Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Açaí makes the New York Times

In it's February 23rd edition, the New York Times published an interesting article on açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE), a fruit of the Amazonian rain forest that has recently become, in the words of the article's author, Seth Kugel, a "Global Super Fruit." (Click here for a link to the article.) Due to its claimed health benefits, açaí is now an ingredient in everything from ice cream to face creams, from pizza crust to Snapple red tea.

In his article, Kugel discusses the rapid and explosive growth in the export market for açaí in the last ten years. In 2000, virtually no açaí was exported from Brazil (380 metric tons only), but by 2009 that figure had grown to 9,400 metric tons. Almost all of that quantity comes from the Amazonian state of Pará, and is exported through its capital, Belém.

Açaí has long been popular throughout Brazil, but it is only in the rain forest regions of Brazil's north that it has been a staple food. In other regions of Brazil it is normally eaten as a health food meal or snack. According to Kugel, it is in the rain forest where the international growth of the açaí market has become a double-edged sword.Açaí producers are finally able to realize a decent profit from the production of the fruit, but at the same time, increased prices make açaí more expensive for local inhabitants, who are often very poor.

When I first ate açaí in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, quite a few years ago, I fell in love with its earthy taste. I considered it one of those Brazilian gastronomic treasures that were hidden from the world outside Brazil, and thought it would stay that way. Today's article in the NYT shows me just how wrong I was. Açaí seemed poised to join Gisele Bundchen, Ronaldinho, the samba and flip-flops as one of Brazil's most popular exports.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

RECIPE - Make your own "carne de sol"

In my previous post, I talked about the importance of carne de sol to traditional Brazilian cuisine, and how it differed from other salted meat products. I even gave a quick lesson in how to make carne de sol the traditional way. However, unless you happen to live in a place that has eternal sunshine, daily temperatures reaching into the high 90s F (35C), and a steady 25 mph (40 kmh) wind, you are unlikely to be very successful. Outside Brazil, you are even more unlikely to find it at your local market.

I wanted to include some carne de sol recipes on Flavors of Brazil, but I considered that it would be fruitless to do so, as readers outside Brazil would not have access to carne de sol itself. Then I luckily came across a source that gave instructions for imitating carne de sol anywhere in the world. I tried out this technique, and although the resulting product isn't exactly like carne de sol, it's similar enough that it can be substituted for carne de sol in any recipe on this blog. Let's call it "faux carne de sol".
RECIPE - Carne de sol

1 piece top sirloin, 2 lbs. (1 kg.), sliced horizontally into 2 pieces, 1 inch (2 cm.) thick
2 Tbsp. kosher table salt

Bring meat to room temperature before working. Rub salt into all surfaces of the meat. Let rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover each piece tightly with plastic wrap and place in freezer for 12 hours. Remove from freezer and immediately grill, over medium heat, for 15 minutes. Then serve, or cool and reserve for use in another recipe.

Translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora

Carne de Sol - Brazil's "Meat of the Sun"

One of the most iconic foods of Brazil bears the poetic name of "meat of the sun" (carne de sol in Portuguese.) In actuality, the name is more poetic than truthful, but we'll come to that later. Like many other beloved traditional foods, carne de sol originated as a practical solution to a difficult problem, and only later became valued for its gastronomic qualities. In this case, the problem was how to preserve fresh meat in a hot, dry environment without access to refrigeration. The solution was carne de sol. Created as a necessity, it became a favorite food.

Carne de sol is a product of the hot, semi-arid interior of Northeastern Brazil (Nordeste), where the sun is constant and fierce and the wind is strong for most of the year. It is normally made from beef, but can also be made with goat meat. The fresh meat is cut into thin steaks, lightly salted and left outdoors in a covered and well-ventilated place for 2 to 4 days. (Because it is normally left in a covered place, it is not exposed to direct sunlight. This is why it really isn't "carne de sol." The photo on the right shows carne de sol in sunlight, but this is the exception.) Exposed to the dry heat and wind for this short period of time, the meat undergoes a rapid drying process that gives it a hard, salty surface which protects and preserves the moist and tender interior of the meat. Once cured, it can be kept unrefrigerated for long periods of time without spoiling.

Since prehistory, people have used salt and/or dehydration to preserve foods from spoilage. In Brazil, these techniques seem not to have been known to the indigenous population prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, but became widespread shortly after. Portugal had long used salting and dehydrating to preserve fish, notably the salt-cod known in Portuguese as bacalhau. The early ranchers and cowboys of Northeastern Brazil merely adapted the techniques of bacalhau to local livestock, and carne de sol was born.

Carne de sol is not the only salted meat that is traditionally part of Brazilian cuisine. Other similar products are carne-seca, charqui, and frescal. In later posts, I'll discuss these meats, and how they differ from carne de sol, in production and geographical distribution. But carne de sol is the most common, and most well-loved of Brazil's dried, salted meats.

Carne de sol can be grilled whole, cubed and added to stews, or shredded and used in a large variety of dishes. In the next few posts, I'll provide some of the most typical recipes for carne de sol.

Monday, February 22, 2010

RECIPE - Pitanga Jam

As I mentioned in my previous post on the Brazilian fruit called pitanga, most of the crop in Brazil is eaten fresh or the fruit is turned into juice. One other common use, however, is in the production of jams and jellies, where the pitanga can be put to very good use with spectacular results. Pitanga jam is not highly commercialized, even here in Brazil, but I have bought small jars in roadside fruit stands, or in shops which carry artesanal foods.

