Thursday, June 30, 2011

Brazil's Consumer Protection Law vs. Restaurants

Brazil's federal consumer protection law (Código Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor) is one of the strongest in the world. On paper it is probably the strongest worldwide in terms of the protection it affords the consumer from abusive practices on the part of businesses. In terms of actual business practices, however, the law is not always obeyed, and in many cases businesses continue practices that are explicitly forbidden in the law. It's a question of impunity, lack of enforcement, lack of consumer knowledge, or even at times lack of knowledge on the part of a business that a certain practice, common in their industry, is illegal.

There are two practices that are commonly encountered in Brazilian restaurants and bars which are forbidden by the law, yet which in many types of establishments are almost universal. A recent survey indicated that the majority of Brazilian consumers were unaware that these practices were illegal, and those that were aware were likely not to know what their remedies were. These practices are something called the couvert (cover charge) and a charge for live music.

Tourists visiting Brazil and dining in a restaurant (especially an upmarket one) are often pleasantly surprised when the waiter brings to the table, unasked, a selection of breads, olive oil, perhaps some cubes of cheese and salami. This is called a couvert in Portuguese, and is normally placed on the table while the diners are reading their menus and deciding what to eat. One might be forgiven for thinking, "what a nice gesture." It's only when the bill arrives, if then, that the customer realizes that they've been charged for that nice gesture. It might be only a small charge, but in fancy restaurants it can reach R$20 (about USD $12) or more.

The consumer law specifically prohibits the practice of placing a a couvert on the table without informing the customer that there is a charge for the plate and offering them the option to decline it. This almost never occurs. In the real world, customers have two options if they do not want the couvert. First, you can tell the waiter that you don't want the couvert and ask him not to place it on the table. Alternatively, you can eat nothing on the plate, and leave it to be cleared away at some point by the waiter. If you do this, be sure to check the bill carefully to make sure the couvert has not been charged for. If it has, speak to the waiter or the manager if necessary to have it removed. Note, however, that if you eat even one little olive or cube of cheese you have, in effect, contracted to buy the couvert and will be correctly charged for it in full. It's a bit like Persephone eating one pomegranate seed in Hades - you've locked yourself into a bargain, one that you may not want.

It should be pointed out that sometimes the couvert is very well done and well worth the price. Some restaurants are famed for the quality and variety of their coverts, and no one objects to paying for them in these establishments. The point of the consumer protection law is not to forbid couverts - it is to allow the consumer to make an informed choice whether she wants to eat and pay for the couvert or not.

The second way that the consumer protection law bumps into restaurant/bar practice is the charge for live music. One of the delights of many a Brazilian bar or boteco is the live music offered to accompany drinks, snacks and lively conversation. It can be someone singing bossa nova and playing an acoustic guitar. Or it might be a trio singing hits of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga in thickly-accented English. It can be the touch that completes a perfect night out with friends, or it can be something that will cause you to flee the bar with your hands over your ears. But what it cannot be, according to the law, is an item on your tab at the end of the night. The argument that the law makes is that the consumer goes to the bar for food and drink, and may or may not want to listen to the music. However, they have no choice whether to listen or not, and as listening is not a choice of the customer, it cannot be charged for.
Zug Choperia, Fortaleza

In the case of a live music charge, however, the consumer law is more honored in the breach than the observance. A charge for live music is to be expected in bars and restaurants where it is offered. It's usually not very high, especially considering the quality of what you might be listening to - a few dollars at most. Unlike the couvert, which is easily refused on a per table basis, the practice of billing for live musica cannot easily be declined with grace. A restaurant is certainly not going to stop the music to accommodate you - and it seems a bit churlish to refuse to pay for what one has listened to, especially since the music charge usually goes directly to the musicians and is their only pay for their work.

So here we have two practices which theoretically are forbidden but which are often encountered. Flavors of Brazil, in its wise counsel, recommends that you make your own decision about whether to eat the couvert or not - it's easy to decline if done at the right time. As for the music charge, we pay it, and recommend that you do the same. Just mark it down as part of the cost of enjoying a typical Brazilian experience - a night out with a group of friends, good snacks, plenty of icy beer, all accompanied with a live music soundtrack.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

RECIPE - Fried Fish, São Paulo Style (Frigideira de Peixe)

This recipe comes from Brazil's most populous state, São Paulo, home to more than forty-one million inhabitants, a majority of whom can trace their ancestry back to immigrants from Portugal, Spain or Italy. It's that Mediterranean ancestry which probably explains the quantity of olive oil (and olives) in this delicious recipe for fried fish. Since we've been discussing the role of olive oil in Brazilian cuisine the past couple of days here on Flavors of Brazil, it seems appropriate to feature a recipe in which both the fruit of the olive tree and the oil pressed from that fruit sit front and center.

