Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What the Duck? Untangling Patos and Marrecos

Although chickens are by far the most-commonly consumed poultry species in Brazil, just like everywhere else, they aren't the only birds that end up gracing the Brazilian dinner table. In certain regions of Brazil, for example, guinea fowl (capote or galinha d'Angola in Portuguese) are highly valued for their it's-chicken-but-it's-not flavor and are an important ingredient in traditional cooking. In fancy restaurants in Brazil's metropolises you can sometimes find squab (pombo) on the menu. Goose doesn't really have a place in Brazilian kitchens, perhaps because it's fatty richness is a bit overwhelming in tropical heat.

One bird that bridges the gap between traditional, countryside cooking and contemporary gastronomy in Brazil is the duck. Ducks can be found waddling around the simplest homestead in the backland - easy and cheap to raise - and end up roasted or stewed without fuss or muss. At the other end of the spectrum, magret de canard is considered the ne plus ultra of haute cuisine in Brazil, just as in France or the USA.

The Portuguese word for duck is pato (as in Pato Donald, the Brazilian name for Donald Duck). However, in supermarket freezers, in the pato section, one will often find something that looks an awful lot like duck but which isn't labelled pato. Instead, it's called marreco. If you ask the clerk or the market's butcher what the difference is, he or she is likely to say there isn't any - that pato and marreco are the same thing. Asking Brazilian friends the same question will get you the same response.

But, as Flavors of Brazil has found out, patos and marrecos aren't the same thing, though they are very similar. Since Brazilians are as confused as anyone about what distinguishes these two species, there are numerous attempts at disambiguation (that favorite Wikipedia word) of these two birds on Brazilian food and wine websites, in blogs and in Portuguese dictionaries. The majority opinion, which isn't a 100% consensus, is that, in the culinary sense, pato refers to the larger, white farmyard duck, the one known as a Peking Duck, and marreco is a smaller, more compact, brightly colored bird, often identified as the bird English speakers call teal.

In the kitchen, pato is considered to be fattier than marreco, and with a milder flavor. Marreco has a slightly gamier, wilder flavor and appeals to those who want a leaner bird. But Brazilians tend to use both meats interchangeably and Brazilian cookbooks will tell you that you can substitute one for the other in almost any recipe. We'll publish a couple of traditional Brazilian recipes for duck (or teal if you can find it) in upcoming posts on Flavors of Brazil.

Monday, October 29, 2012

FREVO - Home of São Paulo's Best Beirute

Named after the frenetic dance whose rhythms drive the Carnavals of Recife and Olinda in Brazil's northeastern state of Pernambuco, Frevo restaurant has been a luncheonette institution in São Paulo since it first opened its doors in 1956. Frevo, situated on the city's toniest shopping street, Oscar Freire, has been the restaurant of choice for hungry shoppers for years, and has spawned branches throughout  the city.

Frevo's decor is something to behold. Call it retro-diner mixed with elements of 1950's Brazilian design, all preserved marvelously. There is the obligatory counter, of course, with stools upholstered in red naugahyde. The same material covers the dining chairs in the restaurant's table-service area. On the white walls float wire-and-wood scupltures of frevo dancers, some lifting high the small umbrella that frevo dancers use to balance, just like tightrope walkers. It's worth a visit to Frevo just to see the interior design.

However, the crowds that fill the restaurant daily don't return time after time to admire the decor. They are back because of the food. No restaurant can flourish for 55 years on design alone - only good food merits that kind of success.

The menu at Frevo features pizzas, sandwiches and burgers, plus sundaes, pies and other diner standards. The most popular of Frevo's sandwiches is their take on a beirute, a Syrio-Lebanese pita-bread sandwich that has become a Brazilian favorite. (Click here to read more about the history of the beirute). The restaurant's beirute is so well-loved that it was named São Paulo's best in this years Best of São Paulo competition. The prizes in this competition are awarded based on public votes, not on the votes of food professionals or journalists, as are some other gastronomic competitions.