I was unable to find a good recipe for pitanga jam in any of my regular Brazilian recipe sources. I did want to add one to Flavors of Brazil, and by searching on the internet under one of the English names of this fruit, Surinam Cherry, I found an interesting recipe from Africa in a blog called African Kitchen. I am publishing the recipe here adapted from that blog. I have not made nor tested this recipe, but I will do so in the near future. It sounds wonderful.
RECIPE - Pitanga Jam

6 cups fresh pitangas, washed, halved and seeded
2-3 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice (or lime juice)

Combine all ingredients and cook slowly over low heat until the mixture is soft and thickened. Mash with potato masher to break up the fruit. Cool, then refrigerate. Alternatively, the jam can be processed for longer storage, using conventional canning techniques.

Pitanga fruit - An exotic beauty

As those that visit this blog with any regularity know, one of the pleasures I have in producing Flavors of Brazil is introducing readers to the rainbow of tropic fruits that is one of the glories of the world of Brazilian food. In previous posts, I've discussed such fruits as ata, caju, cajá and many others, and when possible have searched my photo collection and internet image galleries for photographs that highlight the colors and textures of these fruits. In this blog, I cannot give readers samples of the aromas or tastes of these tropical fruits, but I can offer photos to appeal to the readers' eyes.

If there were a Miss Brazil Fruit contest, it would be difficult to choose a winner as the most beautiful of the bunch. I do think that native Brazilian fruit called pitanga, if not crowned the winner, would be a likely First Runner-Up. It's spectacularly beautiful in shape, texture and color. And, as luck would have it, it's delicious as well. The only problem with the pitanga is that in its mature state it's extremely delicate, and therefore cannot be commercialized internationally. Think of the raspberry and how it suffers from handling and transportation. The pitanga suffers exactly the same indignities. So while you in North America or Europe can revel in fresh raspberries, we here in Brazil will make due with delectable fresh pitangas, pitanga juice, pitanga jam, or pitanga liquor (to which some sources attribute aphrodisiac properties.)

The pitanga (Eugenia uniflora) is native to Brazil's Mata Atlântica, the rain forest which once covered most of coastal Brazil  now sadly diminished by deforestation.  It has been successfully transplanted, and can be found today in other parts of South America, in Africa, on the Portuguese island of Madeira and in the Caribbean, where it is generally known in English as Brazil Cherry, Suriname Cherry, or Cayenne Cherry. It is only distantly related to the cherry botanically.

Pitanga is a very heathful fruit, having a high vitamin C content, as well as high levels of calcium. Most of the pitanga eaten in Brazil is consumed fresh, or is pulped into juice. Wonderful jams and jellies can also be made from pitanga, and though I have not tried it, I have located quite a few recipes for pitanga liquor on the internet.

The flavor of this fruit is sharp and acidic, but the relatively high level of sugars means that it is not particularly tart. When making pitanga juice, either from fresh fruit or from frozen pulp, Brazilians tend to add a good quantity of sugar, but I find that it often needs very little additional sugar. The juice is very refreshing, and pitanga juice is an excellent "waker-upper" in the morning, or a true thist-quencher on a hot afternoon.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

BREAKING NEWS - The Caipirinha Popsicle Arrives

According to a recent article in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, at a recent food exposition in Madrid famed Spanish chef Fernan Adriá, ownder of El Bulli restaurant, showcased one of his newest culinary creations, the caipirinha popsicle (picolé de caipirinha in Portuguese). The caipirinha, of course, is Brazil's national cocktail, made from cachaça liquor, sugar, lime juice and ice.

In homage to this drink, and using his famous molecular cooking techniques, Adriá recreated the essence of a caipirinha in an inventive hors d'oeuvre. The popsicle is served in a frozen cocktail glass rimmed with crushed ice. The popsicle "sticks", about 1/2 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long, are made from natural sugar cane and the ingredients of a caipirinha, cachaça, grated lime peel and demerara sugar, are frozen on the stick using liquid nitrogen, a technique invented by Adriá. Finally the popsicles are sprinkled with citric acid crystals, and placed in the frozen glass for serving. Guests are instructed to chew the sugar cane topped with the caipirinha ingredients to get the full flavor experience intended by Adriá.

RECIPE - Pork Ribs with Green Papaya

One of the frustrations of living in a non-tropical country is that when tropical fruit is available, it is often immature and under-ripe (not to mention expensive). I remember many occasions in Vancouver when I would see a selection of mangoes, or papayas, or pineapples in my supermarket that were green and hard, when they should have been soft, yellow or pink, and juicy. My love of these fruits when they are in a perfect state of ripeness made me nostalgic for Hawaiian pineapples, Brazilian papayas or Mexican mangoes, and made me eschew these poor specimens which had had to endure shipment to the cold of a Canadian January.

However, even in the tropics, these fruits are sometimes eaten in their immature state. Those complexly-spiced Indian pickles and chutneys are made with green mangoes, not ripe ones. And one of my very favorite Thai delicacies, som tam salad, is made from shredded green papayas. Brazil also makes use of green fruits, and this marvelous recipe from Brazil's state of Minas Gerais, Pork Ribs with Green Papaya (Costelinha com Mamão Verde) is an excellent example.

