Friday, July 26, 2013

Hosting visitors – being an ambassador

Luiz and I have had the privilege of living in a couple of very desirable vacation destinations: first in San Francisco for many years and now in Brazil, just outside Rio de Janeiro. We are accustomed to hosting out of town visitors.

While in San Francisco our approach was to simply offer our guests keys to our apartment, a comfortable place to sleep, a transit map of the city and a quick rundown of the unique qualities of each neighborhood. That was pretty much all they needed to keep busy.

Here in Niterói the brief is a bit more complicated.

Aside from our Brazilian friends, both national and from back in the states, most everyone else who visits does not speak Portuguese. And believe me, it is rare to find English speakers while traveling in Brazil, outside of pousada owners and self-identified multi-lingual tour guides. Seasoned world travelers don’t let something as routine as a language barrier dissuade them from coming to discover a bit of Brazil, but it can be somewhat daunting for others.

Both Luiz and I are proud locals who are happy to settle in to a good long orientation for what to expect and how best to tackle it. We’ve got a Portuguese phrase book, a guide book listing historic points of interest in Rio, intimate knowledge of bus, ferry and cab transportation options (unfortunately there is no real definitive transit map to offer up), and specific insider tips for local beaches, two day getaways and champion natural and cultural spots throughout the country.

Thanks to our friends Carlinhos and Dü in Ouro Preto and the extended Santana family in Sete Lagoas, we have developed an A-game, full-on Minas Gerais-worthy breakfast offering for guests
Our work and home demands (OK, maybe not “demands,” but sh*t we gotta do)do not always allow us to accompany our guests in their local explorations or extended travels in Brazil. We are frequently setting them off to experience things on their own. This means we have to set them at ease about the adventure ahead.

So many people have a somewhat exaggerated view of the dangers they may encounter in Brazil. Let’s face it, Rio, São Paulo, Salvador and some rural areas have quite a reputation for violence. Tourists fear taking the bus at night, venturing into unknown neighborhoods, asking strangers for help, or even simple encounters with the police. Truth be told, there are good reasons behind the development of these national stereotypes, but I am of the mind that you have to be pretty unlucky to actually experience any of this chaos during your brief visit.

Most violent crime in Brazil (like nearly everywhere else on the planet) happens between people who already know each other, or when strangers cross limits they should know better than to cross (like trying to buy drugs on the street). In urban areas like Rio and São Paulo, gun violence is most often between the police and another party. Travelers out to experience the best Brazil has to offer should rarely, if ever, cross paths with these sorts of dangers.

Petty theft, inflated pricing, dogged pestering for your business or willful avoidance pretty much make up the bulk of the less than wonderful experiences tourists are likely to have. It is exceptionally unlikely that a visitor will ever be in physical danger. Don’t sweat it, I say. Get out there and have fun.

Focus on the positive – you are on vacation! Most visitors will enjoy a favorable (or really favorable) currency exchange rate that will have you enjoying all your favorite activities at a steep discount.

Intercity bus travel is exceptionally comfortable, fast, and affordable. Overnight “sleeper” buses save time and you don’t have to pay for a hotel room. In recent years air travel within Brazil has dropped significantly in price. And for some, when visiting a new big town or city, hiring a driver/guide for the day is well within budget, if this helps you settle in and enjoy the sights without stressing.

Our biggest challenge as hosts tends to be helping our guests manage their expectations regarding how much they can see and experience in what is usually a brief two weeks (or less) time frame. We have to remind folks that Brazil is larger, geographically, than the continental United States. Most people can easily see that a typical first time visit to the USA does not include a stop in New York City, Disney World in Orlando, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco and the wine country in California. Similarly, it is best to decide what region of Brazil you wish to visit and plan to spend some time there, leaving the Amazon, Rio, the Pantanal and Salvador to more than one trip.