At Frevo, they serve a classic beirute, without pretention and with no 21st-century additions. It's simply roast beef, melted cheese, sliced tomato and a dusting of oregano, all served in a toasted pita. There are two sizes - the large (enough for two normal eaters) which sells for R$22 (about USD $11) and the small (individual) which goes for R$12.30 ($6.15).

If someday you happen to be shopping in Oscar Freire street's designer stores - Calvin Klein, Cartier, etc. - and suddenly feel a pang of hunger, stop off at Frevo for a beirute and a look at the decor. You'll be glad that you did.

Friday, October 26, 2012

RECIPE - Brigadeiro Cake (Bolo Brigadeiro)

Give the depth and intensity of the Brazilian obsession with the small fudge-like ball of chocolate called brigadeiro, it's no surprise that the essential ingredients of a brigadeiro - chocolate, sweetened condenses milk, chocolate sprinkles - show up in other dessert treatments. Think of them as tributes to the glories of the original brigadeiro. Some of these treatments are relatively straightforward reimaginings while others are high-concept flights of fancy.

One popular way to recreate the brigadeiro is to turn it into a rich, moist chocolate cake. The cake part is usually some sort of standard chocolate cake, the brigadeiro part being found in the frosting. The recipe below, which was created by Brazilian chef Raphael Despirite and is featured on the website of Brazilian food and wine magazine Prazeres da Mesa, is just such a creation - a chocolate sponge-cake with a brigadeiro topping. The resulting dessert is rich and moist, and since a small slice goes a long way is perfect for a fairly large crowd.

NB. This recipe calls for creme de leite, a thickened, unsweetened cream that is a staple in all Brazilian kitchens. You can find creme de leite, UHT-treated or canned, in Brazilian groceries in cities that have a Brazilian immigrant community. Alternatively it is sold in almost all Latin American markets under the Spanish name media crema and the English name table cream, most often manufactured by Nestlé. It is also available online from numerous sources, including

RECIPE - Brigadeiro Cake (Bolo Brigadeiro)
Makes 1 8-inch cake

For the sponge cake:
6 large whole eggs, free-range preferred
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated white sugar
6 Tbsp unsweetened dry cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the topping:
1 1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
4 Tbsp unsweetened dry cocoa powder
2/3 cup creme de leite (see note above)
chocolate sprinkles
Make the sponge cake:
 Preheat the oven to 400F (200C). Beat the eggs, vanilla and sugar together with a cake-mixer for 10 minutes, or until the mixture is light and fluffy. Fold in the flour and cocoa powder, taking care not to overmix. Pour the batter into an 8-inch springform cake pan, ungreased, and bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool completely.

Make the topping:
Combine the sweetened condensed milk, the butter and cocoa powder in a double-boiler and heat, stirring constantly, until you have a thickened, consistent mixture. Remove from the heat, then stir in the creme de leite. Let cool.

Frost and decorate the cake:
When the cake and the frosting are cool, spread the frosting on the top of the cake, then cover the frosting with chocolate sprinkles. Remove the sides of the springform pan to expose the sponge cake. Leave the cake resting on the bottom of the pan and place it on a decorative serving platter for cutting into slices and serving.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 7 - The SENAC Restaurant-School

In Salvador, one obligatory stop for anyone interested in Bahian gastronomy and cooking is the SENAC Restaurant-School, located in a historic colonial house on the Largo do Pelourinho, the sloped square which is the epicenter of the Bahian universe. SENAC is a national Brazilian institution which teaches vocational skills in centers throughout the country, and the Salvador Restaurant-School is part of SENAC's cooking faculty in Salvador.