So, when you are faced with a pile of green papayas at your local Safeway, IGA, Tesco or Carrefour, don't bemoan their unripe state - plan to use them to create this uncomplicated but delectable dish from Brazil.
RECIPE - Pork Ribs with Green Papaya

2 medium to large green papayas - about 2 lbs (1 kg.)
1/4 tsp. baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
juice of 2 limes
2 Tbsp. cachaça (tequila can be substituted)
4 lbs. baby pork ribs (2 kgs), separated if purchased as racks
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/2 cup chopped green onion (green part only)
1 bay leaf
Peel the papayas with a potato peeler, cut in half, remove the white seeds, then cut the flesh into 1/2 inch (1 cm.) cubes. Put the papaya in a large bowl, cover with cold water, and stir in the baking soda to dissolve. Reserve.

Bring 2 cups water to the boil in large saucepan. Add the lime juice and cachaça, then add the pork ribs. Immediately remove from heat, and stir to ensure that the all the meat has been turned in the marinating mixture. Reserve.

In another large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the garlic, onion, and paprika. Cook, stirring, until the onion is transparent but not browned. Remove the pork ribs from the marinading mixture, reserving the mixture, and brown the ribs well in the pan. When they are brown, add approximately 1/4 cup of the marinating  mixture, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and let "sweat", adding more marinating mixture as required to avoid drying out the pork, until the ribs are cooked through and tender, approximately 30 minutes.

Bring 8 cups (2 liters) of water to the boil in a pan or kettle. Drain the papaya cubes in a colander. Rinse with fresh water. Slowly pour the boiling water from the kettle or pan over the papaya, then let it drain once again. Rinse once more with fresh water and let drain one final time. Add the papaya cubes to the pork mixture, and cook over medium heat until the papaya is heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place in heated serving bowl, and serve immediately.

Serve with sauteed greens (kale, spinach, escarole) and soft polenta.

(Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brazileira by Abril Editora.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

REMINDER - Pictures on Flavors of Brazil are clickable

Just a quick reminder that you can enlarge any picture on Flavors of Brazil merely by clicking on it. When you do, the picture will enlarge to a size of 8x6 inches (20x15 cm.). I have copies of most of the photos in a larger size and a higher resolution, so if you want a bigger copy, please leave a comment here on Flavors of Brazil with your email address, and I will endeavor to send you a larger-size image.

The Ashes of Carnaval

I'm back in Fortaleza, having survived (and in fact having really enjoyed) Carnaval in Recife, Brazil, and specifically in the neighboring historic town of Olinda. Olinda is a wonderfully preserved baroque city, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During Carnaval the steep cobblestone streets of Olinda are filled with throngs of locals and tourists - walking, talking, drinking, eating, dancing, laughing, crying, kissing and hugging. Bands of musicians pass by regularly, playing the local Carnaval music, which is called frevo (see photo above), and each band is followed by enthusiasts dancing their way to the beat of the frevo band. From time to time giant figures, called bonecos, pass by in parade.

During Carnaval people must eat and drink to keep their energy up, of course, but Carnaval is not about indulging in great food experiences. Food during Carnaval is to fuel the engine for continued revelry, and drink (almost exclusively beer) is to add the spark of folly. Prodigious quantities of beer are sold and consumed during Carnaval - and at ridiculously low prices by North American standards. A 12 oz. (350 ml) can universally costs 1.50 reais (about USD $0.75) and the more popular 16 oz. (473 ml) cans sell for 2 reais (just over USD $1.00). In Recife and Olinda, only one brand of beer is available during Carnaval, Skol. For this right, Skol contributes a large amount of money to the city government for the expenses of Carnaval.

To satisfy one's hunger pangs during Carnaval, the only option is street food. All restaurants and stores are closed, so food choices are limited to such things as popcorn, hot dogs, kebabs, fries etc. One particularly satisfying dish varies from the standard street food format, and is very good value at 5 reais (about USD $2.50). It is a small bowl of manioc (called macaxeira in Portuguese), which is a tropical tuber somewhat like a potato, which has been boiled until soft. On top, a small portion of either stewed chicken, or chopped sun-dried meat (carne de sol) with vegetables, is added. The combination is hearty and filling, and satisfies one's basic need for food for a long time.

I'll post some more photos later of Olinda during Carnaval, even though this blog is food-focused and these photos are not. Perhaps they'll be of some interest to visitors to Flavors of Brazil.

But for now, it's time for the rigors of Lent in post-Carnaval Brazil.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Farewell to Meat! - It's Carnaval time in Brazil

Carnaval officially begins today throughout Brazil and continues until Tuesday. It only dies in the ashes of Ash Wednesday. I'll be travelling with friends to Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco, where we'll celebrate carnaval there and in the neighboring historic city of Olinda. Thus, there will be no posts on Flavors of Brazil until the second half of next week.

Brazilian Carnaval is a gigantic national party of music, dance, fun and drink. Certainly it must rank as one of the LEAST food-related holidays in the world. Carnaval is all about those "other" appetites, and most Carnaval celebrants keep themselves fueled with street food or junk food. In fact, in most cities where there is a large Carnaval there are no other options for eating, as restaurants and stores are closed for the duration. If this blog were about beer, on the other hand, or about the samba, I would return from Recife with a huge amount of material for the blog - but since Flavors of Brazil concerns food, the reports from Carnaval will be limited.