Buy an extra pair of rose colored glasses from the beach vendor. You are on vacation, after all. A Brazilian vacation is about experiencing cultural expressions like hugs and kisses between new friends, spontaneous music/song when a group gathers, endless food at a family gathering, unsolicited assistance when you need it most, and a heartfelt invitation to come back for another visit. Not to mention the phenomenal natural beauty that is the rain forest and its inhabitants, thousands of beaches both popular and remote, canyons and waterfalls, crystal clear waters, endless sand dunes, a wetlands area nearly half the size of France, as well as historic towns and villages frozen in time.

Whether you enjoy a cold coconut water or a strong caipirinha, consider your glass always half full.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A gringo in a Brazilian super market

There are 10 grocery stores and many street fruit vendors within five blocks of our apartment.
These are photos of some of them.

One of my great adventures/challenges in relocating to Brazil has been to adapt my cooking and eating habits to fit the local reality. I don’t mind saying that I was a bit of a ‘foodie’ when I lived in San Francisco. The food realities in SF are nearly unmatched, as a group, compared to most other cities in the world.  The plethora of bakeries, open markets, restaurants both casual and fine,  ethnic grocery stores, fish and meat markets, cheese stores and quality wines on the cheap are mind blowing. While I always appreciated the choice, quality and value of the food experience in San Francisco my new reality has definitely been a striking case of “You don’t know what you've got ‘till it’s gone.”

This is a post about my learning to shop and cook abroad when my brain still eats out of my kitchen in San Francisco.

** Long post alert**  Once I got into this topic I could not break free. Go get yourself a bowl of frozen açaí with granola and sliced banana ouro and settle in for a good read.

Let me clarify, and try to avoid the slings and arrows from those who will be quick to point out the myriad of regional dishes and immigrant cuisines found in Brazil. I am posting today to point out some of the shopping/cooking/eating challenges as I have come to experience them over the past five and a half years living in the Rio area – as well as some local treasures. This post will focus on shopping and cooking to satisfy a craving for international foods or just the day to day foods previously cooked by this down-home hippie-type from the USA who loves ethnic foods.

Food options in Brazil vary from city to city – region to region, as you might expect. That said, I think it is fair to drop out the very best as well as the most challenging realities to try and get a handle on cooking in a Brazilian kitchen. That means taking much of São Paulo off the table. Sorry guys. It is just a totally separate reality from most of the rest of the country. Including the ethnic and international grocery options found in São Paulo when looking for an average grocery shopping experience is like including the salary of the Wal-Mart CEO when looking for an average salary among company employees.

Bite your tongue Paulistas. I know there would be “solutions” to some of the dilemmas I present if only I lived in São Paulo. I am describing my experience in Niterói / Rio and other places I have traveled to, not the optimal food Disneyland of those with a hearty income living in exceptional São Paulo.

Similarly, in a country where 26% of the population lives below the poverty line and 8.5% (more than 16 million people) live on less than US$1.30 per day, many, many people are eating from a very limited list of foods indeed. So for the sake of discussion, I’m going to lop off the top and the bottom and just take a peek at what seems to be regular foods for regular folks in Brazil.

This whole dilemma of not finding the ingredients I want would be solved if I just cooked more local Brazilian fare. Tasty appetizers like bolinhos de bacalhau, ceviche de salmão na banana de tarra (!!),coxinhas de galinha, empadinhas de camarão, casquinha de sirí, and salada de agrião e palmito (to name a few) rock!

Brazilian entrées from all over the country satisfy this corn-fed Midwesterner, not the least of which include a piping hot cozido, empadão de frango, carne seca com abóbora, muqueca de frutas de mar (!!), coxas recheadas and a million others.

Did I mention couve, pão de quejo, farofa Mineira, aipim frita, pirão de anything, pastel de anything, churrasquinhos? And on and on.

And then there are the sweets. Don’t get me started. Brazilians know their sweets.

For a really big collection of Brazilian recipes (in Portuguese) go here.

Regionally, I adore the food from Minas Gerais and I especially like the spicy seafood stews of Bahia and the North East. For me, Rio offers some of the most boring and unimaginative meals. If you like fried beef, fried potatoes, black beans, rice, a little diced tomato and onion vinaigrette and plain farofa – welcome to my world. I love Brazilian food, but I do feel a bit stuck in boring food land here in Rio.

