When chef Sofía Pfannl decided to return to Paraguay, her home country, to open her own restaurant, she wanted to start the same movement she had already witnessed in other Latin American countries: the valorisation of local gastronomy, embracing its ingredients and traditions. She was seeking to start a new chapter for Paraguayan food.
"I decided to open a restaurant in Asunción, the Paraguayan capital, because I felt I needed to do something for my country," she says. "I was living in Lima and I saw how Peru developed its economy and its tourism through gastronomy.They really believe in the food they have and feel proud of their culture."
When she opened Pakuri in 2017, in partnership with her boyfriend, Peruvian sommelier José Miguel Burga, she says that Asunción's gastronomic scene was crowded with international franchise restaurants. Pfannl and Burga worked together at Virgilio Martinez's Central, where they first met. The couple also worked in Enrique Olvera’s Cosme, while Sofia spent some time at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, before they decided to go back to Asunción to embrace their own challenges.
A One-Of-A-Kind Restaurant
In the hip neighbourhood of Villa Morra, Pfannl and Burga decided to focus on a more modern and authorial concept – both in the kitchen and in the building itself. Built entirely of recycled containers, Pakuri was set up in an area filled with greenery, where they could carry out the idea of uniting nature to their indigenous products cuisine. Pakuri, by the way, is the name of a native fruit – the favourite of Pfannl's grandmother, so the restaurant got its name, both as a homage and a way for the chef to seek her own past.
“I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting her, but I know she had a field full of trees and she loved to eat that fruit," she says. "I am Paraguayan and had never tasted it until after opening the restaurant. Now, a lot of people come by to give me pakuri. We even planted some trees in the restaurant." Other native species were also planted.
With a mix of ancestral flavours and modern techniques, Pakuri is a one-of-a-kind restaurant in Paraguay, perhaps the least-spoken of and most overlooked country in South America, especially when it comes to food. Serving dishes with local and seasonal ingredients such as fish, meats and lots of vegetables (many of them indigenous), the couple wants to highlight the local scene – awakening people’s interest. On Sundays, Pfannl prepares hearty/family-style recipes to be shared.
Flavour and History
While she dedicates herself to her creations full of flavour and history – but with a modern approach – Burga follows the same path in the beverage list, choosing local herbs and fruits that are turned into signature cocktails. He also selects wines that he can pair with all the dishes created – the list encompasses many labels from neighbouring countries, such as Uruguay and Argentina.
They are also rescuing flavours and traditions, as in the case of tatakua, a traditional oven, where Pfannl roasts different cuts of meat (as tapa de cuadril, or rump cap, and pork ribs, for example), and cook different vegetables. “Two hours before the service, we light it with dry firewood. The temperature inside can reach 500°C. Sometimes, we put vegetables for roasting from one day to the next, and when I arrive the next day in the morning the cinders are still hot, it’s incredible,” she says.
In Guarani, the national indigenous language, tatakua literally means "hole of fire", and it was mainly used by ancient people to cook. Many of the dishes in the menu are also written in Guarani, a way the chef finds to keep her culture present. In addition to the meats, following the Paraguayan tradition of asados, piraña, mandi'i and curimbatá (three types of local fish) are the restaurant's most popular dishes. They are complemented with select herbs, fruits and vegetables, some of which even the Paraguayans themselves do not know.
The Culinary Generation Gap
“The idea is to use the products that my grandparents did, the products that people nowadays haven’t even heard of. I see it as a generation gap: a clear example is what happened to me with my grandmother, I know about her way of life because my dad told me the stories. But many young people do not know what we have in order to develop our own history”, she states. They also serve authorial versions of local cuisines, such as the iconic sopa paraguaya, a hearty cornbread, flavored with cheese and onions.
With Pakuri, Pfannl is trying to rescue this history and make it appealing to the new generations. "What worries me the most is that our history, in general, does not even interest the new generation," she confesses. She is trying to bring the spotlight to a kitchen that is so diverse and so little explored and known, even among the locals. “It's this fight that motivates me to do the work we are doing in the restaurant. I dream of the day that more and more people will know and talk about our rich Paraguayan cuisine,” she says.