Monday, February 20, 2012

The Street Food of Carnaval

Sambódromo, Rio de Janeiro
All over Brazil  this week, from small villages and outposts to the mega-metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazilians are celebrating the national explosion of alegria e folia (joy and craziness) that is Brazilian Carnaval. In 2012 they will be doing so for the 371st time, as Carnaval was first celebrated in Brazil in the year 1641, in Rio de Janeiro, in imitation of the Carnavals of Europe.

These days, Brazilian Carnaval goes well beyond anything seen in Europe or almost anywhere else - in terms of cultural importance, Brazilian Carnaval is only equalled by New Orleans' Mardi Gras, held at the same time as Carnaval in Brazil. The largest of the Carnaval celebrations are the largest peaceful street gatherings in the world, with up to two million celebrants thronging the streets.
Trio elétrico, Salvador

Frevo, Recife
Carnaval  is not celebrated in the same way everywhere in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval   , with its all-night-long samba-school parades in the Sambódromo is very different from the frenzied scene surrounding the huge sound-truck/moving stages called trio elétrico in Salvador, Bahia. Although music and dancing is an essential part of Carnaval everywhere in the country, even the rhythms and dance styles vary from city to city. Rio has its various forms of samba, Salvador dances to the rhythms of axé, and Recife's carnaval is inseparable from the fast beat and flying feet of frevo.

Although every city has its own Carnaval atmosphere and events, Carnaval food is, by and large, more standardized. When there are over a million dancing, drinking revelers in the street, as there are at Recife's Galo de Madrugada or Rio de Janeiro's Cordão da Bola Preta parade, there's no time nor space to feed that multitude anything more than street food that quickly fills the stomach and renews the energy. When revelers want to eat they want something quick, something filling and something cheap - and something nearby. Their needs are meet by thousands of pushcart vendors who seem to have the unerring ability to find a spot along the curb at any street gathering in the country, ready to sell french fries, hot dogs and other similar treats from their carts. Prices vary depending on the law of supply and demand but they are never very expensive, as street parties are not the carnaval venue of choice for the rich and chic (they have their own private balls). Street parties are for the rest of Brazilian society, from upper-middle-class university students, to blue collar workers, to domestic servants, the unemployed and even the homeless.

Beside the universal street food dishes like hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries, there is one carnaval treat that's particularly Brazilian. Grilled meat-on-a-skewer, known as espetinho in Portuguese, is available everywhere, and millions are consumed daily. Very similar to Turkish kebabs, Asian night-market skewers and other snacks of their ilk, Brazilian espetinhos are given their own Brazilian twist when they are rolled in crunchy, gritty farinha (toasted manioc flour) and topped with a spritz or two of hot sauce.

To wash down those hot dogs, espetinhos and burgers, Brazilians overwhelmingly rely on beer - generally canned lager (many cities entirely prohibit the sale of beer in glass containers in the build-up to carnaval). Just as push-cart food vendors are ubiquituous during Brazilian street parties, there's almost always someone with a styrofoam cooler filled with icy beer within short distance during a street party. The supply never seems to run out. Soft drinks, mineral water and alco-pop coolers are also available, but most revelers quench their thirst with plain old cerveja (beer).

Brazilian carnaval food is a nutritionist's nightmare - generally meat-heavy, often greasy and stodgy. But it's so clasely associated with the festival that carnaval food is unlikely to change drastically any time soon. Just as for many Americans the only time they ever eat hot dogs is at the ball part - it's an essential part of the ritual - for many Brazilians carnaval without a hot dog, or espetinho, is equally unthinkable.

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