The main connection between Carnaval and food, in fact, appears to be a rather negative one. There are various suppositions for the etymology of the name Carnaval. I had always heard that it comes from the Latin "carne vale" which means "farewell to meat" and refers to the fact that after Carnaval comes the fasting period of Lent, when meat was traditionally forbidden by the Church. Doing some linguistic research for this post, however, led me to a number of sources which offer alternative etymologies. One of the most common is that Carnaval comes from dialectical Italian "carne levare" which means "remove meat", again referring to the Lenten fast. Other sources indicate that although Carnaval comes down from "carne vale", the "carne" referred to is not the meat one eats, but the more sensual flesh for which Carnaval is famous. Most serious scholars, however, seem to be on the side of the derivation from Italian "carne levare". Nonetheless, I continue to prefer "Farewell to Meat." It's got such a nice culinary connotation, which in this particular case has nothing to do with vegetarianism.

So it's Farewell to Meat for me for a week. Postings on Flavors of Brazil will resume on Ash Wednesday.

Bom Carnaval para todos, Happy Carnaval!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's Umbu Season!

When I first came to Brazil some many years ago, in the city of Salvador, Bahia, I developed a taste for a small round green fruit by the name of umbu. The umbu looked like an overgrown gooseberry at first glance, although its skin lacks the transparency of the gooseberry. It's taste was acidic, hinting of a high vitamin C concentration, not too sweet, and distinctive. Like many other fruits, it's taste was extremely difficult to describe in words, but was utterly unique and wonderfully refreshing. I never forgot the umbu, and its taste was a Proustian memory of Brazil.

When I returned to Brazil to live in Fortaleza, I was delighted to discover that umbu is popular in this part of the country too. And at the moment, we're right in the middle of umbu season with vendors offering the fruit from their carts throughout the city. Here, in contrast to Salvador, you often see yellow umbus, which are more mature, less acidic and sweeter. Yet, no less delicious.

When I bought a small bagful of umbus yesterday, I knew I had my blog topic for today. Tracking down this fruit, and learning about where it's grown, what it's called in other parts of the world, and what it's uses are. So here I sit at the computer, researching the umbu, with a bowl of them at my side for inspiration.

It appears that the umbu (Spondias tuberosa) is native to northeastern Brazil, where Fortaleza is located. It does not grow near the coast, however. Instead its native habitat is the harsh, dry semi-desert of the interior of Brazil's Northeast, called the Sertão. This region is one of the poorest and driest in Brazil, and life is hard there. The umbu is one of the few fruits that flourish in this difficult environment, and historically has been extremely important in the diet of the region's inhabitants. The umbu is most commonly eaten fresh, but can be preserved by making jams, jellies, syrups, and pastes (semi-dried pulp, similar to North American "fruit leathers.")

Interestingly, the umbu and the mango are both members of the same botanical family, the Anacardiaceae. (Cashews, poison ivy, smoke trees, and pistachios are "in the family" too.) For those in the know, this leads to jokes about the family having rich cousins (mangoes) and poor cousins (the humble umbu). 

Until recently, little attention was paid to the economic potential of this fruit, and the market was limited to fresh fruit and was very local. The umbu was very little known outside its home region - even in the large cities of southern Brazil, like Rio de Janeiro or Porto Alegre, it has never been common. In the last few years, however, the cause of the umbu has been taken up by a number of government agricultural initiative projects, and the international Slow Food movement has added umbu to its Ark of Taste program, in which an umbu presidium has been established to ensure the quality of umbu production and to raise the profile of the umbu in domestic Brazilian and international markets. It appears this humble little fruit has some powerful protectors.

It appears that this fruit is one that, at the moment, is entirely Brazilian. I've not been able to locate any production outside Brazil, and it appears that the fruit doesn't exist under different names in other countries. So, if and when you come to Brazil's Northeast during umbu season (December-March), search them out. It's an exotic local treat that you won't find anywhere else.

Bom apetite!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A New Brazilian Holiday - Baianas Selling Acarajé

In recent posts, I've been discussing the Brazilian traditions surrounding the sale of acarajé by women called baianas. Click here and here for some of the posts.

In the posts, I mentioned that these traditions have received national recognition in Brazil, and have been granted the status of national treasures. But it seems that the Brazilian love and veneration for these humble bean fritters never stops. Brazil now has a National Day of Baianas Selling Acarajé.

Doing some internet research today, I came across a press release from Brazil's National Ministry of Culture, dated 20 January 2010. Translated, the announcement was as follows:
In its edition of this Wednesday, 20 January 2010, The Official Diary of the Brazilian Republic announced the presidential approval for four laws creating new days of commemoration in the Brazilian calendar. Among these, the National Day of Baianas Selling Acarajé will be celebrated annually on November 25.

Since 2004, the profession of these women who dedicate themselves to making and selling this traditional dish on the streets of the cities of the state of Bahia has been recognized. As such, as well, this tradition has already been registered as a national immaterial treasure by IPHAN,Institute do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional.

Acarajé, which was developed as an offering in the worship places of Candomblé, is sold today by approximately five thousand baianas in Salvador, the capital of Bahia. Last year, these baianas were honored by the inauguration of the Memorial of Baianas of  Acarajé (Memorial da Baiana de Acarajé), in Salvador, which displays the history and traditions of the custom.

