Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tuesday Global Eats: Introduction

Several followers have asked that I add an additional post every week to blog about the different types of food we eat when traveling (I will post the food blog on Tuesdays and continue to post our regular travel journal on Fridays). Luis and I are both incurable foodies who love to cook at home and try new foods when we're traveling, especially street food and local specialties. To me, the most interesting way to learn about a country's culture is to study the history of its cuisine. Brazil's ingredients and cooking methods, for example, have been greatly influenced by the cooking of Portugal, Spain and Africa, resulting in an incredibly interesting and diverse fare. Tragically, these influences were due in great part to a thriving slave trade, but reading through the evolution of methodology, adaptation and ingredients leads to much deeper understanding of the tenacity and determination that shaped the people and culture of Brazil today.  

A little history: before I met Luis, I traveled for years either alone or with friends, visiting as many countries as I could squeeze in between the very long and stressful hours of my job as a software manager. I had many business trips and I would always to try to tack on extra days, just to have an opportunity to explore whatever city I was visiting. One of the first places I would visit would be the local farmers' market, wonderful places filled with amazing sights, bright and interesting colors, sounds, smells and tastes. I still find that it is one of the best places to start exploring if you really want to get a feel for the culture of a city or country, not to mention fantastic photo ops.

Market Stall of Spicy Peppers: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

On these trips, I would make a point of always trying something completely new to add to my growing list of exotic foods. My list is heavily meat-centric, so apologies to vegetarian readers, but inevitably the most "exotic" item on the menu is some sort of animal. As a vegetarian Indian friend laughingly pointed out one night at a group dinner in San Francisco, while we were discussing food and travel, vegetarians are a little more challenged in compiling exotic food lists. It's hard to compete in a "weirdest thing I ever ate" competition with "well, once I had a really oddly-shaped potato" (although after visiting Venezuela and Brazil and sampling all the strange fruits and veggies, there's hope). 

Cultures and eating habits vary widely. Many things that North Americans or Europeans think of as inedible, inappropriate or even offensive are often staple foods in other countries. Regulated whaling, for example, although distasteful to many, is still legal in places such as Japan, Alaska and Norway, where historians believe that the tradition of whaling goes back at least to 3000 B.C. Of course, the reverse is also true of North American and European eating habits. Many Hindus feel it is abominable that beef is on the menu in other countries. Kalahari bushmen have been known to get physically sick at the sight of a raw chicken egg.

On to the list. Poor, brave Luis has been roped in by me to to try all sorts of weird things since we met. At first he was understandably hesitant, especially regarding street food, but he has come around. For the record, I've only had serious food-related illness twice: once in Mexico and once in Peru, both involving fish dishes. Here is my list as of today:

  • Moose (Canada)
  • Beaver (Argentina)
  • Guinea Pig (Peru)
  • Bear (Canada)
  • Rotten Shark (Iceland)
  • Brennivín Schnapps (aka Black Death) (Iceland)
  • Puffin (Iceland)
  • Scorpions (China)    
  • Dragon Fruit (China)
  • Grasshoppers (Australia)
  • Sea Slugs (China)
  • Baby Turtles (China)
  • Green Tree Ants (Australia)
  • Kangaroo (Australia)
  • Jellyfish (China)
  • Whale (Norway)
  • Jellied Eels (UK)
  • Calves' Brains (Czech Republic)
  • Absinthe (Czech Republic)
  • Kobe Beef (Japan) 
  • Llama (Peru)
  • Ostrich (Australia)
  • Alpaca (Peru)
  • Alligator (Florida)
  • Emu (Texas)
  • Piranha (Brazil)
  • Caiman (Brazil) 
  • Bird's Nest Soup (China)
  • Carpincho (the world's largest rodent) (Argentina)
  • Horse (France)

Fried Guinea Pig in Arequipa, Peru  

I would love to hear from adventurous readers/eaters regarding the odd foods they have sampled. Each week, I'll blog about the countries that we've visited, the evolution of the local cuisine, the foods that we've eaten, and most importantly, how everything tasted! Feel free to offer suggestions for future posts. Bon Apetit, Douzo Omeshiagari Kudasai, Buen Provecho, बोन एपीटिट, Saha wa Hana, Bom Proveito, Enjoy Your Food!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Trinidade, Angra dos Reis, Brazil

The coast of Trinidade (photo by Luis Bastardo)

