Friday, July 30, 2010

Beautiful Bonito and the Rio da Prata, Brazil

Evening in the town's central plaza: lighted fish sculptures and fountains, Bonito, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The appropriately named Bonito, meaning beautiful, is a small town in the southeast of Brazil used by most travelers as a jumping off point to the Pantanal, Brazil's sprawling and swampy wildlife reserve. The town itself, though, is full of interesting things to do, including many excursions such as floating/snorkeling down the crystal clear rivers of the Rio da Prata (Silver River) swimming alongside the colorful and sometimes sinister-looking river fish, hiking through the densely forested trails and hills, exploring ancient caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites, swimming under hidden waterfalls, horseback riding, bird-watching, rappelling down through cave openings to turquoise waters below and, for the more adventurous, sampling alligator and piranha at the town's many restaurants.

Thirsty butterflies refreshing themselves on the Rio da Prata (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Although we were eager to head out to the Pantanal, we decided to linger a few days in Bonito, which seemed especially appealing after our long bus trip, made longer by the many stops the driver needed to make to repair or replace tires. We arrived out of season, so the streets were fairly empty and, at this time of year, the town atmosphere is laid back and quiet. The people who live there, many of whom have relocated from other more chaotic areas of Brazil, are equally laid back. Whenever we asked someone why they had uprooted their life and family and moved to Bonito, they would give essentially the same answer: quality of life. After a few days there, we understood. The town is clean and relatively quiet and safe, small enough where most people know each other (although it is understandably overrun by tourists during high season), convenient to many beautiful, natural places to hike or picnic, yet filled with modern conveniences. 

Our River da Prata companions (courtesy of http://www.bonitoweb.com.br/)

We booked a daytrip to the Rio da Prata the next day through the Hostelling International hostel in Bonito who in turn reserved it through the Rio da Prata Recanto Ecologico and it turned out to be one of the most amazing trips either of us had ever taken. The water is incredibly clear due to the natural filters in the river and is filled with beautifully colored or jet-black fish. We were all given wetsuits that, at first, I thought were unnecessary, but after floating and paddling along in the cool water for four hours, seemed like a stroke of genius in hindsight. The river current can be quite strong in plces, so little effort is needed to swim. The fish swam alongside us as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It seemed completely normal to them that they should be sharing their river with us and were not in the least bothered by our presence. They seemed to regard us as just another form of rubber-suited, snorkel-masked sea-life.  

Floating down the crytalline waters of Rio da Prata (courtesy of http://www.bonitoweb.com.br/)

It was like swimming in a giant aquarium, filled with dorado, pintado, piraputanga, caiman and aquatic plants, while above, butterflies and songbirds flew over our heads and dipped into the water. As I watched what I first thought was bits of silver paper shimmering on the bottom of the river, but which turned out to be hundreds of tiny feeding silver fish glistening in the sun, I couldn't imagine anywhere on earth I would rather have been at that moment.

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) 


Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Travel Journal: Campo Grande, Brazil

The giant parrot sculptures at Praça das Araras, Campo Grande (photo by Luis Bastardo)


“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain


After several hectic days exploring the insanely busy city of São Paulo, it was time to get back to nature by traveling to one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Brazil, the large wildlife reserve known as The Pantanal. Brazil currently has 17 protected properties on the UNESCO list, with 17 more on the tentative list (proposed sites waiting for approval by the UNESCO committee). I had been looking forward to this part of the trip for months, since I love anything to do with nature, animals and/or national parks. I even have a US National Park passport to collect park stamps as one would collect country stamps (I'm still waiting for a UNESCO version of this passport to be published, but not such luck yet). The preliminary jumping off point for the Pantanal is a small, but neatly kept city called Campo Grande (pronounced Campo Gran-jay and meaning "large field"), where you can drive directly to the Pantanal or catch a connecting flight to either Bonito or Corumbá, then travel into the Pantanal by minibus or truck. Campo Grande itself is a relaxing and interesting city to visit though and we spent a few days de-urbanizing ourselves before trucking out to camp in the wilderness.