I've made a promise to myself to celebrate this new day of commemoration on November 25 in the best way possible - by eating  acarajé. Mark your calendars, and join the celebration!

RECIPE - Dragão do Mar Shrimp

In Ceará, the Brazilian state where I live, the most important historical hero is a person who goes by the unusual name of “Dragon of the Sea” (in Portuguese Dragão do Mar). Born into a poor family in 1839 as Francisco José de Nascimento, at an early age he joined the family trade and became a fisherman and seaman. Being black in a part of Brazil which never had a large slave population, he suffered personally from racism and joined the abolitionist movement at its earliest stages. He was instrumental in organizing the seamen of Ceará and 1881 he and the others seamen in his group began to refuse to handle slave ships when they stopped in Ceará’s ports – the first successful boycott of its type in Brazil. In 1884 Ceará became the first state in Brazil to abolish slavery, in large part due to the interest generated by his campaign. He became a national figure and came to be known as “Dragão do Mar.”

Today, Fortaleza’s cultural complex, O Centro Cultural Dragão do Mar, bears his name. There are statues of him in various cities in Ceará, and his name appears on everything from restaurant names to cocktails, and from streets to candies. His name also graces celebrated dishes of traditional Cearense food, like this one – Dragão do Mar Shrimp (Camarão Dragão do Mar).
RECIPE - Dragão do Mar Shrimp
Serves 2

2 Tbsp. butter
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves
1 tsp. black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
1.5 pounds medium shrimp, with heads, unpeeled
1/4 cup cachaça (tequila may be substituted)
2 cups whole milk
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 cup shrimp broth (see below)
1/2 cup white sauce (see below)
2 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 Tbsp. finely chopped mushrooms
2 cups cooked white rice
3 Tbsp. finely chopped cashew nuts, roasted but unsalted
salt and pepper to taste
1. Make shrimp broth. Fill medium saucepan with 1 1/2 cups water. Remove heads from shrimps, peel them, and place shrimp heads and peels in pan. Devein the shrimps and reserve. Add the cloves peppercorns and bay leaves to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool. Strain through fine sieve, reserve.
2. Make the white sauce.Put the whole milk in a medium saucepan. Off heat and while still cold, stir in the cornstarch to dissolve. Place over medium heat, add the oil and cream, and cook, stirring until smooth and thickened.
3. Prepare the shrimps. Heat the butter in a large heavy frying pan. Add the garlic, onion and reserved shrimp and stir-fry lightly for one minute. Add the cachaça to tequila and flame. Let flames extinguish. Add the shrimp broth, the white sauce, the cream, and the tomato paste. Stir well to mix, then add the mushrooms. Add salt and pepper, taste for seasoning. Let cook over medium heat for five minutes. Remove the shrimps from the sauce, place on a serving platter and cover with 1/2 of the sauce from the frying pan. Cover and keep warm. Add the cooked rice to the remaining 1/2 of the sauce in the frying pan and heat, stirring constantly, for two minutes. Put the rice in a serving bowl, and sprinkle the top with the cashew nuts. Serve immediately with the shrimp.

(Recipe adapted and translated from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cafezinho - The Brazilian Cup of Coffee

Although Starbucks has invaded the world's largest coffee producing country, and now has shops in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Campinas, most Brazilians get their daily coffee fix from one of the millions of street-corner coffee bars, juice bars, luncheonettes or bakeries. And what they order is called a "cafezinho."

Cafezinho, in Brazilian Portuguese, means "a little coffee". A cup of cafezinho is a small, intense, and most of all, very sweet shot of black coffee. It is sometimes served unsweetened with sugar or sweetener on the side, but more often it is pre-sweetened and served that way. Whichever way it is served, a Brazilian will never drink a cafezinho unsweetened. Pure black coffee, unsweetened, is considered a barbarism, and a request for an unsweetened coffee is likely to engender stares, giggles, or pure incomprehensions.

In the most modest bars and shops, a cafezinho comes in a small plastic cup, and costs one real (about $0.50 USD). In more upmarket locations, a china cup adds to the level of sophistication (and to the price.) In a restaurant, a post-meal cafezinho is normally included free, and is not charged for.

The only exception, generally, to the "make it a cafezinho" rule is at breakfast, where most Brazilians drink coffee mixed with hot milk - often more milk than coffee. Even then, though, it must be very sweet to be drinkable, with up to three heaping spoonfuls of sugar per cup. But for the rest of the day, and into the evening, numerous cups of cafezinho keep the Brazilian nation alert and animated - it's the fuel of the culture.

The Price of a Cup of Coffee

When I first moved to Brazil, I could not believe the local prices for coffee - at the supermarket, in a restaurant, in a bar, or from a vendor on a street corner. The price was invariably many times lower than what I was used to paying in North America or Europe. Just to give one example, yesterday I bought some premium brand coffee, ground, in a local supermarket here in Fortaleza called Cometa. The brand was Santa Clara, which is considered a premium brand in Brazil. A package of 250 grams cost me R$2.28. Converting from metric to imperial measurements and from reais to US dollars, that package of coffee cost me US $2.22 per pound.