As much as we loved visiting Ilha Grande, we again reluctantly decided that it was time to move on; there was a lot of ground to cover in Brazil. Our next stop was a tiny beach town called Trinidade (pronounced Trini-DA-jee), about a 40 minute bus ride from the colonial town of Paraty. Neither of us had ever heard of it or could find any reference to it in our guidebooks, but many travelers recommended it, so we thought we'd give it a try. We caught the early ferry back to the mainland, then took a two-hour bus ride to Paraty, followed by a 40 minute hair-raising local bus ride to Trinidade. The bus driver sped around the hairpin curves on two wheels with one hand (or more specifically, with two fingers), while simultaneously smoking a cigarette, taking swigs from his beer and talking on his cell phone.

A beach side restaurant in Trinidade (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When, by miracle, we arrived more or less in one piece in Trindade, the bus dropped us off on our shaky legs on main street next to a country store and we wandered up the dusty roads looking for somewhere to stay. We found a place that looked nice, with individual cabins situated in a tropical forest setting and a sign in the front stating "Delicious Homemade Breakfast Included!!" That sounded promising, so we booked a cabin. The breakfast turned out to be Wonderbread, generic margarine, some sticky jars of jam and a coffee cake (presumably the "homemade" part). Luis and I passed on breakfast, dropped our bags in our cabin and set out to explore the area. We hiked into the Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina to see the waterfalls, then down to the beaches to have a well-deserved cold beer and something to eat at one of the many beach side restaurants.

A water taxi waiting for passengers in the Piscina do Caixadaço (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

 The next day, we asked the friendly hotel owners what we should see in Trinidade and they suggested that we hike to Piscina do Caixadaço, a natural tranquil pool created by a barrier of large rocks on the beach when the tide was in. It sounded like the perfect thing to do on such a hot day and after we hiked up trails through the steamy forest and scrambled over large boulders down to the beach for about an hour, we were relieved to see the natural pool come into sight. It was still morning, but many people and their dogs had already arrived, snorkeling or floating in the calm, warm water. Swimming all around them and "kissing" the skin on their arms and legs, were schools of colorful striped tropical fish. It was like sitting in an open, shallow aquarium.

Early morning bathers at Piscina do Caixadaço (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We spent the morning and part of the afternoon in the pool floating and relaxing, while the striped fish provided us with a free skin-exfoliating spa treatment. Every thirty minutes or so, a vendor would float by with a Styrofoam cooler containing cold drinks, beer or snacks, so we had everything we needed until we got really hungry. There are several fishermen who make extra cash by running a water taxi service for those who are too relaxed after their soak to trek back along the trail. They wait by the rocks or on the beach with their small motor boats until they have a boatful of people to shuttle back to shore. For a small fee, they will drop you back directly at any beach cafe. Our taxi boat driver included a stop at a group of fishing boats, so we could watch a local family of fishermen hauling in a catch, part of which we later ate filleted and fried for our lunch at a table on the sand at a beachside restaurant...it doesn't get much fresher than that!  

Fishermen bringing in the catch of the day (photo by Simone Cannon)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ilha Grande, Angra Dos Reis, Brazil, Part Two

No shortage of places to spend the night, Ilha Grande (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next day, Luis, Ina and I met in front of her hotel to begin our exploration of the island. We walked down to the pier to catch the boat to Lopes Mendes Beach, said to be one of the prettiest beaches in the world. It is also possible to hike directly from the town, about a two and a half hour trek. While we were waiting for the boat, we decided to try the local specialty, açaí. The açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) is a type of palm fruit that looks a bit like a grape, but is much more acidic. It is generally served as pulp, frozen like a sorbet, then topped with all kinds of things: granola, bananas, honey, strawberries, guaraná, etc. The açaí fruit is said to be an antioxidant and to help with practically everything health-related including weight loss, arthritis, cancer, high cholesterol, detoxification and even erectile dysfunction and penis enlargement (that would explain the mile-long line at the açaí stand). 

 Bowl of frozen açaí with bananas and granola (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The boat ride is about 45 minutes, followed by a 20 minute walk along a forested trail to Lopes Mendes beach. It's a fairly easy hike but the weather was getting hot and humid, so I was glad when we reached the beach. The trail opened up to a beautiful white sand beach, edged with tropical forest on one side and lush green mountains on the other. The sand was the softest I have ever felt, like walking on corn starch. I dropped my pareo onto the sand and flopped down, but Luis and Ina immediately headed for the surf, leaving a trail of clothing behind them.