The traditional recipe for this dish calls for the fish to be cação, which is the Portuguese word for shark as a food source (there's another word for the animal itself). There are significant concerns about the sustainability of shark fisheries worldwide, so we recommend that you choose another white-fleshed fish that doesn't easily flake - halibut being an excellent substitution.
RECIPE - Fried Fish, São Paulo Style (Frigideira de Peixe)
Serves 4

For the fish:
4 shark, halibut or other white fish steaks
salt to taste
juice of one lime
4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, sedded and chopped
1 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped (deli-style European olives preferred)
4 caper berries
freshly ground black pepper to taste

To garnish:

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, cut into strips
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and cut into strips
2 Tbsp Italian parsley, finely minced
Wash and dry the fish steaks. Season them with salt to taste and lime juice. In a large non-stick frying pan, heat the olive oil, and fry the chopped onion and tomatoes in it until the onions are transparent and the tomatoes are soft. Sprinkle half the chopped olives over the onion/tomato mixture, then add the four steaks in one layer. Sprinkle the remainder of the olives on top, and add one caper berry to the top of each steak. Cover the pan, and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through.

While the fish is cooking, heat another frying pan and add one Tbsp olive oil. Fry the onion and tomato strips briefly, until the onion is just transparent and the tomato strips are softened.

When the fish is cooked, sprinkle the fried onion and tomato-strip mixture over, the top with the chopped parsley. Serve immediately from the pan, accompanied by either white rice or boiled new potatoes.

Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Quest for Brazilian Olive Oil

As detailed in yesterday's post on Flavors of Brazil about the size of the Brazilian market for imported olive oil, Brazil's consumption of olive oil (or azeite as they call it) is stupendously large, and is increasing exponentially from year to year.

Considering the economic value of the oil that is imported into Brazil every year, not to mention the equally large market for imported olives themselves, it's only natural that Brazilian agriculturalists and botanists have turned their thoughts to the possibilities of creating a domestic market in olives and olive oils. It has long been thought that Brazil didn't offer the climatic or soil conditions that the olive tree requires to grow and bear fruit. The area around the Mediterranean Sea, where the tree flourishes, is known for dry, sandy soil, hot and arid summers, and cool and damp winters. Brazil, with its tropical soil, year-round heat and high levels of humidity was thought to be inimical to olive tree cultivation.

It is true that large portions of Brazil, such as the jungles of the Amazon River basin, or the semi-arid northeast, just cannot support olive cultivation. But other regions of Brazil offer interesting possibilities, and research scientists have begun a number of agricultural research studies and tests to try to find the right combination of climatic conditions and olive tree cultivars to build a Brazilian olive oil industry from scratch. The preliminary results are very encouraging.

Maria da Fé, Minas Gerais
The largest project, and the one which is closest to developing a commercially viable domestic olive oil comes from the interior Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where at higher altitudes the climate more closely mimics Mediterranean climate, particularly during wintertime, than does most of Brazil. An agricultural research organization, called Epamig (a Portuguese acronym for "Agricultural Research Institute of Minas Gerais") located promising land for olive tree cultivation in the small city of Maria da Fé , located in the south of Minas Gerais. They planted a research olive grove there more than fifty years ago, and only now are their efforts bearing fruit - figuratively and literally, since olive trees require at least fifty years before they provide a sustainable quantity of olives.

In 2008 the first viable harvest from the groves at Maria da Fé yielded one ton of olives, resulting in 200 liters of oil. In 2009, the harvest yielded 500 liters of oil, and in 2010 about 1000 liters. The scientific analysis of the oil from Maria da Fé is very encouraging. The oil is very low in acidity (0.39%), an important factor in valuing olive oil, as the acidity can be no more than (0.80%) for an oil to be considered extra-virgin.

Although the quantity of oil produced so far by Epamig is miniscule, groves have been planted in a number of locations with climate and soil conditions similar to those at Maria da Fé, and these groves will begin producing shortly. Farmers in the states of Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, realizing the economic potential of olive cultivation have planted hundreds of thousands of trees, anticipating the future market for domestic olive oil.

Epamig Olive Oil
In September of 2010, Epamig brought their olive oil for the first time to ExpoAzeite, an olive oil trade fair held annually in São Paulo. Tastings were offered and the consensus was that Brazilian olive oil has nothing to be ashamed of and can stand in the market for olive oil on its own merits, not just on the fact that it is Brazilian.

Though the Brazilian olive oil industry is still very much in its infancy, one would be forgiven if one said that its future looks golden - olive-oil golden.

Monday, June 27, 2011

INGREDIENTS - Olive Oil (Azeite)

Considering all the cultural and gastronomic links that unite Portugal and its former colonies in South America which constitute present-day Brazil, it's no great surprise that Brazil today has a tremendous appetite for olive oil. For what could be more emblematic of Portuguese cuisine than the liquid gold that is the gift of the European olive tree (Olea europaea)? Early Portuguese explorers and settlers arrived on the shores of Brazil bearing bottles of precious olive oil, and from its earliest days the nascent cuisine of Brazil made liberal use of the oil. Brazilian cooks of all kinds to this day employ the oil to fry foods and to season and flavor them.

Brazil's appetite for olive oil (azeite in Portuguese) is staggeringly large. Since virtually all of the olive oil consumed in Brazil is imported, import statistics can give us a handle on the size of the market. In the last year for which statistics have been published, 2009, 44,000 tons of olive oil were imported. Preliminary estimates for 2010 suggest that the total for that year will have increased to 50,000 tons - that is 100 million pounds of oil, or approximately 50 million quarts or liters.