A selection of hand-made indigenous art for sale at the Memorial da Cultura Indígena (Indigenous Culture Memorial) (photo by Luis Bastardo)



 
We arrived at the Campo Grande International Airport after circling for about an hour, which was odd, because we were the only plane. Literally. There are only two runways, one gate and we were the only arrival. Campo Grande is a city of about 800,000 inhabitants located in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, on the border of Bolivia and Paraguay. Its economy is largely based on services, agriculture and lately, the military. We caught a taxi into town, found a nice hotel called the Ibis (everything seems to be bird-themed in Campo Grande) and signed up for the city tour. The popular tour features a small but impressive art museum, a cultural center called the Memorial da Cultura Indígena, situated in a small indigenous neighborhood, much poorer and less developed than the rest of Camp Grande, the airport entrance with its giant ibis sculptures (more birds) and various memorials (to break up the bird theme, there is an armed alligator dressed in combat fatigues standing guard at the Western Brazilian Army Headquarters).


     

An alligator (locally known as a caiman) protecting the Western Brazilian Army Headquarters (photo by Luis Bastardo)


In the evening, we visited Shopping Campo Grande, the only major shopping mall in town to see the weekly concert of the local Beatles cover band called Beatles Maníacos (Beatles Maniacs), which was actually very good. They were especially impressive since not one of them spoke more than a few words of English, but had memorized every word of their collection of Beatles' songs, all pronounced in a Liverpool accent. The enthusiastic crowd was enormous and included fans of every age, ranging from dancing toddlers to twisting senior citizens. Surprisingly, since their grandparents were probably the original fan base, a large number of fans were teenagers, sporting Beatles t-shirts and photo buttons of their favorite original Beatle. It was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement, joining in the singing, clapping and dancing. Not to be outdone by the old-age pensioners vigorously dancing to Twist and Shout, Luis and I even gave it a spin, but soon realized that we were out of our league.   



    The Beatles Maníacos cover band and its fans at the local shopping mall (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Wild, Weird and Wonderful Fruits of Brazilian Markets or How to Tell if Your Mangostin is Ripe

A selection of fruits on offer at the Merdaco Municipal in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)


One of the great joys of traveling is visiting local markets and expanding your global food horizon, so to speak, by sampling everything in sight. Brazil and Venezuela are particularly good countries for finding new and exotic (at least to non-Brazilians and non-Venezuelans) fruits and vegetables. Before visiting these countries, I had never heard of fruits such as nispero, caimito, jobito, curuba (aka banana passion fruit), semeruco or icaco, much less tasted them. In Venezuela, there are too many fruit stands to count (called "batidos de frutas") , offering fruit smoothies in every combination imaginable. The choices are overwhelming and more than a little intimidating. Try deciding whether it's better to order the semeruco/icaco combo or the nispero/jobitio mix. In Brazil, it is even more of  challenge to decipher the names and varieties of fruits, given that everything is written in Portuguese and I only speak English and basic Spanish. Nevertheless, not one to be deterred by such trivialities as language barriers, I usually forge forward  in most foreign countries with fingers crossed and health insurance card updated, to try whatever the merchants will allow me to taste, and so it was in Brazil.



Sapucaia do norte fruit, showing its hard exterior and the sweet, edible seeds inside (photo by Luis Bastardo)




The Mercado Municipal (Municipal Market) in São Paulo, is one of the best places to visit to immerse yourself in the fruit heaven which is Brazil. The merchants are friendly, knowledgeable and always at the ready with a sharp paring knife and a handful of fruit, handing out juicy samples to potential customers. Several varieties are familiar to North Americans and Europeans, such as mangos, avocados, persimmons or passion fruit (known locally as maracuja), still others are known to those who live in cities with significant Latin or Asian populations, fruits such as cheremoya, dragon fruit (known in Brazil as pitaya), or kumquats. While perusing the fruit displays for my next taste, several mysterious fruits appeared to be inedible, with dark, hard shells, dry-looking exteriors or rather frightening hairy spikes, but to my delighted surprise, were usually hiding soft, sweet, luscious interiors. Several fruits are considered to be natives of other countries, such as the Asian rambutan or the odoriferous durian, but are also grown in Brazil. Since Brazil occupies more land mass than any other country in South America, the huge nation encompasses many different growing zones, soils and levels of humidity and so is able to cultivate most of the fruit of the world in one place or another.   