   Lopes Mendes Beach (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Luis is from Caracas, Venezuela, a city which is within an hour or two of many lovely tropical beaches (unlike Buenos Aires where we live now) so he never misses an opportunity to go for a dip in the ocean and usually stays in there until every conceivable part of his body resembles a prune. I finally picked myself up off the beach and joined them in the waves. The water was refreshing and the surf wasn't too rough as it can be in Brazil, a country obsessed with surfing for good reason. The waves can reach heights of 10-12 feet and several tourists have lost their lives ignoring high wave warnings.

"Levitating" boat and snorkelers, Lagoa Verde (photo by Simone Cannon)

The next day, we decided to take one of the many island cruises available to visit other parts of the island and to do a little snorkeling. The boats are pirate-themed (in a modified schooner/galleon kind of way) since Ilha Grande was once a hideout for pirates who amassed treasure by looting European trading ships. We talked to an agency in town, Navegantes, and booked a day trip to visit Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon), Lagoa Verde (Green Lagoon) and Praia do Japariz (Japariz Beach). We arrived first at Lagoa Verde, literally green, and with the clearest water imaginable. Striped tropical fish darted everywhere, swimming around the boat and the snorkelers. We grabbed our gear and jumped off the side of the boat. The water was so clear that it created the illusion that the bow of the boat was floating above the lake. We next visited Lagoa Azul, a deep blue lake, with shallower water, but more fish. After lunch, we arrived at our final stop, Japariz Beach. I was pretty waterlogged by then, so decided to lie in the sun on the boat to dry out a bit. On the way back to town, Luis got a sailing lesson from the captain, with much help from two small Norwegian children. Miraculously, we arrived in port safely.

Ina looking a lot more worried than the captain as Luis brings us into port (photo by Simone Cannon)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ilha Grande, Angra Dos Reis, Brazil, Part One

Approaching the dock at Ilha Grande, Brazil

After ten interesting but frenetic days exploring Rio de Janeiro, Luis and I decided it was time to move on; there was a lot more of Brazil to explore to say the least. Brazil has a total land area of 8.5 million square kilometres (3.3 million square miles), making it the 5th largest nation in the world. I had heard from other travelers that the region called Angra Dos Reis had incredibly beautiful beaches and islands, but also had many options for activities if we got tired of lounging on the beach. Angra Dos Reis (meaning "The Bay of Kings" or "The Creek of Kings") has dozens of white sand beaches and 365 islands and islets, so that it would literally take a year to visit all of them, an island a day. The area is known for its amazing diving, snorkeling, hiking trails and boating excursions and has beaches considered to be some of the most beautiful in the world. Sounded like the perfect place to recuperate after the full-on excitement and chaos of Rio.

View from one of Ilha Grande's beaches (photo by Simone Cannon)

Ilha Grande (pronounced illa-GRAN-zjee) is the largest of all the islands and an ecological preserve. Other than a handful of vehicles used by the police and military, there are no cars or trucks allowed on the island, so it retains its tranquil atmosphere despite the ever growing number of tourists who visit each year. We set off by bus for Angra Dos Reis with a German girl named Ina whom we had met in Rio. The bus ride took just under three hours, after which we connected to Ilha Grande by ferry, another hour and a half. The views from the boat were spectacular, a good sign of things to come.

View from the Ilha Grande ferry...looks promising! (photo by Simone Cannon)

When we arrived, we found our posada easily enough since the town is quite small, but as always, it was at the top of a hill. I have an innate talent for unintentionally booking hotels at the highest possible point in any place we visit, usually requiring a steep, sweaty hike up a hillside loaded down with our heavy backpacks, or in the case of the hostel in Rio, up several flights of stone stairs, with full backpacks and jet lag, usually in the pouring rain. When we arrived at the hotel, we rang the bell, but no one seemed to be there. We called to the owners, but no response, so we tried unsuccessfuly to open the metal gate to the garden. Finally, out of frustration, Luis, ready to unload his pack and flop down on his bed, scrambled over the high fence to find the manager, who returned to the gate with Luis, to show us that all we had to do was slide the lock on the gate up and to the right to open it...well, yeah, if you want to do things the easy way.