I'm well aware that Brazil is the world's largest coffee producing country by far (5,6 billion lbs. in 2006), and so prices should be lower here, as there is less transportation, tax, customs duty and merchant fees in the retail price, but the difference is quite shocking. Even with Brazil's lower cost of living. I would think the price would be perhaps half of the North American price, or even one third. But compared to what I had to pay when I last lived in Canada, my cup of coffee here in Brazil costs me about 1/8 of the price of a cup of Canadian coffee.

Being curious about this, I have been doing some internet research on coffee pricing internationally, and although I haven't found out the answer to my question yet, I've read some very interesting material. If I ever get a complete understanding of coffee pricing, I'll post it here - but don't hold your breath, as I think no one has ever understood all the mechanics of coffee pricing. Coffee is traded internationally as a commodity, not as a food item, and thus is subject to the whims and quirks of the marketplace. One thing that I have learned so far is that trading in coffee futures seems to be a VERY risky business, even though it has potential for huge profits.

In the Wikipedia article on the economics of coffee (click here for the link), I found a very interesting graph showing what percentage of the price of a cup of coffee is paid to the workers, the roasters, etc. Here are the numbers:

44.9% (pink) - taxes, transport and duty
23.7% (lavender) - wholesale and retail vendors
17.8% (blue) -  roasters and producers
8.5%   (yellow) - planters
5.1%   (green) - workers' wages

Suddenly it becomes clear why fair-traded coffee costs quite a bit more, doesn't it? If those two bottom categories, planters and works, are to get an increased percentage of the final price, it will have a large impact on the price per pound at one's local store. Since the fair-trade movement seems not to have reached Brazil, that $2.22 per pound I'm paying at the supermarket, even with lower Brazilian taxes, transport etc. means very little is going into the hands of the planters and workers. It makes the cup just a bit more bitter to the taste - for me at least.

Friday, February 5, 2010

MUSICAL INTERLUDE - A Preta do Acarajé

My interest in Brazilian culture is certainly not limited to matters gastronomic. Since my first visits to Brazil a long while back, I love the fact that Brazil has such a musical culture, and I love all types of music that are part of Brazilian culture -samba, choro, axé, forró, pagode, funk.

When my two passions combine - music about food - then I'm a very happy fellow. A Brazilian tune about Brazilian food - as they say in Portuguese "que maravilha!"

A short while ago, I posted several articles about acarajé, the street-food that exemplifies the Afro-Brazilian culture of the state of Bahia, and which has been given national heritage status. (Click here to read about acarajé).

A few nights ago, while I was walking along the seashore here in Fortaleza, and listening to my iPod on shuffle, I listened to a song called  A Preta do Acarajé (in English: The Seller of Acarajé) and I knew I had to post it on Flavors of Brazil. The song is an old one, written in 1939 by one of the most famous of the Bahian singer-songwriters Dorival Caymmi. It has been recorded hundreds of times, by such artists as Carmen Miranda, Maria Bethania, Dorival Caymmi himself, and Gal Costa. It was Gal Costa's version that I listened to on my iPod, so I decided to post that one on this blog.

Here it is. (Just click on the YouTube video to listen).

Here are the original Portuguese lyrics, in case you'd like to follow along. It's a beautiful song, very Bahian, and a marvelous performance.

A Preta do Acarajé
Dez horas da noite
Na rua deserta
A preta mercando
Parece um lamento
"Iê o abará!"

Na sua gamela
Tem molho e cheiroso
Pimenta da Costa
Tem acarajé
"Ô acarajé ecó olalai e ô ô"
"Vem benzê!
Tá quentinho!!"

Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
O trabalho que dá pra fazê é que é
O trabalho que dá pra fazê é que é
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Ninguém quer saber o trabalho que dá
Ninguém quer saber o trabalho que dá
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé

Dez horas da noite
Na rua deserta
Quanto mais distante
Mais triste o lamento
"Iê o abará!"

"Ô acarajé ecó olalai e ô ô"
"Vem benzê!
Tá quentinho!!"

Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
O trabalho que dá pra fazê é que é
O trabalho que dá pra fazê é que é
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Ninguém quer saber o trabalho que dá
Ninguém quer saber o trabalho que dá
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Todo mundo gosta de abará
Todo mundo gosta de acarajé
"Iê o abará!"

Click on "read more" below for a translation of the lyrics into English

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

One Man's Meat, etc.... The Story of Sururu

One of the things I enjoy most about putting Flavors of Brazil together is the process of discovering exactly what it is that I am discussing. One of my earliest posts in this blog was about the fruit called caja, for instance. I wanted to find out exactly what the fruit was from a botanical point of view, whether it was known in other parts of the world besides Brazil, and whether it had a name in English. (Click here to find out the answers.) Because sometimes one thing has more than one name even here in Brazil, and numerous regional variations, the only way to really be sure is to use the Latin taxonomic name to track it down around the world. The whole process can lead one to some unexpected and unusual places. For someone like me who loves weird and wonderful facts, the process can be serendipitous.

One of the iconic traditional dishes of Brazil's Northeastern cultural region (Nordeste in Portuguese) is a seafood soup or stew called "caldo de sururu." It's a simple dish, a peasant dish, and it's normally served in waterfront bars, or by vendors on Brazilian beaches. It's delicious and filling, and locally it is reputed to have therapeutic effects in regards to hangovers, and enhancing effects for male potency.  I've eaten the soup myself, but cannot vouch for either of these effects!

