Saturday, February 18, 2012

Happy, Friendly, Food-Loving Brazil

With Brazil's famous Carnival upon us this weekend, I wanted to share our experience in this land of food and football loving Brazil.  Here in the States you get the impression that Brazil is all about grilled meat and you rarely hear about other culinary delights.  While they did have many delicious meats, this beautiful country offers so much more.

South America's largest country, Brazil is an amalgam of peoples, cultures, and flavors. The country's regional cuisines are influenced strongly by its cultural diversity—beginning originally with the native Guarani, Tupi, and Arawak peoples, then with the Portuguese colonists and African slaves in the fourteenth century, and later with large waves of Germans, Japanese, Italians, Syrians, and Lebanese.  I'm pleased to say the country, rich in resources, is also rich in fantastic, diverse foods and today I'll share with you some of our favorites which we found on our tour of Rio de Janerio, Porto Alegre and Igaussu Falls. 
Brazil has nearly 7500 km (or 4600 miles) of Atlantic ocean coastline and the world's largest river by volume (the Amazon) making seafood popular, plentiful and extremely fresh.  In many restaurants in Rio we found large iced fish cases from which you could select your meal.  From smaller fish, served whole and grilled, to fillets encrusted with nuts, the choice was impressive.  Most of the fish was served with rice as a side-dish, which appeared to be more popular than potatoes throughout our travels.

Heart of Palm
Perhaps the biggest dining surprise we had on the trip was the appetizer of heart of palm.  To us hearts of palm are small, white, canned sticks that are often added to salads that are somewhat flavorless.  So when dining at Aprazivel in Rio, generally felt by many to be their favorite restaurant in the area, we were curious to try out this highly praised item.

Our Friend Pam with Kevin
Aprazivel is not just a restaurant, it's an experience. Located on the hilltop in the heart of the Santa Teresa bohemian neighborhood, the restaurant is an exotic tropical oasis filled with thatched roofs, beautiful wood, soft light, tropical plants, and tables in tree houses. The view is outstanding, looking down on the lights of Rio. It had excellent cuisine, carefully designed with exotic tropical ingredients and true Brazilian dishes with a touch of finesse.

Heart of palm is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees. In Brazil the ivory-colored pupunha hearts of palm are prized by chefs, and now we know why.  These are not the small, domesticated farm versions that are grown for canning.  Instead these are large palm hearts as big around as my wrist.  When steamed in the trunk, as we had at Aprazivel, it takes on the taste of tender lobster and sweet corn combined. We drizzled it with a little basil-olive oil sauce and it was melt-in-your-mouth tender.  Eaten raw it has a crunchy taste and makes a perfect addendum to any fresh cut salad.  Cut then grilled, it was equally delicious.

At Aprazivel Kevin had the roasted goat which was also tender and mild.  Served on mashed potatoes with a complex sauce, it was just delicious.  I had the local stewed chicken/rice dish that was served with a side of plantains (similar to a banana but firmer and lower in sugar.)  It was also very flavorful.  We saved our visit to the famed Brazlian churrascaria (a restaurant that specializes in grilled meats) until we flew south to Porto Alegre, where we were in the heart of Gaucho (traditional cowboy) country.  There we enjoyed local traditional performances as well as the famous selection of grilled meats.  We had this several nights and at some places it was served by waiters in Gaucho costumes circulating through the room with a wide-variety of grilled meats and sausages.  Every place was an 'all you can eat' bonanza which left us overly full but happy!

Coffee, Cocktails and Softdrinks
Brazil is the largest coffee producer in the world and it is eagerly consumed by both locals and tourists alike, with local coffee shops available everywhere.  Brazilian coffee is not is grown at high elevation which means it is relatively low in acidity. It typically has been dried inside the fruit (dry-processed) so that some of the sweetness of the fruit carries into the cup.  As such, the coffee tends to be round, sweet and well-nuanced rather than big and bright.  We found this particularly delightful and often took a break during the day to enjoy a cup with a dessert.  We also were introduced to Brazil's national cocktail called a Caipirinha, while in Rio attending the Samba school. A caipirinha is made with cachaça (sugar cane rum), sugar (preferably white powdered sugar) and limes, crushed in the glass with the sugar. Cachaça is Brazil's most common distilled alcoholic beverage. 
The major difference between cachaça and rum is that rum is made from molasses, a by-product from refineries that boil the cane juice while cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled.  A caipirinha can also be made with standard rum or even vodka, and during our travels we felt it our culinary duty to try all variations! (smile) But when coffee or a cocktail were not an option, we enjoyed Guarana Antarctica, which is a moderately sweet soft drink made of a tropical berry that grows in the Amazon.  As you can see, when we travel we do our best to soak up the local flavors.

With their historic European connection, Brazil's desserts are on par with anything you can find on the Continent.  As in most things, they've taken a classic dish from the homeland and combined it with with local flavors.  As such there was lots of coconut, mango, passion fruit and banana flavors on the menu when combined with candies, cakes and custards.  Brazilians also cook bananas in many ways although frying them in vegetable oil or butter is the probably the most popular. The bananas are often served just the way they come out of the pan and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and sometimes prepared flambé with rum (ala Bananas Foster). 

Docinhos are Brazilian desserts made of eggs, sugar, and/or sweetened condensed milk, and a variety of fruits and nuts, including coconut, dates, prunes, walnuts, Brazil nuts, peanuts, etc.  Many Brazilian recipes are made with condensed milk.  It came to Brazil from Switzerland over a hundred years ago and like in the U.S. it's made by Nestlé.  Because the label featured the picture of a milkmaid, the cans became known as the "maid milk' and that's what condensed milk is called to this day (Leite Moça) in Brazil.

If you don't want a heavy dessert after dinner or with your afternoon coffee, you might be offered a Brigadeiro, which is a candy in the docinhos family.  This is a simple Brazilian chocolate bonbon, created in the 1940s and named after Brigadier Eduardo Gomes. It is a very popular candy in Brazil and as with most chocolate, a nice way to end any meal.

In Closing
I hope it's quite evident that we truly loved our travels throughout Brazil.  I  could have gone on for quite a while longer and shared hundreds of photos with you of Brazil's fine culinary traditions.  If you have the opportunity to travel to Brazil I encourage you to go and to spend as much time as you can enjoying the many delights the country offers.  Obrigado!

1 comment:

  1. Never been to South AMerica... the food does look wonderful, David. You tempt me!!