The restaurant was opened in 1975, and since then has served as an introduction to classic Bahian cuisine to hundreds of thousands of tourists and as a review of the riches of the cuisine to local residents. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday, and is invariably very busy, although it's almost always possible to get a table fairly quickly. (One thing to note - there are, in fact, two SENAC buffets housed in the same mansions. On the street level is a small buffet that serves standard Brazilian dishes, those that can be found in almost any pay-by-weight restaurant in Brazil. The Bahian buffet is up two flights of stairs on the top floor of the house.)

As the restaurant fuctions as a teaching facility as well as a restaurant, the cooks, bartenders and wait staff are all students at SENAC working under the supervision of the faculty's teachers and professors. Because of its non-profit status, the school's charge for the unlimited-serving buffet is a reasonable R$40 (about USD $20). There are cheaper Bahian restaurants in town (and there are definitely more expensive, too), but at no other will you be able to sample such a wide variety of Bahian dishes in a single location. Every day there are at least forty dishes available on the buffet, including an amazing selection of traditional desserts, something that Bahian cooks have been noted for for centuries. The number of dishes one can sample is limited only by one's appetite and capacity. You'll find abará and acarajé, of course, but also almost a dozen types of moquecas - everything from traditional standards like fish and shrimp up to moqueca de fato (fato meaning entrails). There are numerous rice and bean dishes, steamed fish and vegetables, sweet potatoes, various treatments of manioc and three or four traditional Bahian pimentas (hot sauce). A word to the wise when it comes to SENAC's pimenta; the restaurant makes no concessions to non-Bahians' limited tolerance for hot peppers. SENAC's hot sauces are very hot indeed, so be careful.

The service staff is hardworking and earnest, though it must be said that as it is composed of students, the service isn't always what one might call polished or speedy. But what the waitresses and waiters may lack in velocity they make up for in charm and friendliness.

The food at SENAC is good, at times very good. It may never be the best Bahian food on the planet, but it is the spot for newcomers to Bahian food to discover which dishes they love, which ones they like and which they'd prefer not to return to. A visit to SENAC should be made early in one's trip to Salvador. Later, in other restaurants, armed with what you learned at SENAC, you can knowledgeably read a Bahian menu and revisit those dishes that particularly appealed to you.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A quick apology

Flavors of Brazil hasn't posted new material for the past week, and we'd like to apologize to those regular readers of the blog who might have checked in with us once or twice during the week and found that there was nothing new to read

A domestic move resulted in a lack of internet service for most of last week - thanks to great customer service on the the part of our (unnamed) Internet Service Provider, we spent two afternoons and a morning at our new home waiting for the promised arrival of an installer to get us back online - to no avail. No one came. It was only on our fourth attempt, Friday afternoon, that someone did show up and reconnected us to the Internet universe.

So, as they say in Portuguese "desculpem". (Sorry) We'll be back tomorrow, Monday, with a regular schedule of postings. We'll wrap up our series on the gastronomy of Salvador, then move on to some new topics.

Thanks for visiting Flavors of Brazil, and thanks for your patience.

Friday, October 12, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 6 - Museum of Bahian Gastronomy

The Museum of Bahian Gastonomy, Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador
Located in a beautiful historic house on the most famous square in Salvador, the epicenter of Bahian culture Largo do Pelourinho, the Museum of Bahian Gastronomy (Museu da Gastronomia Baiana in Portuguese) testifies to the importance of food and cooking to Bahia's cultural identity. Opened in 2006, the museum was the very first gastronomic museum in Latin America and one of the first in the world.

Managed and operated by SENAC, a Brazilian vocational institute with branches in all major cities in Brazil, the museum is conveniently situated next door to SENAC's Faculty of Gastronomy with its famous Bahian training restaurant.

dendê display
Although the museum is small, the exibits are very well displayed with all notations and graphic material in both Portuguese and English. Display cases showcase antique cooking utensils and equipment as well as porcelain and silverware for table service. Ingredients which are essential parts of the Bahian pantry - things like grated coconut and dendê palm oil are displayed and technique for extracting and using them are demonstrated.