The scary looking rambutan, whose spikes hide a sweet, white fruit similar to a lychee (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Luis, possibly a reincarnated fruit bat, loves fruit, all fruit. I swear the man eats ten kilos a day of whatever he can get his fruit-junkie hands on, so needless to say, his hands and face were juice-stained 10 minutes after we arrived at the Mercado Municipal. He was like some wild-eyed fruit addict, running from stand to stand, practically knocking down senior citizens to get his fix, when suddenly he came upon what appeared to be a really interesting fruit called a mangostin, which he had to try. Unfortunately, he was in such a fruit-induced sugar high, that he didn't notice that this particular fruit cost 129.90 Reais a kilo (at today's conversion rate, that's about $72 US dollars a kilo or about $33 a pound), meaning that a single fruit about the size of a jawbreaker cost US$7. He kindly gave me half of it and I have to say that it was a pretty damn delicious fruit, although I would be hard-pressed to spring for a kilo. Between us, though, we probably ate our weight in fruit at this and other tempting markets throughout Brazil. Ah well, there are worst addictions, I suppose.

P.S. - thanks to everyone for all your ongoing support, compliments and words of encouragement...I really appreciate it! BTW, if you want to leave comments and you don't have a Google account, all you need to do is click on "Comments" at the bottom of each post, then where it says "Choose an Identity", select either "Name" or "Anonymous", then you can post anything you would like. Hope to hear from you soon!





 A display of mangostin, possibly the most expensive fruit in the world (photo by Luis Bastardo)



Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Travel Journal: São Paulo, Brazil: Part Two

Rush hour trains in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)


The next day, we set out to explore the city. São Paulo is a huge, skyscraper-filled city, the financial and business center of Brazil, although also filled with museums, churches and parks, which offset the "concrete jungle" feel somewhat. It is fairly easy to navigate the city on foot or using public transportation, but by car, it's a nightmare. São Paulo has some of the worst traffic in South America, with six million cars in the capital alone and traffic jams sometimes extending more than 130 miles (this gridlock is only surpassed by Caracas, Venezuela, whose roads and highways are basically parking lots). Unlike Caracas, São Paulo has some solutions. To mitigate the congestion, there is an excellent public transportation system and São Paulo also has the world's largest helicopter fleet, employing 820 helicopter pilots, and utilizing, at last count, 420 rooftop helipads. It is much easier and faster for a business person to hop a ride on a helicopter from rooftop to rooftop to get to a meeting on time than to try to make it across town by car. Another reason for this futuristic mode of transportation is security. Many executives or the upwardly mobile fear that they could be potential kidnap victims to be held for ransom, big business in Brazil.



A cityscape of São Paulo, showing several helicopter landing pads (photo by Luis Bastardo)



After visiting several churches and monuments, we ended up in the financial district and decided to visit BOVESPA, the Brazilian Stock Exchange. Having lived in New York City for many years, I had my doubts as to whether they would let us waltz on in and start snapping photos. For almost ten years, since September 11th, the New York Stock Exchange has been closed to visitors for security reasons, so I was sure that we would be stopped at the door, strip-searched, reported to the authorities and sent on our way. But no, to my surprise, they welcomed us with open arms, letting us wander around the stock exchange unaccompanied, allowing us to snap flash photos and partake of the snacks and drinks for employees. They even gave us 3D glasses and invited us to watch their 3D film on BOVESPA.



  Ready to watch the 3D stock exchange movie (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Later that evening, we were walking back to our hotel in the neighborhood of Jardins, a few blocks from the Republica Metro Station, chatting and joking about our day, when all of a sudden we looked up and realized that we were the only heterosexual couple for miles around. The streets were filled with amorous couples, leaning against trees, dancing, drinking and generally having a good time. It was if we had accidentally wandered onto the streets of Key West.