About 95% of the oil that is imported to Brazil comes from the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, principally Iberia (Spain and Portugal), Italy and North Africa. The Mediterranean is where olives were first cultivated, and where olive oil was first produced, even before the Mediterranean became a Roman sea. Today, people who inhabit the Mediterranean basin, from the Middle East to Portugal, and from southern France and the Balkans to Morocco and Egypt consume more olive oil than in any other part of the world. But the Brazilians aren't far behind.

In Brazilian dishes which come directly from the Portuguese kitchen, or which are inspired by the cuisine of that country, olive oil is almost always the only vegetable oil used. Salt cod (bacalhau) without a liberal sprinkling of olive oil is unthinkable, and Portuguese-inspired soups and stews invariably emply olive oil. But even dishes which can't be traced back to European roots, like the Afro-Brazilian dishes typical of Bahian cooking, often call for olive oil - sometimes in combination with other oils, like corn oil, or the brilliant-orange palm oil called dendê.

As Brazil's economy grows, and the average Brazilian's ability to afford olive oil increases, it is expected that the import market for olive oil will continue to grow in the years to come. Some Brazilian agriculturalists and food scientists are beginning to wonder if the country really needs to import all of the oil that it consumes and are questioning why there is no domestic production of olive oil. Flavors of Brazil will highlight their efforts in our next post.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Those Exotic, Difficult-to-find Ingredients

As a blog about all things Brazilian in the world of gastronomy and cooking, Flavors of Brazil must deal constantly with the problem that one or more ingredients in an important dish or preparation might be very difficult to find outside Brazil.Flavors of Brazil is written in English, and although about 25% of our page views come from Brazil, the vast majority of hits come from English-speaking countries - the USA, Canada and the UK leading the list.

Consequently, we're often faced with an editorial dilemma when deciding which dish to feature, or what recipe to publish. Should we post a recipe that requires an ingredient that is virtually unobtainable outside Brazil, or should we avoid publishing it so as not to frustrate readers who'd like to try the recipe but can't find the ingredients they need?  For example, many dishes from Bahia require dendê oil, made from a palm tree and not widely available in North America or Europe. You can't make Brazil's famous acarajé without dendê, and Flavors of Brazil couldn't pretend to any sort of completeness without a recipe for acarajé.

Our solution has normally been to publish the recipe, indicate which ingredients might be difficult to find and to suggest substitutes where possible. Where substitution of an ingredient would render the recipe meaningless, we try to suggest possible sources of the ingredient.

All of which brings us to the topic of this post. Just as Flavors of Brazil might make a list of Brazilian ingredients which are hard to find, with suggestions about substitution, one of Brazil's national newspapers, Folha de S. Paulo, this week published an interesting piece on ingredients from other countries and cultures which are difficult or impossible to source in Brazil. Readers of this blog from the USA, from Australia or France, for instance, might be surprised that foods that are absolutely mundane to them and universally available are considered exotic and strange in Brazil.

I remember the first time I finally tracked down fresh celery here in Fortaleza, and served it on a vegetable platter. Almost none of the twenty or so guests at the party knew what it was or recognized the flavor when they sampled it. Celery just doesn't have a place in most Brazilians' kitchens, and its distinctive flavor doesn't contribute to stocks and broths, or to tuna salad, or to vegetable platters in this part of the world.

So, just to amplify this list, and exemplify the notion that exoticism is in the eye of the beholder, here are some ingredients discussed in the piece from Folha de S. Paulo:
  • rhubarb
  • curry powder
  • maple syrup
  • buttermilk
  • parsnips
  • sour cream
  • lemons

The next time you're in the produce section of your local market and spot a package of celery, or pick up a tub of cour cream, just think to yourself, "How exotic!"

Friday, June 24, 2011

RECIPE - Tapioca with Sun-dried Beef (Tapioca com Carne de Sol)

Yesterday Flavors of Brazil featured a recipe from northeastern Brazil for tapioca filled with a sweet guava paste mixture. (The recipe is here). Although tapioca is made from manioc starch and not wheat flour, its culinary use in Brazil is not restricted to sweet presentations and recipes. Like the crepes of France, tapioca is just as likely to have a savory filling as it is a sweet one. In fact, people here are so crazy for tapioca in all its forms that they might just buy one tapioca, a savory one, at a tapioca cart, eat it as their main course, and then order a second, sweet one, for dessert.

This recipe is for one of the most loved tapiocas - filled with carne de sol, which is the sun-dried beef of northeastern Brazil, and with Catupiry cheese, Brazil's favorite cream cheese. Since readers of this blog who live outside Brazil aren't likely to find carne de sol at the market, here's a link to a post from last year showing how to make your own carne de sol at home. And any good quality cream cheese can be substituted for Catupiry.

The method used for making the actual tapioca (the crepe) doesn't differ depending on whether it will be savory or sweet, we haven't repeated instructions for making the crepe. They can be found here. This recipe will require two crepes, so you'll need to double all the quantities in yesterday's recipe.
RECIPE - Tapioca with Sun-dried Beef (Tapioca com Carne de Sol)
Makes 2

2 freshly made tapioca crepes (see above)
1/4 lb (100 gr) carne de sol (defrosted if frozen)
1/3 cup good quality cream cheese, deli-style if possible
1 small onion, finely chopped
softened butter
Cut the carne de sol into small cubes, about 1/2 inch (1 cm) on a side. In a medium saucepan, bring about 1 quart (1 liter) of water to a boil. Add the meat, reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 10 minutes to draw out excess salt. Drain the meat and let it cool slightly. Reserve.