It's clear, when eating caldo de sururu, that sururu is some sort of shellfish, although the sururu have already been shelled in the preparation of the caldo, so there is not much in the way of hints to help one identify the animal itself. It's as if one tried to picture what a clam looked like from eating clam chowder. I was curious exactly what a sururu was, and no one here could exactly tell me. So I began to do some research using trusty (?) tools like Wikipedia and Google.

The sururu, it turns out, is a bivalve mollusk like clams, oysters and mussels. I had previously thought that was probably the case, as one nickname for sururu locally here in Fortaleza is "the poor man's oyster (a ostra dos pobres). Google images gave me this photo of a sururu, and it certainly looked like some sort of mussel to me:

I also found a photo of sururu once it had been shelled, and it continued to look like a mussel:

After some searching, I discovered the taxonomic name for the sururu - Mytella charruana. From there, I knew I could track it down outside Brazil, and outside the gastronomic universe. When I checked for Mytella charruna in Google Images, I found this intriguing photo:

Why was there a red circle around the sururu and a red band through it? What was/is the problem? Time for some more internet research. I soon discovered why. If you'd like to know what the problem is, click on "read more" below.

RECIPE - Camafeu de Nozes (from FENADOCE)

Here is another traditional sweet from Brazil's FENADOCE - the National Sweets Fair - held in Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sol. It derives, like so many treats from this region, from the recipes brought by immigrants from Portugal and goes back to the recipes followed in the convents of that country.

The name of this dish, Camafeu de Nozes, translates in English as "walnut cameos" and it's easy to see from the photo above how this sweet got its name. The oval shape, the white color of the sweet itself, and the piece of walnut decorating the top are all reminiscent of cameo lockets from former times.

This recipe is easy to make and the sweets are absolutely delicious. A tray of camafeus, decorated and wrapped, makes a wonderful present at Christmas-time or on any other occasion.

RECIPE - Camafeu de Nozes (from FENADOCE)

3 cups granulated sugar
1 lb. (450 gr.) ground walnuts
1 1/2 cups milk
5 egg yolks
1 lb. (450 gr.) confectioner's sugar (icing sugar)
1 tsp. butter
shelled walnut halves to decorate
In a large heavy saucepan combine the granulated sugar, the ground walnuts, 1 cup of the milk, and the egg yolks. Cook over medium heat, constantly stirring with a wooden or plastic spoon, until the mixture thickens and comes away from the bottom and the sides of the saucepan.

Spoon the mixture onto a cookie sheet, and let cool. Once cooled, use your hands, to form the mixture into small 1" (2 cm.) oval rolls. Return the rolls to the cookie sheet.

In a double-boiler, combine the confectioner's sugar, the remaining 1/2 cup milk and the butter, and cook over medium heat until combined and smooth.

Dip each small oval into the confectioner's sugar mix, and place on wax paper to dry. Carefully place one walnut half on each oval. Allow the camafeus to dry thoroughly before removing from wax paper.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

RECIPE - Quindim (from FENADOCE)

This recipe is for one of the most traditional fine sweets of Pelotas, and incidentally one of the most popular items annually at Brazil's National Fair of Sweets, FENADOCE. (Click here to read more about FENADOCE). It is a direct descendant of the sweets baked in ancient times in the convents of Portugal, and sold through the door of the convent to support the sisters inside.

It is called quindim (pronounced keen-jean), and it is an extremely simple recipe, with only three ingredients. Though simple to make, it is extremely rich and very sweet, and one small quindim will satisfy all but the most rabid sweet-eater.
RECIPE - Quindim
Serves 8

20 egg yolks
1 lb. (500 gr.) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml.) grated, unsweeted coconut
2 Tbsp. butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Pass the egg yolks through a fine sieve into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, and mix carefully by hand. Put the mixture into a heavy medium saucepan, and heat over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture flows from a spoon in a thin string. Remove from heat.
Let the mixture cool a few minutes, then add the coconut and melted butter. Stir slowly and carefully to mix.
Divide the mixture among 8 ramekins or custard cups which have been greased with soft butter and dusted with granulated sugar. Place in a bain-marie or water bath, and place in pre-heated oven. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in a quindim comes out clean.
Let cool, unmold if desired, and serve at room temperature or chilled.

FENADOCE - Brazil's National Sweets Fair

Brazilians are notorious for having a sweet tooth, and most Brazilians will unashamedly admit to being addicted to desserts, candies and sweet drinks. There are several possible historical reasons for this including the importance of the cultivation of sugar historically in Brazil, and Brazil's colonial ties to Portugal, which has a rich tradition of its own of sweets, centered around baked goods from that county's convents and monasteries.

Being a nation of 200 million sweet-lovers, it's no surprise that Brazil celebrates this love affair with a national Fair. It's called FENADOCE, which is an abbreviation of its name in Portuguese, A Feira Nacional do Doce. It is held every year in the southern Brazilian town of Pelotas, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. In 2010, FENADOCE will be celebrating its 18th annual fair, from the 26th of May to the 13th of June.