Sim: I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Luis: We're the only couple not making out. Not to mention the only straight couple. Could we be anymore conspicuous?
Sim: Well, we could be on fire...
Luis: I'm going to ask that policeman what's going on.
Sim: Ok.
Luis: Excuse me, sir, is it Gay Pride Day today?
Policeman: No.
Luis: Was there a parade?
Policeman: Nope. 
Luis: Are we celebrating something? Protesting something? Marching for same-sex marriage?
Sim: (checking out all the love connections happening) Doesn't look like there's much marching going on...
Policeman: It's like this every night. 
Luis: EVERY night? 
Policeman: Every night. 
Sim and Luis: Wow. 



Gay Pride Parade crowd of 3.1 million courtesy of Wikipedia (link below)


Turns out that São Paulo, despite its buttoned-down, conservative business image, is an extremely gay-friendly city (who knew?) There goes yet another one of my preconceived ideas about Latin America, that machismo and traditionalism rule society. São Paulo boasts numerous gay bars, hotels, discos, restaurants and even a gay shopping center on Frei Caneca (aka Shopping Gay Caneca) which is very popular. The São Paulo Gay Pride Parade in June is the largest in the world, starting in 1997 with only 2,000 participants and attendees and growing to attract more than 3.1 million visitors in 2009, surpassing even the large and well-attended Gay Pride parades in Sydney and New York. The parade is supported strongly by local, state and federal government and politicians who vie for coveted positions atop Gay Pride floats or for speech-making opportunities to advance their political careers (the mayor of São Paulo opens the festivities every year). In addition, the event is financially supported by Caixa Econômica Federal, the national bank of Brazil and Petrobrás, Brazil's mammoth petroleum corporation (more or less the equivalent to the North American company, Exxon). For more on the parade, see the links below.

Links:




Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Caipirinhas and Cachaça or How to Stay Pleasantly Drunk in Brazil

Enjoying a tall, cold one in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)


It was only a matter of time until I devoted a blog post to my favorite Brazilian drink. Traveling in Brazil, they are unavoidable (not that I tried very hard). For the uninitiated, caipirinhas, (pronounced Ki-pri-eenyas) which many consider the national drink, are cocktails similar to mojitos but without the mint. They are the essence of simplicity to make: a very refreshing mix of cachaça  (a sugarcane-based alcohol similar to rum, known by locals as Pinga or Aguardente de Cana), muddled limes, sugar and ice. Telling nicknames for cachaça (pronounced ka-sha-sa) include white lightning, moonshine or cat choker. Interestingly, many younger Brazilians prefer the drink made with other alcohols, such as vodka, gin, whiskey, even sake and they name the drink variously: Caipira Vodka, Caipira Whisky, CaipiGin, etc. Because it's so cheap and readily available, cachaça has been traditionally viewed as the "poor man's drink", less sophisticated or of lower quality and was therefore left to the tourists or working class to drink (the name, caipirinha comes from "caipira", the Portuguese word for hillbilly or country person). Recently, however, many higher quality brands have been developed and introduced, not only in Brazil, but internationally, which has helped to drive the drink's recent popularity.




The many options available at a mobile cocktail cart in Paraty, Brazil (photo by Simone Cannon)


Most historians date the origin of cachaça to the early 16th century, much earlier than the first rum, which was most likely developed in the 17th century. While rum is generally distilled from molasses, a by-product of sugar production, cachaça is distilled directly from the juice of sugarcane. In the centuries following its introduction, the Portuguese tried to outlaw cachaça, in part because they wanted to protect their own production of grappa from being usurped and in part because the alcohol was readily available to slaves, which the Portuguese feared would lead to drunkenness and diminished productivity. Despite their efforts, the popularity and availability of cachaça continued to grow and today is well-established and is the most consumed alcohol in Brazil. Cachaça has also developed a following abroad, especially in the United States and Europe and hence has been elevated from a cheap drink for the working class to an expensive, chic cocktail for the cool and hip. In Brazil, it's still possible to buy a caipirinha for a couple of dollars, while the same cocktail in a swank NYC bar can cost upwards of $20.