In a medium frying pan, melt a few tablespoons of butter. Add the onions and saute for a few minutes, or until transparent. Add the reserved carne de sol and continue to cook for about five minutes, or until the meat is cooked through. Remove from heat.

In a blender or food processor combine the cream cheese and the reserved meat-and-onions mixture. Blend until the mixture is homogenous.

Using the method described h , make one tapioca crepe. Remove it from the pan and when it is still hot spread about one tablespoon of softened butter over it. Then spread half of the meat/cream cheese mixture  over it and roll or fold it in half.

Serve immediately, while still hot.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

RECIPE - Tapioca with Guava Paste (Tapioca com Goiabada)

This recipe, which comes from Ceará in northeastern Brazil, is a good example of what a nordestino (someone from the northeast) means when they refer to tapioca. As detailed in the preceding post on Flavors of Brazil tapioca is one of those words that carries a number of meanings - a culinary counterpart to what are referred to as false cognates in the world of linguistics.

In Ceará and neighboring states tapioca means a round griddle cake made from manioc/cassava starch and which is rolled or folded over to contain some sort of filling. In this recipe after the tapioca is cooked a layer of guava paste (goiabada) is spread over it, it is rolled and briefly dipped in coconut milk, and then it is served decorated with thinned guava paste and mint leaves.

To make this recipe successfully outside Brazil, you will probably need to visit a Latin American market for a few ingredients. The essential ingredient, obviously, is the manioc starch itself. In Brazil it is sold in supermarkets under the name goma de tapioca if it is fresh, and fecula de mandioca if it is fully dry and needs to be reconstituted with water before using.This dry product can be found in markets which cater to Caribbean, Central American or Brazilian immigrant communities, and in North America it is almost always labeled in three language - as cassava starch in English, amido de yuca in Spanish and fecula de mandioca in Portuguese. The other ingredient you'll need from a Latin market is the guava paste, which is also labeled trilingually - guava paste in English, guayabada in Spanish and goiabada in Portuguese.
RECIPE - Tapioca with Guava Paste (Tapioca com Goiabada)
makes 1 crepe

1/2 cup dried cassava starch/fecula de mandioca
1 cup water
1 pinch of salt
1/2 cup plus 1/4 cup of finely diced guava paste
1/4 cup coconut milk
mint leaves to decorate (optional)

In a small mixing bowl place the 1/4 cup guava paste and then begin to mash it with a wooden spoon, adding hot water about 1/2 tsp at a time. Continue to mash and add water sparingly until you have a smooth paste that is just liquid enough to pour from a spoon or squirt from a pastry tube.

In another mixing bowl, medium size add the dried cassava starch. Add up to one cup water, only a bit at a time and mixing in totally before adding more water until you reach the texture of small peas, each one separate. Do not over-add water to make a dough. Over a baking sheet, push the starch through a sieve. Let dry on the sheet. You should now have little balls of starch that you are ble to scatter individually.

Heat a dry non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the moistened starch over the bottom of the hot pan, making sure it covers the entire bottom. It should be less than 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick over the entire surface. Let cook for a few minutes or until the starch adheres to inself to make a crepe and it becomes dry and just begins to brown on the bottom side. Using a spatula as an aid, turn the crepe over and cook for just a minute or two. Remove from the heat and using the spatula move the crepe to a large dinner plate.

Spread the surface of the crepe with the 1/2 cup finely diced guava paste, and then roll the crepe loosely around the guava paste. Pour the coconut milk onto another plate and roll the crepe briedly in it.

Finally, place the rolled crepe in the middle of a dessert plate, decorate with liquified guava paste and a mint leaf and serve.

Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tapioca - What it is depends on where you are

If you ask someone from North America what the word tapioca means to them, they'd be likely to tell you that it's a pudding-type dessert, white and creamy and full of little transparent gelatinous balls. They are also likely to either love it or hate it; there's really no neutral ground when it comes to this dessert. For those who hate it, those little transparent balls bear a all-too-close resemblance to fish eyes.

If you asked someone from Singapore or Hong Kong the same question - what is tapioca? - they'd tell you instead that it's  the "bubbles" in bubble tea. These bubbles can be teensy or enormous, they can be highly-flavored or just sweet, they can be green, blue, pink or violet, but they are what makes bubble tea bubble tea.

For people in northeastern Brazil, tapioca is something entirely different. It's a flat griddle-cake similar to a pancake or better yet a crepe, white, chewy and without much flavor, which is rolled or folded and filled with any number of sweet or savory fillings, like crepes are. Some favorite fillings are grated coconut and grated cheese, carne de sol, banana and cheese, or simply butter.

At the end of all that questioning, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the confusion is probably just some sort of linguistic mixup - that these different foods really have nothing to do with each other except similar names. But you'd be wrong - in all these food cultures, and many more around the world that use tapioca, it is essentially the same ingredient, just formed and handled in different ways.