One door down, in the neighboring structure, the museum operates a small bookstore with an excellent supply of books on Bahian and other Brazilian cuisines, including an almost complete selection of SENAC's own cookbooks. Although most of the books are in Portuguese, those published by SENAC have English translations of their texts and recipes at the back of the book, something which is of great benefit to foreign travelers. The bookstore also has a small espresso bar.

The house on the other side of the museum, on the uphill side of the sloping Largo do Pelourinho, contains the SENAC cooking school and restaurant. Next post in our On the Road - Salvador series will feature both.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 5 - Dona Mariquita's Moqueca do índio

Among the numerous "endangered" dishes to be found on the menu at Restaurante Dona Mariquita in Salvador, Bahia, is an intriguing appetizer called Moqueca do índio (Indian Moqueca). (Click here to read more about endangered dishes) The dish is described on the menu as "Pititinga roasted in banana leaf with toasted manioc crisps", but there's much more to the story of the dish than that.

Pititingas are very small silver fish found throughout northeastern Brazil - small enough that they fit in the palm of your hand. In this dish they are combined with spices and hot chili peppers, lots of them, wrapped in fresh banana leaves, roasted over coals in a tin-can oven and served with small crispy manioc crackers as an appetizer. The dish is very spicy, smoky and with a pronounced but not overwhelming fishy flavor that is balanced by the blandness of the manioc crackers. At Dona Mariquita, the moqueca is served with the fish still in its banana leaf, surrounded by crisps. Diners simply place a couple of fish on a crisp and pop the whole thing in their mouth.

According to the restaurant's website, moqueca do índio was once common in Salvador where it was one of the traditional staple dishes of the baianas who have sold acarajé on the streets of the city since time immemorial. Today the dish has completely disappeared from Salvador, except at Dona Mariquita. In the rural districts of Bahia that surround the Bay of All Saints, from which Bahia gets its name, traditional foodways have survived longer than they have in the capital,however, and it was in those districts that Dona Mariquita's owners rescued the recipe and returned it to Salvador, where it once had been so popular.

According to the bible of Brazilian historic gastronomy, História da Alimentação no Brasil, by Luís da Câmara Cascudo, moquecas (roasted or stewed fish and seafood) were eaten by indigenous tribes in Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans in the middle of the second millennium, and can lay claim to be among the most ancient dishes of Brazilian gastronomy. Thanks to the effort of Dona Mariquita you can still eat this most primitive, and most delicious, dish at her eponymous restaurant. It behooves the diner to consider the immense age of this recipe and to hope that although Moqueca do índio may be endangered, it will not become extinct.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 4 - Dona Mariquita's Endangered Dishes

Walk down the long narrow one-way street called Rua do Meio in Salvador's happening Rio Vermelho neighborhood, away from the leafy Largo da Mariquita square which is home to Dona Cira's best-in-the-city acarajé stand, and you'll eventually come across a small unprepossessing restaurant named Dona Mariquita. It's on the right as you leave the square and is adorned only with a simple sign with its name. It's easy to miss, or at least it was for our taxi driver on the windy and rainy night we visited Dona Mariquita recently. He had to circle around and try a second time, but armed with the address and a trusty GPS we were able to find it second time around.

Even on a damp, raw evening - a rarity in tropical Salvador - the interior of the restaurant radiated warmth, human warmth. We were greeted with a smile by the entire waitstaff (it was still early, at least by Salvador standards), given our choice of seats and were helped to settle in, candles were lit. and menus were distributed. All of which made the effort we'd made to locate Dona Mariquita on such a stormy night worthwhile. The large room felt indeed like shelter from the storm.