Mixing caipirinhas on the top of the world, Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)


The majority of distillers of cachaça are located in the state of Minas Gerais in the southeastern part of Brazil and it's possible to arrange for a tour including samples. As of 2003, over 1.3 billion liters of cachaça are produced each year. There are over 4000 brands of cachaça currently sold in Brazil and other countries are hot on their trail. Brazilian bars specializing in cachaça are called cachaçarias and Brazilians drink about 396 million gallons (about eight liters per capita annually). Even though less than 2% of  cachaça is exported, the number of countries discovering the joys of the alcohol are growing, with Germany and the United States in the lead. Here are some recipes to try caipirinhas at home:


http://www.drinksmixer.com/drink2632.html

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/drink/views/Caipirinhas-231517

http://supercocktails.com/203/Caipirinha






Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Travel Journal: São Paulo, Brazil, Part One

After spending a couple of days in charming and well-preserved Paraty, it was time to re-enter the modern world. Brazil is a country that has retained much of its colonial past, but is constantly striving to modernize itself and so it's possible, within a few hours, to travel from a world of 16th century cobble stoned roads, colonial buildings and gas lamps to one of 21st century multi-lane highways, glass and steel skyscrapers and neon signs. In the morning, we took the six hour bus ride to São Paulo (meaning St. Paul, pronounced sa-oo-powlo), the commercial and financial capital and the largest city in Brazil (and the Southern Hemisphere) with a population of over 11,000,000. The city is huge and busy, with much traffic, the largest helicopter fleet in the world, a modern transportation system, lots of noise and um, interesting, street odors. Let's just say that I was very happy when it rained hard the day after we arrived. We took the subway from the bus terminal and found our hotel easily enough; it is very well laid out and  "Paulistanos" (citizens of São Paulo) were very helpful.



Luis at the night food market happily waiting for his sandwich and his Viagra smoothie (photo by Simone Cannon)


It was getting dark, so we dropped our things at the hotel and ventured out to explore. The hotel receptionist told us that he knew of a club a few blocks away that had free Samba Rock concerts and dancing that night. Sounded good, so we headed in that direction, looking for a place to eat as we walked. We soon came across a kind of busy night food market filled with locals (always a good sign!) so decided to give it a try. We decided to split a huge, local sandwich called a Beirut, made from beef or chicken, lettuce, egg, cheese, tomato, etc. and one of the many freshly made juice smoothies using local fruits and promising to deliver everything from high energy to Viagra-like benefits.  After we finished eating and drinking, we were sufficiently energized to go dancing, so we walked over to the club (actually a small civic center) for Samba Rock (whatever that was...hey, at least it was free).



Samba Rock night in São Paulo (photo by Luis Bastardo)


When we arrived, the place was filling up with what looked like a cross-section of the Brazilian population: young, old, black, white, male, female, gay, straight...it promised to be an interesting evening. Everyone was talking quietly or sitting on chairs that had been lined up against the wall and I was thinking that it would be a fairly sedate affair, a concert where everyone applauded politely, when all of a sudden, the band started up and everyone jumped to their feet in unison and hit the dance floor. Samba, a popular form of Brazilian music with African roots, is the music and dance style most associated with Brazil and was originally played with drums and string instruments. Today, though, it usually has modern influences such a rock and instruments now include electric guitars, trombones, modern and traditional drums. There is also a whole culture that has grown around Samba: clothes, dances, food, festivals and the ubiquitous and popular Samba schools (Escolas de Samba). These schools are often located in or near favelas, the notorious Brazilian slums, giving the youth of the area a chance to spend their time perfecting their dance steps and musical skills.