Manioc plant
Tapioca is one of the end-products that are extracted from a tropical tuber, native to Brazil, called manioc, cassava or yuca in English and many other things in other languages. (See earlier Flavors of Brazil post "Manioc's Many Names" for more manioc nomenclature). Depending on what part of the manioc plant is used and how it is treated it can resemble a potato, a thick, floury paste, or a gritty yellow grain. Tapioca is just one more of the many shapes and forms of manioc.

There are essentially two kinds of manioc - one which is poisonous in its natural state due to the presence of cyanide and one which is not toxic (more information here). Tapioca is one of the products that results from the process of detoxificaiton of poisonous manioc - a process that dates back to pre-Columbian Indian cultures in the region of the Amazon River Basin.

Before poisonous manioc can be safely eaten, its cyanide must be removed. This is done by peeling and grating a manioc tuber, and then squeezing all the liquid out of it using a type of wicker basket designed specifically for this purpose. The liquid that is extracted from the root is allowed to stand for a day or so until all the starch settles to the bottom of the container. That starch is tapioca, which is now safe to eat. The liquid, however, it still toxic and must be boiled for a very long time, up to several days, before it is comestible. In Brazil's Amazon region, that liquid is called tucupi and it plays a vital role in the cuisine of that area.

But it's the starch that's left behind that we're concerned with here. It can be spread out and dried to make a starchy powder, or it can be processed into those balls of tapioca put in pudding or in bubble tea. It can be used as a flour in all sorts of baked products, and since it has no gluten is commonly used in baked goods for people who are gluten-intolerant.

Here in northeastern Brazil the word tapioca is used to refer to the starchy flour itself and also to the crepes which are made from it and which are a popular snack and street food. In our next post, we'll take a look at the tapioca of Brazil's northeast.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

RECIPE - Eggplant with Coconut Milk (Berinjela com Leite de Coco)

Eggplants can be cultivated just about everywhere in Brazil, including the tropical north where the climate is similar to India, which is where eggplants were first grown for food. This very simple recipe is a good example of how eggplants are used in Brazil's north, and how they are combined with other tropical ingredients, in this case coconut milk and hot chili peppers. Brazilian cooks tend to be quite liberal with amounts of chili peppers, and this dish in normally quite spicy in Brazil. However you can "defuse" the dish if you wish by lowering the amount of chilis or substituting red or green bell peppers.

The resulting dish takes eggplant in a new direction - away from the Italian, Middle Eastern or Asian flavors we've come to associate with eggplant. Try making eggplant with coconut milk as a side dish next time you serve grilled fish or shrimps. Fish, this eggplant dish and white rice are all you need to make an authentic and marvelously tasty Brazilian meal.
RECIPE - Eggplant with Coconut Milk (Berinjela com Leite de Coco)
Serves 4

1 large European-style eggplant, sliced thinly along horizontal axis
3 medium white onions, thinly sliced and separated into rings
1 cup (250 ml) cononut milk
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
red or green hot chili pepper to taste, seeded and finely minced (Note: for non-spicy dish, substitute finely diced red or green bell pepper)
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350F (180C). In a glass or aluminum lasagne pan place the slices of eggplant in layers until you have used up all the eggplant. Salt them to taste.  Next toss the onions rings over the eggplant, making sure that all the eggplant is covered. Next, combine the coconut milk and the dairy milk in a large measuring cup and stir to mix thoroughly. Finally, sprinkle as much chili pepper or red pepper as you want to top off the dish.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil, and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 40 minutes. Remove the tin foil, then bake for an additional ten minutes. Remove from the oven, let stand for 5 minutes, then serve immediately.

Recipe translated and adapted from Brigadeiro de Colher blog.

Monday, June 20, 2011

RECIPE - Layered Eggplant (Berinjela em Camadas)

This forward-looking recipe for eggplant, which was introduced last year at the SEMANA MESA SP gastronomic week in São Paulo, is the creation of chef Carlos Bertolazzi from C.U.C.I.N.A Gastronomica in that city. It is his reimagining of a classic Italian dish, melanzane alla parmigiana, making use of sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients and substituting wheat germ for less-nutritious white all-purpose flour.
RECIPE - Layered Eggplant (Berinjela em Camadas)
Serves 4

1/4 cup (65 ml) wheat germ
1 Tbsp fresh oregano, crumbled
2 Tbsp light soya sauce
1 medium-size, firm European egglant (or 2 smaller ones)
juice of 1/2 lime
extra-virgin olive oil to taste

1 Tbsp neutral vegetable oil
2 Tbsp onion, finely minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp Worcesterchire sauce
1 large leaf fresh basil
1 cup (250 ml) ricotta cheese
2 Tbsp toasted walnuts, finely chopped
2 Tbsp Italian parsley, finely minced
2 Tbsp green onions, green part only, finely chopped
1/4 cup (65 ml) grated mozzarella cheese
Prepare the eggplant:
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Wash and dry the eggplant, then slice it into rounds approximately 1/2 inch (1 cm) think. Ideally you should have nine slices - use two eggplants if required. Lay the slices out on a cookie sheet, sprinkle them with the oregano and soy sauce and let stand for 10 minutes. Sprinkle the lime juice over, then dip the slices into the wheat germ, covering both sides. Grease a baking sheet and place in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, turning the slices over about halfway through, or until they are golden brown on both sides. Reserve.