Dona Mariquita had been on our to-do list for Flavors of Brazil's gastronomic tour of Salvador, Bahia ever since we'd begun planning the trip a couple of months ago. It's not the most famous restaurant in the city, nor the most chic. Neither does it perpetually top social network review sites. But with limited time, we'd chosen Dona Mariquita for one of our dinners - our "traditional Bahian cuisine" dinner - for one reason. Just as Diane Fossey provided sanctuary and shelter in Africa for her beloved gorillas, or as ethno-musicologist Alan Lomax recorded folktunes and spirituals as sung by black field hands in the Southern USA before they were lost forever, Dona Mariquita has as its purpose the preservation of "endangered dishes" of traditional Bahian cuisine. We wanted to see and taste the work of this interesting gastronomic project.

Dishes and recipes, as with any other cultural object, don't always have an unlimited lifespan. Whether it's Bahian food we're talking about, or Russian, or Chinese, dishes disappear from kitchens, tables and menus of even the most traditional gastronomic cultures to be replaces by new ones. In medieval Europe, swan was a traditional banquet centerpiece, though it's almost never eaten today. Italian pasta sauces from the same period, before explorers brought tomatoes back from the New World, have been changed radically by the arrival of that fruit. Bahian food is no exception to this rule, and some dishes that were common in earlier times are just not to be found in 21st-century Salvador, or anywhere else in Bahia - except at Dona Mariquita, that is.

The restaurant's "mission statement" which is published in Portuguese on its website says:
Opened on November 23, 2006, Dona Mariquita has as its purpose the preservation of traditional regional dishes of Bahia; dishes once served at fairs and festivals, street food, what you might call "roots food."...
Returning from a voyage to our gastronomic origins, Dona Mariquita has rescued original recipes and ingredients, bringing seafood from the Recôncavo da Bahia (the region surrounding Salvador), as well as seeds and leaves, blending together indigenous, African and countryside
influences in search of the true flavor of our history. (translation by Flavors of Brazil)

Arroz de Hauçá
On the website, there is a very interesting article about the restaurant's efforts to preserve Muslim elements in Bahian culture, an influence that generally goes unnoticed in most discussions of the food of Bahia. Many of the black Africans who were forceably brought from West Africa to Brazil to slave on the colony's sugar plantations and in its mines were Muslims. Over time and under pressure from Catholic owners and authorities, most of these slaves became Christians in Brazil, and their Muslim heritage was lost or hidden. The restaurant features some dishes that can be traced back to Muslim West Africa, dishes like Arroz de Hauçá, variations of which are still common in Africa.

Dishes which are under the restaurant's protection are identified as such on the restuarant's extensive menu, which also features many of the non-endangered jewels of Bahian gastronomy such as Xinxim de Galinha and Moqueca de Peixe. We were unable to sample them all, due to limited time and stomach capacity, but did make sure that our menu choices focused on those dishes that, but for Dona Mariquita's efforts, might have disappeared entirely from Bahia's gastronomic history. Our next post  in this series will focus on these dishes. 

In the meantime, we applaud Dona Mariquita's noble effort and encourage readers of the blog who might be in the neighborhood in the future to do themselves the favor of enjoying the restaurant's unusual dishes while surrporting the preservation of Bahian food history at the same time.

Friday, October 5, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 3 - The FIFA/McDonald's Scandal

It's hard to overstate the cultural value of the humble acarajé to the citizens of the Brazilian state of Bahia. This unprepossessing, fist-sized black-eyed-pea fritter has become the icon of Salvador in much the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents Paris, or Guiness represents Ireland. When tourists and returning locals exit the Salvador airport terminal on the arrivals level, they are immediately greeted by the unmistakable aroma of acarajé frying in a pot of dendê oil - the sidewalk in front of the terminal is home to several stands of baianas selling acarajé. That haunting aroma, the marvelous taste of the fritter and the traditional and ritualistic way in which it is sold are cultural touchstones of Salvador, and have been recognized by all levels of Brazilian government as important cultural patrimony worthy of protection.