It is a bit unusual that a national event like FENADOCE would be held so far away from the population centers of the country, almost on the border with Uruguay and thousands of kilometres away from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. But Pelotas is a natural place for this event to be held according to the official website of FENADOCE:
The culture of sweets and sweet baking in Pelotas was inherited through the recipes brought to this city by the first Portuguese immigrants in the middle of the 18th Century. These immigrants brought with them such marvels as: ninhos, fios-de-ovos, babas-de-moça, camafeus, papos-de-anjo, canudinhos recheados, pastéis de Santa Clara and many more.
Later Italian and German immigrants became of the culture, each group bringing with them recipes for sweets and desserts. At that time, home gatherings and parties were showcases of sweets, since for the immigrant cultures sugar and sweet things were elements of any celebration. Immigrant families had traditions of passing on recipe for the families' favorite sweets from generation to generation.
Today Pelotas has become a place where artesanal production of sweets has combined with industrial production technique to create an ever-growing industry in our city. Because of this, the sweets of Pelotas are not just known locally, but are valued throughout Brazil.

The fair not only has food, but a variety of entertainment, from music, to clowns, to dance and theater. But the traditional sweets of Pelotas are still it's raison d'être. Here is a visual sampling:

In the next few posts, I will translate some of the recipes for traditional sweets that can be found on the website of FENADOCE.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chope - Brazilian-style beer

One of the many components that contribute to a distinctive national or regional culture is the prevalence of a particular alcoholic beverage. For example, Italy or Spain are places where the most typical and traditional alcoholic drink is wine. In Germany and the Czech Republic, beer holds the pride of place as the most traditional drink, while in Russia it would have to be considered vodka.

Although Brazil produces a small quantity of decent domestic wine and foreign wines are available, beer (cerveja in Portuguese) is overwhelmingly the most popular alcoholic beverage. Wherever Brazilians gather, in homes, in restaurants, on the street or at the beach, beer is inevitably available. With no licensing laws (and a relaxed minimum age of 18) beer can be bought at supermarkets, bakeries, gas stations, or from the syrofoam box of a curbside seller.

Brazilians predominantly drink light lager beer, and prefer it VERY well chilled. It's often served at temperatures slightly below the freezing point, although with its alcohol content the beer will not be frozen. It's probably due to the tropical climate, but cold beer is a universal rule. Brazilians gag when they hear talk of British ales being served at cellar temperature.

Beer at home, at the beach, or on the street during carnaval is sold in 355 ml. cans, in 350 ml. "long-neck" bottles, and in 600 ml. bottles. But the Brazilian beer tradition is not limited to such packaging. In many regions of Brazil (but not all) the most highly-regarded beer is draft, poured directly from the tap. In Portuguese, draft beer is called "chope", which is pronounced like SHOW-pea, with the accent on the first syllable. Sometimes it's spelled as "chopp" but the pronunciation is the same. It is widely available in street-corner bars, in restaurants, and in chopperias, which are large establishments similar to a brew-pub and which specialize in chope, snack foods, conversation and music.

Brazilian chope is normally served in rather small glasses, due to the hot climate. A large mug or stein of chope would likely become warm before it is finished, thus it's better to have several small glasses of chope  rather than one large one. A well-poured chope of the Brazilian style has a large, creamy head, with three "fingers" of foam being considered the optimum, and a chopp without such a head might be refused by bar patrons. For the uninitiated, this head might be considered something of a rip-off, but in fact it serves a purpose. The foam acts as a thermal insulator, and protects the cold chope from becoming warm too quickly.

Chope is made by all the large multinational Brazilian breweries such as Brahma, Antartica and Skol. The small, local brewing industry is just starting in Brazil, and is probably at the stage that such breweries in North America were about ten to fifteen years ago, although every year the number of these small enterprises is growing.

It's well worth trying chope when in Brazil, and it's easy to order. If you ask for "cerveja" that means that you want bottled beer, "chope" will get you draft beer. All you need to say is "chope, por favor" and hold up one, two or three fingers depending on how many you want. They will arrive very quickly, very cold, and ready for the drinking. Saúde!  (That's "cheers" in Portuguese, and it's pronounced saw-OO-gee).

RECIPE - Rice with Pequi (Arroz com Pequi)

In a previous post, I discussed the intriguing and dangerous fruit called pequi. In that post, I mentioned that because of it's "off-flavors" which are often described as "cheesy", "sweaty" or "barnyard" pequi is commonly served as part of a savory dish, rather than as a traditional sweeter fruit.

Although it's unlikely that anyone outside Brazil will find a supply of pequi in their local supermarket, I thought it would be interesting to include here on Flavors of Brazil one of the most well-known and well-loved recipes for pequi - Rice with Pequi. It comes from the Brazilian state of Goiás, where it is considered the one dish that most typifies the cuisine of that state.

 RECIPE - Rice with Pequi (Arroz com Pequi)
 Serves 6

1 cup neutral vegetable oil (canola, soya, peanut)
2 cups pequi
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 cup long-grain rice
2 cups chicken broth (vegetable broth can be substituted)
4 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. green onion, chopped
Combine water and broth in medium pan, bring to simmer. In another large, heavy pan heat the oil over medium heat and lightly fry the pequi. Add the onion and garlic and continue to fry, stirring to avoid sticking, until everything is lightly browned. Add the rice and fry for a few minutes, until all the rice is coated with oil and is slightly transparent. Cover with the simmer water-broth blend. Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook, covered, until liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender (about 20 minutes). Remove from heat, stir in the green onion, and serve.
(Adapted and translated from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora)