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Musa das Panelas

 

Luiza-Souza-da-Gema

Luiza Souza of Bar da Gema

 

Amidst all the political drama in Brazil over the last few months you could be forgiven for forgetting that pans can be used for cooking (as well as for voicing your dissatisfaction with elected politicians, obvs). Happily, one of Rio’s most engaging and positive culinary personalities has stepped up to remind us all that a pan’s place is in the kitchen.

I first became aware of Luiza Souza back when I stumbled upon Bar da Gema during the Comida di Buteco bar food competition a few years ago. Along with culinary partner in crime, Leandro, Luiza runs the kitchen of this brilliant bar in Tijuca, knocking up delicious (and indulgent) treats like Polentinha (crispy cubes of deep-fried polenta topped with rich, velvety oxtail), Frango com quiabo (chicken with okra) and award winning coxinhas.

Well a few weeks ago Luiza launched a fantastic new venture which simultaneously showcases her cooking and her personality which is as big as, well, Luiza herself!

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acarajé-recipe

Acarajé Recipe: a delicious labour of love

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This how the pros do it – the acarajé of Nega Teresa.

 

I think it’s fair to say that not everyone loves Brazilian cuisine. Accusations/complaints I hear from time to time include that it is heavy, overly rich and boring. I’m not going to tell you Brazilian food is light and zingy in the way we think of Thai or Peruvian cuisine, but if you take the time to get beyond the obvious stalwarts like feijoada and the churrascaria meat orgies then things get a lot more interesting and, potentially, lighter too. Most dishes can be given a lighter touch with a few tweaks and recently I’ve been playing around with one of Brazil’s most tasty (and interesting!) dishes.

Eating acarajé is like taking a delicious bite out of Brazil’s past. When I first started learning about Brazilian cuisine one of the things I found most fascinating was the clear links back to West Africa that were still very evident. Acarajé was brought to Brazil by the slaves taken from Ghana and Nigeria – I’m told you can buy Akara (as it is known there) on the streets of Lagos to this very day.

For those unfamiliar, acarajés are fritters made from black-eyed beans – the finished item (somewhat reminiscent of a falafel) is split open and filled with dried shrimp, a nutty, shrimpy paste called vatapá, an okra based mix called carurú, a dab of hot sauce and, optionally, a salsa-like mix of tomatoes, cucumber and coriander/cilantro. They come from Bahia, Brazil’s heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, and are traditionally sold by baianas, the hugely photogenic women dressed in the traditional garb of of the state (vestuário).

At first sight, making acarajé seems like so much work that it’s one of those things best left to others (see also: puff pastry). But the nice thing about doing it yourself is that you get to tweak the recipe, play around with the flavours and generally make it just the way like (and most likely annoy the hell out of the purists). There’s only one hassly step but once that’s out of the way it’s a really enjoyable dish to prepare:

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tapioca

Making Tapioca from scratch

tapioca

 

Have you ever made fire the old fashioned way? You know, by rubbing two sticks together or using some other cunning bush-craft technique? I haven’t done it myself, but it appeals to me greatly. I like the idea of doing it at least once just to prove that I can and also to experience the magic of what is really quite an amazing process when you stop to think about it. After that I expect I’ll be happy to go back to using a lighter or matches.

I’ve noticed recently that my will to do things from scratch has been extending into the culinary world too. I’m not quite ready to butcher a cow’s carcass, but I wouldn’t rule it out one day. For now I’ll content myself with smaller achievements – like tapioca extraction!

For those who don’t know, tapioca is the starch that is extracted from the cassava root. Cassava goes by many names – manioc and yuca are two of the most  common and in Brazil we have (at least) three: mandioca, aipim and macaxeira. Tapioca starch can be used to thicken sauces in much the same way as corn starch (known as ‘cornflour’ in the UK, fécula or amido de milho here in Brazil). It can also be used to make a delicious pancake known as beiju de tapioca or just tapioca. They’re a big hit with most people who try them.

Most of us buy our tapiocas from street vendors or market stalls – whether topped with something sweet or savoury, it’s a delicious and satisfying snack (you can also buy the hydrated starch powder in supermarkets so you can make your own tapiocas at home). Until recently there had always been a missing step in my knowledge and experience of this operation – how do you extract the tapioca starch from the cassava?

Turns out it’s pretty easy and rather a fun little project – here’s what you do:

 

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Recipe: Dadinhos de Tapioca com Queijo

International-Club-Rio

A few members of the International Club of Rio (InC) discussing their latest events and fundraising activities.