Simone, Luis and friends enjoying our beachside caipirinhas

When we got settled, we realized how hungry and thirsty we were and so we met Ina and three young British guys who were staying at her hostel at a bar on the waterfront. Luis told the waiter that we wanted good strong caipirinhas, (pronounced ki-pri-EEN-yas) not the wimpy ones that tourists usually get and, boy, did we get our money's worth; they were some of the strongest we had had so far. That turned out to be fairly common practice as it is a good tip generator for waiters and bartenders. Judging by the number of tourists reeling down the streets, the ban on driving seemed an exceptionally insightful idea by the local government. Luckily, cachaça, (pronounced ka-CHA-sa) the liquor used in caipirinhas, generally doesn't cause severe hangovers, so at least most people are ready the morning after to explore the island. It would be a shame to miss it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Travel Journal: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Part Four

The weather got much better finally, so we took advantage of it. Since Christ the Redeemer was closed due to dangerous flooding conditions and wasn't scheduled to re-open for at least another three weeks, we decided to try for Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), the second most iconic image of Rio. We awoke to a sunny day, scarfed down our breakfast before the rain could set in again, and hurried down the steep series of stone steps from the lovely old neighborhood of Santa Teresa where we were staying to the fruit market at the bottom of the hill where we would catch our bus. The fruit market was just too tempting though and we ended up spending at least an hour wandering through the stalls of amazing looking (and tasting!) fruit, most of which I'd never heard of. Even something as well-known as the cashew nut looked different here, since (who knew?) the nut doesn't grow in the wild in neatly packed supermarket plastic bags, but on top of the Caju fruit!

 Caju fruit with cashew nuts attached (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When we finished tasting every possible type of fruit and vegetable available, we hopped on the bus to Sugarloaf Mountain, only getting caught in the rain once...our luck was definitely changing! We were traveling in low season and when we arrived at Sugarloaf Mountain there were very few people in line for the glass cable car (the bondinho) that would take us first to the top of Morro de Açúcar, the shorter of the two mountain peaks, then to the summit, Pão de Açúcar. We met a nice Colombian couple and a wonderful and funny family from New Jersey and spent some time with them, exploring the different areas of the mountains. And of course, we had to stop at the high-altitude cocktail bar at the summit to order our now daily Caipirinhas, the iconic and might I say, delicious (unofficial) national drink, to which we had become addicted. Nothing beats the experience of sitting at a table on the top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, icy, limey Caipirinha in hand, enjoying the incredible views of white sand beaches, sailboats and lush green mountains, while the Brazilian song "Bahia" plays in the background...muito bom!

     View of Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next day, Luis got it into his head that he wanted to see the famous Rio football (soccer) stadium,  Estádio do Maracanã. I couldn't understand why he was so adamant because a) it's not in his nature and b) he has shown almost no interest in football as long as I've known him. Venezuelans tend to be baseball fans, the only South American country that is not completely football-mad. He does follow sports though (he's a man after all), whereas I, on the other hand, am what you would kindly call athletically-challenged and therefore have little to no interest in sports, professional or otherwise. Grumbling, looking forward to potentially the most boring day of my life, I trudged behind him, hoping the stadium would be closed for any number of reasons: plague, locusts, scurvy outbreak, but no such luck.

Luis in heaven at Estádio do Maracanã (photo by Simone Cannon)

We arrived at a gigantic stadium, much bigger than I thought it would be, and as luck would have it, there was a ceremony scheduled about an hour after we arrived to honor two legendary Brazilian football players, Djalma Santos (who played for the Brazilian national team in four World Cups, winning two and was named by Pele in 2004 as one of the top 125 greatest living footballers) and Dano Jose Dos Santos also known as Dada Maravilha (the third top scorer in the history of Brazilian football, outscored only by Pele and Romario). Djalma is now 81 and Dada is 67, but both are still in great shape. The ceremony consisted of both men placing their hands and feet in cement a la Grauman's Chinese Theater, but for sports, then greeting the crowd, surprisingly full of young fans, taking photos and conducting interviews with journalists. It was a wonderful heart-warming tribute and even I, confirmed anti-sports fan, found it moving. We even managed to get both of their autographs. It turned out that Luis had the right idea all the time.

Djalma Santos and Dada Maravilha showing off their newly-minted cement footprints (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Sugarloaf Mountain:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugarloaf_Mountain_(Brazil)
Santa Teresa:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Teresa_(Rio_de_Janeiro)

Estádio do Maracanã: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Est%C3%A1dio_do_Maracan%C3%A3

Djalma Santos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Djalma_Santos

Dano Jose Dos Santos (Dada Maravilha):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dada_Maravilha