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!"


  1. Oi!
    I just found this blog (actually I was googling a recipe for acaraje) and wandered into this blog incidentally. I'm addicted to your posts! This one hit a nerve though.
    I lived in Brasil for a few years (my husband is Brasileiro) and I studied gastronomy. We learned everything from classic french to moqueca. When making Mirepoix, I was astounded when people (including the head chef) were adding celery LEAVES to the onions and carrots. They didn't know how to use it. They just threw the stalks in the garbage and minced the leaves. I'd cringe! But then that's how I found out that Brasil DID have Celery. :D Looking back I guess the mistook "Salsao" for "Salsa"

    Also, my produce stand in the mercadao (Campinas, SP) started bringing lemons last year. The lady would get all happy when I came because she knew lemons excited me! ahaha (the Meyer kind, not the Persian ones)

    Moving to BR didn't give me much of a food shock (Florida has so much of the same produce), but celery and lemons were two things in particular that I missed. Also ice cream that didn't taste incredibly synthetic and Florida oranges (I like mine sour not sweet!)
    By the way, curry powder is pretty simple to find in BR now :)

    1. thanks for the comment. I too have noticed the arrival of lemons in the Brazilian market - both fruit markets and supermarkets. At least here in Fortaleza, they're called limao siciliano. A few nights ago at a pizza restaurant I noticed on the menu that they served lemon caipirinhas. So I had to try one. They were seriously delicious!

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  3. We are looking for celery now in Fortaleza for Christmas dinner. Which supermarket did you find it at?

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