Prepare the stuffing:
Heat the vegetable oil in a medium saucepan. Add the chopped onion and garlic and saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is transparent but not browned. Add the tomato, the salt, the Worcestershire sauce and the basil leaf and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the tomato breaks down. Remove from the heat, let cool, then stir in the ricotta, the walnuts, the parsley and green onion. Reserve.

Complete the dish:
In a small greased casserole arrange one third of the eggplant slices in one layer. Spread some filling on each slice, using up to half of the filling. Top with a second slice of eggplant, and spread an equal quantity of filling on each. Finally, top with the remainng slices of eggplant and sprinkle grated mozzarella over the top surface. Place in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until the mozzarella has melted and the filling is hot.

Serve immediately accompanied by a green salad.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

VEGETABLES OF BRAZIL - Eggplant (Berinjela)

Brazilians eat a lot of eggplant (Solanum melongena). It's available year-round in markets and supermarkets since most climatic conditions in Brazil are very well suited to cultivation of eggplant. That's really not surprising if you consider the origins of the vegetable - it was first cultived in India in prehistoric times, and temperatures are high almost year round in most of India just like Brazil. It's journey from India to Brazil passes from its native soil to the Middle East via Arab traders, thence on to Spain and Portugal during the period of Moorish occupation, and finally on to Brazil with Portuguese explorers, colonists and immigrants.

The Portuguese word for eggplant, berinjela, comes from a Mughal/Persian word meaning "plant and fruit" that was brought into Arabic and on to Spanish and Portuguese. Interestingly, the Portuguese then carried the word back to India where the current Hindi word for eggplant, brinjal, is a direct derivative of Portuguese berinjela. What goes around comes around.

Brazilian eggplants are normally of the dark-purple rounded variety rather than like those varieties more common in Asia which are a lighter shade of purple, thinner and more elongated. Those available in markets here tend to be smaller than their North American cousins, however. Since the characteristic bitterness of eggplant increases with size, Brazilian eggplants need not be salted and squeezed to eliminate bitter juices and are usually cooked directly.

Although Brazilians in general are enthusiastic carnivores, and vegetarianism in Brazil is barely on the radar, contemporary Brazilian chefs are beginning to use eggplant as the centerpiece of vegetarian main courses. In the many cultures which avail themselves of eggplants, its unique ability to provide a "meatiness" to a vegetarian dish often means that eggplant is the placeholder for meat in a main dish. These chefs are also aware that although eggplant isn't strongly-flavored itself, it absorbs and augments flavors of other vegetables cooked with it, and take advantage of that quality in creation of new dishes.

Flavors of Brazil will feature some traditional and contemporary recipes for eggplant Brazilian-style in the next few posts. Keep tuned.

Friday, June 17, 2011

American TV Discovers Rio de Janeiro's Food Scene

This week popular American TV show Bizarre Foods, starring Andrew Zimmern, cast its eye on Brazil's number-one tourist destination, Rio de Janeiro. The episode aired in the USA on June 14, and information about it and video clips from the show can be found here. The complete episode can easily be found on various download and torrent sites around the Internet, which is how Flavors of Brazil came across its own copy, since this series is not aired in Brazil.

For those not familiar with  Bizarre Foods, the premise of the show is that the host travels the world looking for unusual, unfamiliar foods and food cultures, with an emphasis on the outrageous and the disgusting. Zimmern happily chomps down on live animals, a variety of insects and worms, inner organs of all descriptions as well as toxic fruits and vegetables.

Pork face and ears for feijoada
In the Rio episode, Zimmern does manage to find some "bizarre" foods in a number of neighborhoods of the cidade maravilhosa - pork faces and tails in the feijoada served at the Imperio Serrano samba school, chicken in a sauce of its own blook (frango ao molho pardo) in a boteco, a gigantic hermit crab caught just off famed Copacana beach, and strawberry calves' foot jelly at the São Cristóvão market.

In spite of the show's focus on the exotic and bizarre, the episode does manage to show some of the city's many faces, including some that aren't highlighted in tourist board publicity or airline commercial. He visits two of the city's infamous favelas, vertical slums that climb the sides of local mountains and which are often under the control of drug gangs. A look at the culture of Rio's samba schools includes the gritty reality that exists behind the glitter and lithe bodies of Carnaval's samba parades. Yet he doesn't exclude the other end of the economic scale, A segment on churrascaria restaurants provides a good how-to guide to eating in these establishments, and a chat with a upmarket celebrity chef opens up the world of fruits and vegetables from the Amazonian rain forest.
Frango ao molho pardo

Flavors of Brazil started watching the episode with trepidation, as it's all too easy to turn foreign cultures, especially foreign food cultures, into nothing more than show-off moments of the host's culinary machismo. Zimmern avoids that trap, and though clearly the show is tilted to serve its audience a portion of the outrageous, Zimmern allows his affection for the city, its food and especially its people to come through. Worth tracking down for an insight into Carioca food culture.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

RECIPE - Brazilian Grog (Quentão)

Thanks to Hollywood, TV travel shows and advertisements from the Brazilian Tourist Board, it isn't a surprise that most North Americans and Europeans think that Brazil is hot the year round. That's only partially true, however. If you're speaking of Brazil's north or northeast, like Fortaleza where Flavors of Brazil is based, it's definitely true. Today is typical weather in here Fortaleza, with daytime temperature of about 86F (30C) and dipping all the way down to 77F (25C) in the overnight hours. Fortaleza's temperatures don't vary more than a degree or two throughout the year - there's really no summer or winter.

