Thursday, March 02, 2006

Brazil Will Eat Itself


Of the four South American countries visited by the OC, Brazil has far and away the best food. This is not so much because of the quality of the ingredients, or for any dishes in particular, but more due to both immediate and regional variety. With Brazil, I feel like there is yet room to explore with my stomach. Peru, Chile, and Argentina left me hungry for less.

The format and timing of Brazilian meals is more familiar to the North American diner. Breakfast generally includes more than just coffee and bread. A wide variety of fruits, meat, cheese, and some kind of cake also appear. Lunch and dinner in restaurants hit the plate around noon and eight, but it is normal for the average Brazilian to forgo a large evening meal in favor of a hefty late afternoon snack and a light meal (e.g. soup) in the evening.

Proper lunch and dinner is frequently served family-style in portions meant for two. It mostly frequently consists of some kind of meat, beans, rice, manioc (see below), and maybe a bit of salad as a garnish. Beef seems to be the most popular main event, with chicken and fish alternating popularity in keeping with the distance to a sea or river. You also see stew-like dishes, especially feijoada, a bean and fatty beef combo that is a Saturday mainstay. Starchy sides are less common, but not uncommon, and take the form of fried or mashed potatoes and boiled manioc. Brazil is not big on sauces or spices, but one or twice we were treated to a very hot pepper salsa on the side. I never had a dessert, but menus frequently offered fruit or cake.

Brazilian snacks deserve special mention. Lanchonettes are more common in Rio than Starbucks's are in Seattle - much more common. It is not unusual for three of four corners at an intersection taken up by these little restaurants. They dispense mostly fried goodies and juice and sometimes get as fancy as hamburger-based sandwiches (see X-* below). Fried things are always heavily breaded meat in shapes varying from empanada to Scotch egg.

Some specifics:

  • All You Can Eat / All You Can Pay - Buffets are popular for lunches and at bus stations. They feature a variety of salads, all manner of starchy staples, and a handful of stewy meat dishes. Some places take the all-you-can-eat approach. Others weight your plate and charge by the kilo. The latter is a welcome innovation as you pay only for the exact amount of food that you want. Buffet food is not the greatest, but it does allow you to try a range of dishes.
  • Rice and Beans - The magic Mexican combo was universally available. This made Jason very happy. Beans are usually black and cooked with garlic and onion and the rice is white.
  • Manioc - I am not exactly sure what part of a plant this is. Apparently, the raw form is highly poisonous. It is necessary to juice the plant completely before serving to remove cyanide. As you might expect, what is left over is pretty dry. You see it served in two forms. The first is like a fibrous plantain. The second is as crunchy flour that has been sauteed in butter. I prefer the former.
  • Churrascaria - For many readers, this may be your only exposure to Brazilian cuisine and it's not a bad place to start and stop. These restaurants feature a buffet of salad and meat options and sometimes sushi, but that is really just a sideline for the main event. An army of waiters come around with skewers of meat and slice them straight onto your plate. You get well-salted beef, pork loin, chicken hearts, ribs, sausages, and other parts and they keep coming as long as you keep eating. The servers seem to universally delight in stuffing the hell out of the patrons.
  • Fruit - As you might expect from a country featuring a giant jungle, there are a lot of fruits around with no English name. They appear most notably at breakfast, but are also seen in juice bars and popsicles. Acai (ah-sigh) is a notably popular purple jungle berry. In the jungle, we had fresh fruit at every meal. The pineapples were particularly sweet and delicious and the oranges much less acidic than those that I have had elsewhere. Juices are served raw. It is up to you to add sugar or liquid sweetener (weird stuff) to taste.
  • Bahian Food - Bahia is a district of Brazil situated along the northeast coast. The capital (and only area visited by the OC) is Salvador. This region is famous for the high level of African influence and it really shows in the distinctive cuisine. Our first night in town, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of local specialties. My favorite was a goopy slime of well-cooked pork, okra, and flour. It had the taste and consistency of spicy okra gravy. Marvelous. There was also a stew of bananas, yams, and potatoes that made up a slightly sweet, starchy mixture. The main meat dish was carrots, manioc, and cabbage boiled with salty pork chunks and sausage. It's nothing fancy, but I dig it the most.
  • Sun Dried Shrimp - Some Bahian stews feature shrimp that have been first dried outdoors for preservation. You eat them shell and all. I am not sure if the head is removed before or after drying. These take a bit of getting used to. Especially the little legs that get caught in your teeth.
  • X-* - The menu of some lunch counters is dominated by a list of sandwiches with names that begin with 'X'. Examples include 'X-Frango', 'X-Burger', and 'X-Salada'. In Brazil, 'X' is pronounced as a 'sh'. Jason suggests that it may stand for cheese, or 'quito' (kay-shoo) in Portuguese. Whatever the origin, the sandwiches are tasty but very unhealthy. King among the offerings is the X-Tudo, a sandwich who's breadth of ingredients could only be described as Peruvian. In one bun, you get hamburger, bacon, egg, bologna, french fries, peas, corn, and a whole lot of mayo.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your mention of Brazilian rice & beans brought back a flood of fond memories from my brief stint in Sao Paulo as a kid - almost every day after school there was a big pile waiting... I can actually taste them as I write this. There are better things in the world to eat, of course, but sometimes memories get burned into your brain during childhood, and I've got rice & beans on the brain - a big, delicious pile of rice & beans....

3/06/2006 4:36 PM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer pinto beans and the orange Mexican rice (it's cooked with tomato puree) than black beans and white rice myself.

You can get acai drinks at the Jamba Juices around here.

Ha. X-Sandwiches. Give me an X-Burger sir! TO THE X-TREME! To recharge my mutant X-Factor as I watch The X-Files.

I went out on a date last Wednesday. I told the girl The X-Files is my favorite show. She said she could've figured that without me telling her.

3/06/2006 6:54 PM gmt


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