My impromptu Samba teacher before she gave up hope on me completely (photo by Luis Bastardo)


 

I, on the other hand, unlike the Samba school students, have no dance skills whatsoever. It's all I can do to stand upright most of the time, much less try to coordinate my "moves" with another person while following the rhythm of music all at the same time. Inevitably though, there is someone at the dance/party/club who insists that I just haven't had the right teacher and that they will be the one who teaches me to dance. I always try to tell them that it's a lost cause, but they never listen. That person always ends up walking away shaking their head after a few minutes of dancing, no doubt wondering how I was able to arrive at the place without falling down and knocking myself unconscious. Samba Rock Night was no exception. After trying to dance and slamming into Luis several hundred times, almost giving him a concussion, several people offered to help me learn the dance moves. Most of them only lasted a few minutes before limping off to bandage their now crushed toes, but one girl hung in there, steadfastly refusing to believe that it was possible for a human being to be so completely without a sense of rhythm, bless her heart. Even she gave up finally; there are some things in the universe that you just can't fight.


Other Links:

Samba Schools in Rio: http://www.rio-carnival.net/samba_parade/rio_samba_schools.php

São Paulo's Helicopters: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jun/20/brazil

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Foods of Brazil: The Tradition of Feijoada

A typical feijoada (photo courtesy of http://www.brazil.org.vt.edu/

One of the most incredible parts of travel is the opportunity to taste and sometimes prepare exotic food and drink, and in the process, learn about the history and people of each area. Food, drink and self-education combined...what could be better? All you need is an adventurous spirit and an open mind (and occasionally a strong stomach) and off you go. It's also a great way to shake up any preconceived ideas about a place. Before I came to South America, I thought that all Latin American food was hot and spicy (I also thought that hooded members of drug cartels were out in force roaming the streets of major cities, looking for innocent tourists to kidnap, so I clearly had a lot to learn). It came as a bit of a surprise to learn that it is actually quite difficult to find food prepared with chilies or hot sauce in South America and the people here are generally not fans of eating food that makes smoke come out of their ears. In fact, here in Buenos Aires it is a challenge even in Indian or Thai restaurants to order anything spicy, unless the waiter takes pity on you and can scare up a selection of chili sauces to bring to the table (which I assure you, you will be eating alone).

The Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro version of feijoada (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Brazil is no exception, even in the heavily African influenced area of Bahia, although they tend to use chilies and chili sauces more than the other South American countries, but generally on the side. The food is complex and flavorful, but the flavor is not overly "picante" as a rule. Food preparation and style varies widely in Brazil depending on the region and ingredients generally used are local versions of African or Portuguese fish, meats, grains and vegetables since many recipes have Portuguese or African roots. Most Brazilians consider the national dish of Brazil to be Feijoada (pronounced  fey-zhoo-ah-dah). There are as many versions as there are cooks, but typically it consists of platters of sliced beef or pork, beef tongue, blood sausage, pork rinds, rice and beans and accompanying side dishes. These can include collard greens, oranges, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, farofa (a type of orange-colored grainy toasted cassava flour), fried plantains or bananas and a variety of sauces on the side, including a chili-based sauce. The traditional drink with a feijoada is beer or a caipirinha, a combination of cachaça, sugar and lime. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading the Friday blog that I had several icy caipirinhas with each meal. Hey, it's tradition...what could I do?  


Traditional Feijoada (photo courtesy of http://www.brazilmax.com/)

Feijoada is more of a family feast than a single-plate meal, traditionally served on Saturdays. My favorite version is made with grilled "carne seca" or dried beef. The beef is somewhat chewy, like a thick beef jerky, but deeply flavorful. The farofa I can do without, since I find it dry and crumbly, although most Brazilians wouldn't consider it a true feijoada without it. The feijoada was originally imported from Portugal, named after the Portuguese word for beans, feijão. Over the years, the ingredients and cooking methods evolved, as all things do, to reflect the cultural differences ubiquitous in Brazil. For example, in Portugal, the dish is prepared with different types of beans depending on the region; in Brazil, the bean usually used is a black turtle bean (although I've had versions made with white beans). African slaves often prepared the meal with leftovers from the plantation owner's family meals, typically less desirable cuts of meat or vegetables past their prime and so had to be creative in the preparation. The meal takes a lot of work and time, including both preparation of the beans and many varieties of meats, slow cooking in a large clay pot and assembly time and is therefore seldom cooked for fewer than ten people and almost always for lunch, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  