In the southernmost reaches of Brazil, on the other hand, there are four distinct seasons, and the temperature at times is much lower than you might expect. The mountainous regions of the state of Rio Grande do Sul regularly reach freezing temperatures during the winter months, around 30F (-2C), and the winter median temperature is a chilly 45F (7C). And since Brazil lies south of the equator, those cold, damp winter months are June and July - right about now.

To celebrate Brazilian winter, such as it is, Flavors of Brazil thought it would be fun to feature a recipe for a hot winter drink from Rio Grande do Sul - just what one needs to take the winter chill off, whether in December in Canada or Sweden, or in July in Brazil. Hot drinks, spiked with alcohol, are favorite warmer-uppers in many cultures. Brazil is no exception - though, since this is Brazil, the alcohol of choice naturally is cachaça.
RECIPE - Brazilian Grog (Quentão)
4 drinks

1 cup (250 ml) cachaça
1 lime, sliced thinly
1 small orange, sliced thinly
1 cup orange juice (fresh-squeezed if possible)
8 whole dried cloves
4 sticks cinnamon - about 2" (3 cm) each
1 piece fresh ginger, peeled, about 1" (2 cm) long
1/2 cup (or less) sugar
In a large saucepan mix all the ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil over low heat, and let boil slowly for about one minute only. Remove from heat.

Divide between four tumblers or mugs. Distribute the clove and cinnamon sticks between the drinks; discard the ginger. The slices of lime and orange can optionally be added to the drinks, or discarded. Serve immediately while still very hot.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Acaçá - Candomblé's Most Important Ritual Food

Take a look at the photo above, one of a series of photographs which we've been publishing the last few days highlighting the intimate connection between the ritual foods of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé and the traditional cuisine of Bahia, Brazil. You might notice that every one of the ritual dishes in the photograph is topped with a elongated-pyramid-shaped mass of pure white. This is acaçá (prounounced a-ka-SA), the most important of all ritual foods, and the only one whose presence is obligatory at all Candomblé rituals.

For all its importance, acaçá is a very simple preparation. It is simply a thick mush made from grated or ground white corn wrapped and shaped in banana leaves. By itself it has little flavor, although it picks up the flavor of whatever dish it accompanies.

So why is this one food so important in Candomblé? We thought it might be best to let a practitioner of Candomblé explain. The following is our translation of a post about acaçá from the Portuguese-language blog A Tradicional Religião Africana (Traditional African Religion):

The basic definition of acaçá is a mush of grated or ground white corn wrapped, while still hot, in a banana leaf. There is nothing wrong with this definition, but it is extremely superficial because acaçá is by far the most important food of Candomblé. Its preparation is itself a form or ritual or offering, involving rigorous precepts and regulations which may not be disregarded.

All of the orixás [the gods and goddesses of Candomblé], from Exu to Oxalá, are offered acaçá. All the ceremonies from the most simple ebó to the sacrifice of an animal include acaçá. Ritual initiations, funeral rites and anything else that happens in a house of Candomblé only happens in the presence of acaçá. Life and death in Candomblé proceed from this fundamental offering, without which no one is saved from the troubles and disappointments of destiny. When we look back at the history of the orixás, we can see the great evil of a human race distanced from divine power, represented in this case by the powerful Orun, the dwelling place of all humanity, and by the Great Lord of Human Destiny, Olodumaré.

There is only one offering capable of reconstituting axé [the vital force of life] and creating peace and prosperity on Earth, and that is acaçá. But what makes this seemingly simple food the most powerful offering to the orixás? Who can tell us what an acaçá really is?To understand this question, let's make a list of the component elements of acaçá. First, it's important to make clear that the paste of white corn soaked for several days and then pounded in a mortar and pestle is in fact called eco. A portion of this eco, still hot, is wrapped in a banana leaf to harden and take shape and only then does the name acaçá apply. (Today it is possible to buy pre-ground white corn flour, but traditional priests often still use the old method of mortar and pestle to make eco.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

PHOTO GALLERY - Foods of the Gods, Part Two

Continuing with the gallery of photographs from the temples and kitchens of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé that began yesterday at Flavors of Brazil in this post. Many of these photos come from the market of São Joaquim, located near the center of Salvador, the present-day capital of the state of Bahia, and for more than two centuries (1549-1763)the capital of Brazil. Salvador is known for its distinctive music, architecture, cuisine and religion, all of which share deep African roots. Since more than 80% of Salvador's population has Black African ancestry, it's entirely logical that this be so.

(Remember to click the photos to see them full-size.)