 

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve changed quite a lot since I came to Brazil. It’s hard to know how much of that change has been due to actually being in Brazil and how much it’s been just the natural process of getting older or various other possible factors. But regardless of the reason(s), the extent of the change really hit home a couple of weeks ago when I found myself giving a talk to around 50 members of the prestigious International Club of Rio (InC) – currently in its 50th year.

Late last year one of my food tour guests, Susan, mentioned that she was a member of this group which aims to create a community of English speakers in Rio. The group (formed of many different nationalities including Brazilians) gets together for social events, helps newcomers settle in and raises funds for philanthropic activities and services. “We’d love it if you came along to one of our meetings and gave us a talk about how you came to Brazil and some background on Brazilian food,” she said. “Our guest speakers usually speak for about an hour”.

Now if this proposition had been put to the old Tom who lived in London you can be sure he would have run a mile! I was never a big fan of public speaking – even a 10 minute presentation to a handful of work colleagues used to give me palpitations back in those days. But with hardly a moment’s hesitation I found myself agreeing to Susan’s suggestion and a couple of months later I was standing in front of a large group of women of all ages and telling them my story. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the entire experience. I don’t suppose it’s really for me to say, but it felt like the group enjoyed the presentation too (at least they laughed in all the right places and gave me lots of positive feedback afterwards). How times change.

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I first tried these tasty, cheesy ‘dice’ in Café do Alto in Santa Teresa.

 

A couple of days before the talk, it occurred to me that it might be fun to make something for the audience to eat while I spoke. I guess the idea was that even if they hated my presentation at least some tasty food might put them in a forgiving mood. The response on the day was so positive and I had so many requests for the recipe that I ended up promising to put it up on the blog. So here it is:

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Balas Baianas – ‘sugar glass’ coated coconut candy

Feira-de-rua-Rio

 

Did I ever mention how much I love Rio’s street markets? Hmm, only about 20 times in the last year I suppose… Still, I’m sure that anyone who’s had the pleasure will agree that they’re utterly awesome. I visit these feiras da rua at least 3 or 4 times a week and although most of the markets are fairly similar, there are always a few variations depending on which location/day of the week you happen to be visiting.

One of my favourite markets is held in Glória on Thursdays and that’s all down to the availability of a rather delicious bala (candy / sweet / lolly) (USA / UK / Aus). Regular readers will know that I am not a sweet-toothed person – when it comes to Brazilian ‘classics’ like brigadeiro and quindim, I tend to agree with Jamie Oliver – and yet this item of confectionery has me hooked. It’s a sweet, creamy coconut centre surrounded by a thin, glass-like coating of caramel-candy. Adriana, the woman who sells these balas, calls them Balas de Coco, but that name is also used for another candy which is quite different, so I’ll be sticking with the alternative term, Balas Baianas.

In the interests of being self-sufficient, I decided to have a go at making these sweets myself and it turns out they’re not that tricky.

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Taking Brazilian cuisine to New York with #SkypeMoments

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Ah well, so much for my high hopes of two posts on a Friday. I was actually kept very busy on Friday night by a rather exciting project. For anyone who hasn’t read my previous posts on the subject, some time ago I became Skype’s ‘Brand Ambassador’ for food. They have quite a few different Brand Ambassadors – travel, photography, sports and film to name a few (see the full list here).

In the build-up to Christmas, the good people at Skype got Frank Bell (Skype’s Music Ambassador) and me together to come up with a plan. The idea was to stage some kind of fundraising event that would involve music and food as part of Skype’s ‘Social Good‘ project. We eventually decided to host a dinner party at Haven’s Kitchen in New York. Frank would be performing live, both on his own and also accompanied by a collaborator over Skype. I was given the task of designing the menu for the night and Skyping in to oversee the preparation on the night and also to say hello to the guests.

Of course I’ve put menus together in the past – I guess every time any of us have guests over for a meal we have to decide on a series of things to eat, right? But this was a different proposition. My menu was going to be prepared by a professional chef (David Mawhinney) and his team and served to around 40 influential New Yorkers who had been selected to attend the event. I was definitely feeling the pressure.

Chef-David-Mawhinney

David Mawhinney of Haven’s Kitchen doing his thing.

I decided to opt for a menu inspired by Brazilian cuisine – I have always thought that many of Brazil’s best dishes are better suited to chilly winters than stifling summer heat, so New York in the depths of winter seemed perfect. Here is the final menu:

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Recipe: Bolinhos de Abóbora com Carne Seca

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Bolinhos de feijoada from Aconchego Carioca

 

Did I ever tell you how much I love bolinhos? When I was first introduced to these little balls of joy, I assumed the word meant just that: little balls. In fact bolinho is the diminutive of bolo, the Portuguese word for cake, so really these are ‘little cakes’, but a better translation would be ‘fritter’ or ‘croquette’. Whatever you call them, bolinhos are hugely popular in Brazil. There are quite a few bars in Rio that owe pretty much all their popularity to their bolinhos.

