Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alligator Hot Pockets and Piranha Soup in Bonito, Brazil

Luis and Simone at the all-alligator restaurant in Bonito, Brazil

On Friday, we traveled out to one of the best, largest and lesser known wildlife areas of the world, The Pantanal of Brazil. When thinking of animal preserves in Brazil, most people think first of the Amazon Basin, but very few think of the amazing Pantanal, a huge expanse of protected forests, jungles, lakes, waterways and bird and animal havens. The town of Bonito (meaning "beautiful", an apt name for such a lovely, peaceful town) is the southern jumping off point of The Pantanal and hosts many places to eat on its main drag. The food options definitely take a turn for the exotic in this part of the world. Locals and tourists frequent everything from the cheap and casual sandwich shops to the enormously expensive a la carte restaurants where one can easily pay US$30 for about an ounce of exotic local meat, such as ostrich (avestruz), turtle (tartaruga), wild boar (javali), wild pig (peccary), frog (rã), carpincho (capivara, the largest rodent in the world) or alligator (jacaré). By far, the most popular ingredient used is alligator, also known locally as either caiman or jacaré, and is prepared in every way imaginable: soup, fritters, burgers, kebabs, stews, filets, even as a filling for a fried dough envelope resembling a Hot Pocket, called a Pastel de Jacaré.

Luis with his alligator (jacaré) hot pocket (photo by Simone Cannon)

Another popular item is piranha. In the wet season, the Pantanal waters are full of the sharp-toothed carnivorous fish, so much so that a piranha fishing event for tourists is included in most of the daily guided tours given by local naturalists or tour guides. In town, you will find them grilled, hot-pocketed, frittered or made into soup. They are quite bony, so many restaurant goers opt for the post-boned options such as soup or fritters, to avoid having to spend hours picking out the meat from between the many pin-like spines. Like jacaré, the flavor of piranha is mild and uncomplex, but pleasant enough, and an inexpensive way to try local cuisine if you visit the area. Naturally, the more expensive restaurants offer more flavorful and adventurous versions of local specialities such as filet mignon (of various animals), Pintado na Telha, a type of Brazilian catfish cooked on a ceramic tile, typical of the cooking style of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and Jacaré a Urucum, a dish of alligator cooked with urucum (aka annatto or pimentão doce), a seed of the flowering tree Achiote, which has a color and taste similar to that of saffron.    

Piranha Soup (photo by Simone Cannon)

For dessert, the most interesting option is to stop by one of the many sorveterias (sorbet and ice-cream parlours) to sample their sorbets, known in Portuguese as sorvetes, available in myriad local fruit flavors. Here when faced with choices such as jatobá, butia, bocaiuva, amora, jabuticaba  (which, unusually, grows on the trunk of the tree) or jenipapo, the best advice is to close your eyes and point to several spots in the general direction of the sorbet/ice-cream case. Very few of the parlour owners speak English and even if they manage a few words, are hard-pressed to explain what each fruit looks and tastes like. There is usually not an equivalent word in English anyway, although there are often accompanying photos or drawings, so it's best to select three or four interesting looking fruits or sorbets and try them out. Better yet, make a point to visit a parlour every day to taste four new flavors, no better way to immerse yourself in local flavor.

  A sorveteria sign, showing the many options available for sampling (photo by Simone Cannon) 

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