Volunteers at the Umbanda center of "Father" Raimundo Troccli make a sacrificial offering of a rooster purchased the previous day at the market for 50 reais (about 25 USD)
At "Father" Raimundo Troccli's Umbanda center volunteers Graciliano Neto, 24, and Ailda Ferreira, 48, prepare basic seasonings.
Ingredients for foods of the gods can be found at São Joaquim Market, in central Salvador.
"Father" Raimundo Troccli chooses a live rooster for sacrificial offering at the São Joaquim Market.
Bottles of dendê oil at the São Joaquim Market in central Salvador.
Dried shrimps at the São Joaquim Market.
Okra, a ritualistically important food, at the São Joaquim Market in Salvador.
A basket of pomegranates at the São Joaquim Market.
Grating fresh coconuts at the São Joaquim Market.
Black-eyed-peas at the São Joaquim Market in Salvador.
Dried white corn at the São Joaquim Market.


Monday, June 13, 2011

PHOTO GALLERY - Foods of the Gods

As promised last Saturday here at Flavors of Brazil, this is the first of two posts containing photographs from the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. These photographs accompanied a recent articla in that paper about the intimate connection between the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé as it is practiced in the state of Bahia, Brazil, and the state's much-lauded traditional cuisine. Many of the most well-known dishes of Bahian food come directly from Candomblé rituals, and other dishes are inspired by Candomblé.

Candomblé is an animistic and polytheistic religion, with a large pantheon of nature spirits or gods (known as Orixás or Orishas). Its rituals involve possession of the initiated by Orishas, offerings and sacrifices from the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. Rituals begin with the offerings and sacrifice. Then the initiates begin to dance and chant, accompanied by rhythmic percussion that gradually increases in intensity until one or more of the initiated becomes possessed by the spirit on an Orisha. In a trance state, the initiate who bears the spirit of the Orisha takes on the characteristic mannerisms and traits of the Orisha. At the end of the ritual, after the intensity and tension of the possessions, things become more relaxed, and the process ends with an elaborate feast for all participants. The feast usually includes dishes prepared from the animals that were sacrificed and offered to the Orishas.

Here is the first set of photos, with translations of the original captions by Flavors of Brazil. (Remember to click the photos to see them full-size.
Young Ney da Silva Barbosa, aged 9, with dishes of food from the candomblé temple Ile Axé Iba Lugan, headed by mother-of-saints Dona Jacira de Santana Miranda.
Plate of Acarajé: black-eyed pea fritters with shrimps cooked in dendê oil, prepared at the candomblé temple Ile Axé Iba Lugan, headed by mother-of-saints Dona Jacira de Santana Miranda
Mother-of-saints Dona Jacira de Santana Miranda, 60, makes food for the Orishas (for human consumption) at her candomblé temple in Salvador, Bahia.

Mother-of-saints Dona Jaciara Ribeiro cuts okra during preparation of foods of the gods at her temple Axé Abassa de Ogum, in Paripe, on the outskirts of Salvador.
In his Umbanda center in Cosme Faria (a suburb of Salvador) "Father" Raimundo Troccli adds honey to complete a dish of pumpkin cooked with tobacco leaves and acaça to be offered to the Orishá Cabloco.
Mother-of-saints Dona Jaciara Ribeiro preparing okra at her temple.
Mother-of-saints Dona Jaciara Ribeiro adds dendê oil to a dish for the gods.
Food preparation (fried yams and black-eyed peas with dried shrimps) at the temple.
Volunteers at "Father" Raimundo Troccli's Umbanda center serve food after a ritual offering of foods of the gods.
Shredded okra with shrimps, onions and dendê oil (lower right), pumpkin cooked with tobacco leaves, garnished with honey and acaça (upper right), white corn with honey, flower-blossom water and olive oil (lower right), black beans and shrimps, seasoned with onion and olive oil, garnished with acaça; all prepared to be offered to the gods at "Father" Raimundo's Umbanda center.
At the Umbanda center of "Father" Raimundo Troccli, a volunteer stirs a mixture of okra and shrimp, seasoned with onions and dendê.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

TEASER - Foods of the Gods

One of the most intriguing things about the traditional Afro-Brazilian cooking of the state of Bahia is the intimate connection between the religion that captive slaves carried with them when they were transported to the sugar-cane fields of Brazil and the ingredients, flavorings and cooking techniques that are characteristic of Bahian food.

The religion, known as candomblé, uses food in many ritualistic ways, and the foods of candomblé have in effect formed the basis of Bahian cuisine. The religion is the font, the source, of Bahian cuisine. Certainly foood culture and religion are closely related in many world cultures, but the nexus in Bahia is uniquely close and intense.

Recently, one of Brazil's major newspapers, Folha de S. Paulo, featured a number of articles in their food and cooking section about this link between religion and food. It was accompanied by some stunningly beautiful photographs that illuminate both the deep-felt spirituality of candomblé and the glories of Bahian food. Next week, we'll post the photos here at Flavors of Brazil, and explore how candomblé and Bahian food are connected at the heart.

To whet your appetite, here are two of the photos. We've left them at a larger size and higher resolution than we usually post here at Flavors of Brazil, so be sure to click the images to see them at their best. And check back next week to see them all.