The photo above shows bolinhos de feijoada from Aconchego Carioca. This is a bolinho version of Brazil’s best-loved dish, feijoada: black bean purée on the outside, shredded couve and bacon in the middle, all encased in a delightfully crispy shell. Along with a helping hand from Claude Troisgros, these bolinhos really put this restaurant on the map. Other bars and restaurants in Rio for bolinho lovers to visit include Bracarense in Leblon and Bar do Gomez in Santa Teresa:

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Mistura 2014 & the Chowzter Latin America Awards

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Chicharron sandwich from Lima restaurant El Chinito. Pork, sweet potato and ceviche-style red onions. One of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.

 

Hola from Lima everyone! I jetted in yesterday on a very unglamorous 4am flight from Rio and stopped in my hotel just long enough to dump my bags before heading off the Mistura, Latin America’s biggest and best food festival. Yesterday I overheard a first time visitor to Mistura saying “This place is just amazing. I didn’t realise it was on my bucket list until I got here!”. I know exactly what they mean – if you’re looking for a huge, rich, delicious, fascinating food experience, Mistura should be on your list too.

This is my second visit and it is proving to be just as enjoyable and interesting as last time. In just a few hours I ate and drank my way through upwards of 35 dishes yesterday. I know that sounds shameful/gluttonous/amazing (depending on how you feel about excess), but I should quickly point out that many of those 35 ‘dishes’ were in fact small tastes of something delicious, rather than full-blown plates of food.

I don’t want to be down on Rio, but the recent Rio Gastronomia event has a long way to go before it approaches the heights of Mistura. I have a hard drive full of mouthwatering photos, but not enough time to show you everything, so I’ll just give you a little amuse bouche for now.

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British-cheese

Proof that British food isn’t terrible

British-cheese

 

A little while back, Jamie Oliver stirred up a whole lot of trouble (while hungover) by describing brigadeiro and quindim (Brazilian sweets) as “a load of old shit” on Brazilian TV. A little while later, Andrew Creelman over at “What About São Paulo?” asked the question Why do some Brazilians think British food is shit? Andrew’s question was partly prompted by Jamie’s ‘foot-in-mouth’ moment and partly because plenty of Brazilians (and other nationalities) have a poor view of British food.

It’s interesting how personally we take criticism of our food, regardless of where we’re from – when I read comments like “Sorry, but British food is disgusting” I can’t help but feel a pang of indignation, just the same as Brazilians felt miffed that Jamie dissed their sweets.

Quindim

Quindim – not everyone’s cup of tea.

 

In case it wasn’t clear already, I’m a fan of Brazilian food, but in the case of brigadeiro and quindim (a mix of egg yolks, sugar and coconut) I have some sympathy for Jamie. I know there are some foreigners who like those sweets, but to most untrained palettes they taste bland and sickly-sweet. Similarly, I wouldn’t expect anyone to like Marmite if they hadn’t grown up with the stuff. So if anyone feels like saying that Marmite is a load of old shit, be my guest (all the more for me!).

But sweeping statements like “British food is terrible” (or “Brazilian food is terrible” for that matter) are generally made by mischievous people who are looking for a rise, or who haven’t had the pleasure of tasting the best the country has to offer. I’ve defended Brazilian food in the past, so today I’m just going to put forward 2 examples in support of British food.

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Brazilian-beef

Cachambeer: Pleasures of the flesh in Zona Norte

Brazilian-beef

 

Much as I love many Brazilian cuisine, I think very few people would described it as ‘sophisticated’. That’s not meant as an insult, but I think it’s fair to say that most Brazilian dishes fit into the category ‘comfort food’ rather than, say, ‘delicate and complex’. And although Brazil has 7,500km of coastline (more than twice that of Peru), many visitors are surprised at how little seafood finds its way onto Brazilian menus – meat usually takes pride of place.

Brazilian eating culture also places a lot of emphasis on dishes that are bem servido (served in generous portions) – restaurant menus often include suggestions for how many people main dishes will serve, but unless you’re a powerlifter you can safely multiply the suggestion by 2.

Well a couple of years ago I heard talk of a bar/restaurant way up in Zona Norte that took the Brazilian predilection for huge portions and roast meats to extreme levels and last weekend I finally got to visit.

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