour,” Gonzalez Rivas explains. “Time is what gives it a good flavour.

“[The salsa roja] is the salsa that we use in store for a lot of stuff: our tacos, our pupusas.”

Rubén Contreras

Different Regions, Different Versions

Gonzalez Rivas notes that the way Paraíso makes the dish in its kitchens is just one of many. Marcenaro agrees that many other variations exist between countries and even regions within the same country.

“An ingredient that [people] eat in El Salvador – instead of the chicharrón – are the fried little fishes; they’re called pepeshcas,” Marcenaro shares. “That’s how they eat [yuca con chicharrón] in another part in El Salvador.”

“Some people will use pork rinds instead of the pork meat,” Gonzalez Rivas observes. “In Caribbean cultures, they usually like to combine [pork rinds] with the cassava, the pork, and top it with lemon juice. In Colombia, it’s just the cassava with the pork – they don’t use cabbage or salsa.”

In other countries in Central America, Marcenaro says that instead of baking or cooking the meat or the pork in the oven, the meat is boiled. The juices are seasoned, then placed on top of the fried or boiled yuca.

“The seasoned pork or meat broth oftentimes are used as the salsa,” she adds. “So instead of the tomato sauce (salsa roja), you have that broth with the meat, yuca and curtido.”

“Yeah, it’s really good. It’s delicious,” comments Gonzalez Rivas.

Some travelling within Central and South America will easily find that the names of yuca con chicharrón’s ingredients may be just as diverse as the recipes themselves.

“[The names] come from the Indigenous background, depending on which cultures or different sections of El Salvador or even in Central America that they are coming from,” says Marcenaro.

Photo: Rubén Contreras

Snack Food or Something More?

Although it is a street food, yuca con chicharrón is considered to be a principal dish. Some restaurants may have it as a side menu or as a full plate.

“You see in the picture, it looks pretty small…but it’s not really small,” Marcenaro reflects. “When you’re starting to eat the combination of everything, you get full very fast.”

“You have your carbs. You have your protein, and you have your little…” Gonzalez Rivas says, about to mention the curtido.

“Salad!” Campos Gonzalez interjects matter-of-factly, with amusement.

There’s another reason that yuca con chicharrón has a special place in Paraíso Tropical’s kitchen.

“It’s my favourite dish – and I’m not just saying that,” Gonzalez Rivas confesses. “You know when you’re working in a grocery, you see this food everyday, right? When you work with the food, you always get sick of what you eat. You wanna try something different. The yuca con chicharrón is a dish that I can just never get sick of. I love [pupusas], but like, ‘okay, I’ve had enough.’ But yuca con chicharrón – I’ll always go to it. All the time.

“And that’s why I think I started showcasing it. It’s so good! Why aren’t more people trying it? So I’ve done a lot of ‘Try it! Try our dish.’”

Craving for some yuca con chicharrón now? Check it out at one of the Paraíso Tropical grocery stores!

Paraíso Tropical – Northside

9136-118 Avenue NW, Edmonton, AB

Mondays to Saturdays: 9:30am-7:00pm

Sundays: 11:00am-4:00pm

Paraíso Tropical – Southside

6926-104 Street NW, Edmonton, AB

Mondays to Saturday: 9:30am-7:00pm

Sundays: 11:00am-4:00pm

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