Thursday, June 11, 2015

As Riquezas (The Riches): Fresh markets, foods and snacks in Brazil

It bears no relevance with regard to my art projects but it's impossible to document living in the state of Rio de Janeiro without talking at least a bit about the foods, especially the exotic fruits available at the green market, the local snacking customs, and some widely-accessible popular street foods.

A good segue to the topic of this post is a quick note about the relationship between land and people in this area as seen by us, Pacific Northwesterners. It also has to be noted that our tiny sliver of a view cannot be generalized to encompass the entirety of Brazil, where each region has its own specific environmental resources and challenges.
Traveling around in the state of Rio de Janeiro, we’ve often wondered about the situation of nature conservancy, and the general attention that is being paid in order to preserve and maintain the natural beauty and bounty of the land and the waters. There are many areas that are designated as parks and nature preserves, which is great to see. These are generally less accessible and less developed for tourism than corresponding sites in the US. However, and maybe exactly because of the vastness of nature (and the large number of people who travel to it), there seems to be a general attitude of ignorance about litter or finite nature of environmental resources.
On the other hand, there is an overabundance of chemicals, be that in the form of generously applied cleaning products, or in case of food: pesticides and fertilizers. At Largo, our studios were cleaned by two ladies before each exhibition opening, during which time it was nearly impossible to stay in the building. The cleaning products made our eyes water and throats sting. We have been warned by many different sources not to eat leafy vegetables at all, due to the industrial farms heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. And, of course, every day we have to slather ourselves generously with DDT to avoid mosquitos bites (there has been a high incidence of Dengue fever since we have arrived). When chatting with Ernesto Neto, he joked about the government oversight of food industry that is essentially a control of farm foods (really targeting and restricting the organic and farm-to-table movements that are just springing up in Brazil, in favor of the more industrialized production). Many friends we made here are increasingly involved with the political side of sustainability, actively exploring ways of going outside of the regulated systems and focusing on sustainable green ways of eating and, as a necessary consequence, farming and cooking.
Another interesting footnote is a news report statistics, which I saw recently, that claims that there is an increasingly growing trend of eating outside of the household. Now, the majority of city dwelling Brazilians eat daily in one of the by-the-kilo fast food restaurants or buy ready-to-warm prepared industrial meals in the supermarket. There is too much sugar and too much salt in everything. Manioc root is the main source of starch, with is used in ample quantities to thicken sauces, filling, creams and puddings and to make breads rise into a fluffy white cloud (a cheese laden version of which is “pão de queijo”, cheese bread).

But with some time devoted to exploring, one can find lots of exotic discoveries and local curiosities in the niches, many of these are an exception from the general issues mentioned above. The best place to look is at the local fresh markets, one of which is being virtually every day of the week in a different neighborhood in Rio. Markets open at 7am and go until about 2-3pm, with prices dropping on hard-to-keep fruits around noon. We were lucky enough to live right on a square that holds both an immense fresh market on Wednesdays and a small organic market on Saturdays in Copacabana. I’ve been often taken aback by both the immense quantity of produce and the—by US standards—lax sanitary conditions (especially problematic for fresh fish and meats in the heat); but buying all our food at the market became a regular program and a bit of an addiction.
Herbs and flavorings.
Manioc roots.
Fruits and vegetables in a cacophony of colors and shapes.
Spices and peppers of all kinds.
Maracuja or Passion fruit. The fruit is the yellow-orange stuff around the edible black seeds.
Many kinds of bananas. Each has a distinct flavor and texture.  

Little sardines are being gutted on the spot and sold by the dozen.
Citrus varieties.

Fish of all kinds. By mid-morning, there is usually no visible sign of ice under the fish.  
Crab vendor.
Out of the amazing exotic tropical fruits we got to try in Rio perhaps the caju (cashew apple) is the most interesting.
Caju fruit.
The cashew nut shell cut into two. This is very toxic; needs to be dried and roasted.
The cashew nut is inside the green skin that sits on top of the fruit. 
The caju fruit has a soft creamy-yellow flesh and a pleasant slightly bitter taste.  
Mixing a caju caipirinha: Cut fruit, add sugar, then crush in a mixer (or glass jar here) with a wooden-pestle. Add cachaça and ice and shake.
As for eating on the go, there are lots of forms of eateries, each with their typical selection of products. "Lanches" are places for things like sandwiches and (recently) burgers. They also offer typical regional “salgados” (baked pastry-type or breaded and fried filled savory snacks) although those are often sold at "padarias" (bakeries) and "confeitarias" (pastry shops) as well. The most famous confeitaria in Rio is Colombo. Salgados and other cakes and pastries are eaten all-day-round, but mostly in the afternoons, accompanied by a short cup of coffee, a “cafezinho,” taken black. Coffee, of course, is a strong part of culture. It is the equivalent of hospitality, any time of the day, and thus cannot be refused.
Signature pastries from Confeitaria Colombo. These are typically of Portuguese origin. 

Confeitaria Colombo
The endless mirrors in the sitting area of Confeitaria Colombo.
Finally, two of the most often seen street foods: "Tapioca recheada" (snow-white pancakes filled with any kinds of ingredients from meats, cheese, guava paste, condensed milk, coconut, and these in any combinations).  These are made with a special kind of manioc (also known as cassava or tapioca) flour that has been through a fermentation process. At the fresh market, manioc-product vendors make the flour fresh by adding some water and putting the mixture through a coarse sieve (resulting in a grainy but dry substance) but the same is also available pre-packaged at the supermarkets. The product is ingenious: Putting on a hot skillet, the small starch pearls will fuse together (due to water and heat) into a thick crepe. Nothing else is needed. It’s quite bland by itself, with a very unique fermented perfume, so any kind of filling would go quite well with it. Vendors have small metal push-carts complete with a hot-plate and skillet, making them one-by-one, fresh to order.
Here is a YouTube video by Vovó Cristina on how to make it:

Another street food that is interesting to watch in the making is “acarajé.” Acarajé is of Yoruba origin and comes from the state of Bahia (most typically from Salvador). Making it requires a bigger setup, usually a tent with steaming hot caldrons, so it’s often sold at street fairs, like the Sunday Hippy Fair at Ipanema by cheerful round ladies dressed in gleaming white layers of skirts, blouse and wearing matching white majestic head-wraps. The image of these ladies is iconic in Brazil and fills many of the tourist gift items, but it also represents the aspects of Brazilian culture that are of of Nigerian origin. I did not come to love acarajé as much as I would have liked to but the whole preparation and presentation of it is an experience worth trying. Acarajé is a deep fried bun made of mashed black-eyed peas that is fried in “dendê” (red palm) oil, which gives its characteristic flavor and red color. The bun is cut and filled with “vatapá” (a stew of ocra, cashew and shrimp) and topped with “caruru” (a kind salsa of red and green tomatoes and cilantro) and with more tiny smoked shrimps.

Customers sit on plastic chairs while eating. 
Making the black-eye pea mixture.
Frying the buns.
Filling the buns with vatapá and  caruru.

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