So what does acarajé have to do with FIFA, McDonald's and the scandal referred to in the title of this post? As the governing organization for the 2014 World Cup of Football/Soccer, which will be held in Brazil, FIFA has control over many aspects of the Cup. Things like stadium capacity and required facilities, transportion of players and sponsorship of the Cup. Because the McDonald's corporation is one of the largest corporate sponsors of the World Cup, FIFA wants to prohibit the sale of acarajé within 2 km (1.2 miles) of Salvador's Fonte Nova stadium during the World Cup, in order to protect the interests (and hamburger sales) of McDonald's.
Could this....

become this???
This potential disruption of acarajé sales has created an uproar in Salvador. Rita Maria Ventura dos Santos, the president of Associação das Baianas de Acarajé e Vendedoras de Mingau (Abam), the official association of acarajé vendors, calls prohibiting sales of acarajé "absurd." She notes that at present there are eight acarajé stands within 2 km. of the stadium, and wonders what will happen to the women who own these stands when the Cup comes around. Community groups in Salvador are calling for a boycott of McDonald's to protest the move, and news of the prohibition and the boycott is spreading rapidly across all the Internet social networks.

The FIFA/McDonald's prohibition has not been confirmed yet by the Brazilian organizing committee or by Salvador's municipal authorities. The Bahia state Secretary in charge of World Cup arrangements has been quoted as saying no decision has yet been made, but will only confirm that the role of baianas and of acarajé in the World Cup is "under consideration."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 2 - The Joy of Abará

As Julie Andrews once warbled, "Let's start at the very beginning, A very good place to start...". So, we're beginning our reportage on our recent visit to Salvador, Bahia with the item that's always first (alphabetically, at least) in any list of traditional Bahian dishes - abará. It's hard to think of anything that might proceed abará in an alphabetical listing of dishes - except aardvark, and they don't eat aardvarks in Bahia.

 Abará  is one of the foods that is most closely associated with the Afro-Brazilian religion of Bahia, Candomblé, and it's also one of the items that can always be found for sale by baianas, the traditionally-dressed black women who sell Bahian food, most notably acarajé, on streets, squares and beachfronts of Salvador.

In the rituals of Candomblé, which preserve the religious traditions brought from Africa to Brazil by slaves, abará is a favorite food of the orixá (divinity) Iansã, and offerings of food made to her invariably include abará. Iansã is the orixá of the River Niger in Africa, and of the wind, hurricanes and tempests. She is considered to be one of the most agressive of the female orixás and has dominion over the dead. In the syncretic tradition of linking orixás with saints of the Catholic church, she is identified with Santa Barbara and is worshiped as such in the Catholic churches of Bahia.

 There's nothing complex or complicated about abará - it's not a fancy or delicate food. But it does combine many of the most important ingredients of the Bahian pantry, which was large inherited from Africa. Basically, an abará is a soft batter made from black-eyed pears, flavored with bright orange dendê palm oil and cooked by being steams in a banana-leaf package. Sometimes ground dried shrimps are added to the batter for additional flavoring, but this isn't obligatory. Readers familiar with Mexican tamales will have a very good idea of what an abará is, as the two dishes are very similar. They differ in the mass used to create the dough - ground corn in the case of tamales and ground black-eyed peas in the case of abará. Although tamales are often stuff with a meat or chicken filling, abarás are not and resemble most closely those unstuffed tamales called "blind."

The list of ingredients that go into making abará is almost identical to acarajé. Both are based on the same batter, though in acarajé the batter is deep-fried in dendê whereas abará is steamed rather than fried and a small amount of dendê is stirred into the batter to flavor it. This makes abará slightly more healthy eating than acarajé, though it could never be considered health food.

In Salvador we sampled  abará at the famed Bahian buffet of SENAC, the public-private vocational school that can be found in any city in Brazil. In our next post, we'll look at the 40+ dish SENAC buffet in more detail. It's an edible encyclopedia of Bahian cuisine and an essential part of the Salvador experience.

(Click here for a recipe for abará  from an earlier posting on Flavors of Brazil).