A selection of dried beans at a the Santa Teresa market in Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Many food historians find a link with feijoada and other bean and pork based stews and casseroles, such as French Cassoulet, Spanish Fabada Asturiana, even Boston Baked Pork and Beans. These dishes typically started as peasant meals, using whatever ingredients are at hand, then evolved into more high-end home and restaurant offerings, eventually becoming wide-spread and popular and associated with the country and culture. It's possible to prepare a feijoada at home, but be ready to invest time in shopping, prepping and cooking. Most of the more exotic ingredients such as carne seca, plantains or cassava flour (farofa) can be bought at Latin American specialty stores if you live in a big city or online if you don't. The other ingredients, beans, oranges, sausages, etc. can be easily bought at any market. You can substitute ingredients if push comes to shove, such as green bananas for plantains or other types of beans for turtle beans. Feijoada is an ever-evolving dish with many variants, so maintaining a sense of creativity, flexibility and humor is the key to a great meal (and fewer tears of frustration if you can't find the ingredients you need).  

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Paraty, Angra dos Reis, Brazil

 A schooner and snorkelers near Paraty (photo by Luis Bastardo)

 The next morning we asked around Trinidade and found that there was an "escuna" (the Portuguized version of the English word "schooner") going out on a snorkeling tour of the Bay of Ilha Grande around the nearby colonial town, Paraty (pronounced Para-chee). We had no idea what time it was leaving, so we just strolled leisurely down to the booking office with an Irish couple we had met at the hotel, only to find that we had less than 10 minutes to departure and were at least 20 minutes walking distance from the dock. The agency owners shook their heads vehemently, telling us that it was impossible for us to go today, that we would have to wait until tomorrow. Luis, using his super hero powers of persuasion, talked them into calling the captain on his cell phone and having him hold the boat for us. We thanked the agency owners profusely and took off like bats out of hell for the dock. We arrived, sweaty and out of breath, but just in time, as the captain was beginning to cast off. We flopped thankfully into the boat and sat panting in the ocean breezes that swept across the deck as the other passengers looked on curiously.

  One of the Escunas (schooners) of Paraty (photo by Luis Bastardo)
 
 Our first stop was a remote white sand beach, where the captain gave the passengers the option of swimming to shore and back to the boat or taking the dinghy. We both thought it wise to swim, since we had been scarfing down delicious Brazilian food all week and were definitely in need of exercise. Anyway, the dinghy was already weighed down with several, shall we say, "waistband challenged" people, who had taken up every square inch of rubberized surface, making the dinghy look none too safe. All was well with the swim, until I felt something brush up against me and glanced down to see a long needle-like fish poking me with his (nose? beak? protuberance?). "Arggghh!" I yelled to no one in particular since everyone else was either on the boat or the shore, and increased the speed of my swimming to approximately 2,000 mph, with the needle fish in hot pursuit. Luckily, he was momentarily blinded by the reflection bouncing off my preternaturally white body, and I was able to escape.

My scary needle fish companion (photo by Simone Cannon)
After our boat ride, we decided to take a walk around the well-preserved historical center of Paraty, originally a Portuguese colonial center. The cobble stoned streets are much as they were in the 17th century, although the town has been through many economic cycles, starting with gold mining by the Portuguese and followed by coffee, cachaça, fishing, agriculture and finally tourism. The town is filled with an interesting mix of cafes, artists' studios and galleries, charming tree-lined plazas, older family restaurants and chicer, newer boutiques and bars. As the sun set, the streets took on an even more romantic, other worldly authenticity as the original gas streetlights (now electric) came on, the cafes jumped to life and strings of paper flags fluttered overhead. Peanut vendors walked through the streets with what appeared to be glowing lanterns, but what turned out to be small metal buckets filled with glowing coals to keep the paper cones full of fragrant roasted peanuts warm. After exploring the little side streets with their inviting shops and cafes, we sat at a table in the street drinking (what else?) caipirinhas and munching on warm peanuts. Tomorrow, we would head to modern, progressive São Paulo, but tonight we lingered in the 17th century.


 The historical center of Paraty in the evening (photo by Luis Bastardo)