But, ahem, this post is about what I cannot have. Or at least what I have to be creative to have. It’s about trying to make meals from my youth and home country with foods bought in a strange grocery store and prepared in a foreign kitchen.

Eating so-called “American” foods accounts for less and less of my weekly caloric intake. Between warming up to local customs and letting go of rare, expensive or just unattainable ingredients I have morphed into a budding Brazilian home cook. But some cravings die hard.


Some of the basics of cooking my favorites are just different here.  Flour is one example. All of the flour options I have been able to find on grocery shelves have a pretty low protein content. That is to say, they have less gluten in them. They are like “pastry flour” in the States. I cannot find anything called “bread flour.” There is a baking flour option with a bit of leavening added, but that does not get at my dilemma. I have a bread machine and I enjoy baking all sorts of hearty breads. My search for vital gluten at health foods stores has been in vain. In fact, I get blank stares from store clerks who try to correct me and say they have many gluten-free products. Fail. But I recently brought back a package of gluten from a grocery in the USA and PROBLEM SOLVED! Now my bread stands tall with exceptional structural integrity. But this is not a local solution. If you have seen gluten on the shelves here, please let me know where (and a specialty store in São Paulo is not helpful unless you are offering to mail me some).

I LOVE this mom & pop bulk and natural foods store.

Speaking of bread, two ingredients I enjoy baking with are soy grits and buckwheat groats (I told you I have hippie pedigree). I know – not fair. I should entertain no illusion such items would be available, but a guy can dream, can’t he? No luck finding them at the natural foods store. Maybe I am not describing them right. Does anyone know the Portuguese translation for these yummy items?

Also – tempeh starter. Ok, ok – back to reality, Jim.

Salt. Regular table salt here seems to be much stronger/saltier than what I am used to. It appears to be of a finer grind, which would explain things a bit. If I follow my baking recipes from the States things definitely come out too salty. I have come to cut back by about ¼ (or more) of the measure called for. But then – I am a light salter overall. Nearly everyone here adds salt to my foods once served at the table. We recently brought back some terrific salt collected from Inca-constructed evaporation pools in the mountains of Peru. It was more like Kosher salt, mild and a larger grind - perfect for last minute salting of vegetables and salads. But alas, we just pinched our last of that supply.

Baking soda. This one is a mystery to me.  While most cake and cookie recipes here include a teaspoon of baking soda (bicarbonato de sódio) along with the typical two teaspoons of baking powder (fermento em pó) you can only buy baking soda in relatively expensive tiny little packets, while baking powder is sold in useful little resealable plastic containers of a greater quantity. I have ‘fixed’ this situation by saving an emptied baking powder container and filling it with baking soda bought in bulk at the natural foods store – for 1/10th the price. Buying in bulk also lets you put a large quantity in a bowl in your refrigerator to absorb odor. The local solution is to put several pieces of charcoal in a bowl, but call me loyal to Arm & Hammer…

Beef – or better put: cuts of beef. I have never been a meat kind of guy.  Luiz is the master chef beef cooker. But I am often given the duty of going to the butcher to buy the meat. As you might expect, butchers in Brazil have their way of cutting up a cow and butchers in the States have their other way. It is not the same. Things look/are different. And obviously Brazilian butchers do not know the US English language names for various cuts of beef. This is just a learning curve you have to get over. Here is a graphic that might help a bit.

Cheeses. There are some fantabulous cheeses fresh from the farm available at supermarkets everywhere. Queijo Minas comes in soft, firm and cured varieties that taste different, have varying levels of saltiness, and behave differently in recipes. Sample your way around to find your favorites.

Ricotta cheese is typically drier and firmer than the smooth variety I was used to in the States when making lasagna, for example. It does not really translate. There is a whipped, creamier variety of ricotta sold in little plastic tubs that works great as a substitute in some cooking situations.

Cream cheese is sold in slightly smaller blocks than in the States, so be careful when buying it to match recipe requirements. Smooth cheeses like requijão and its richer cousin catupiry are sinfully delicious. But alas, sour cream is the Holy Grail not found in any but the most international of grocery stores, and then with an expensive imported price tag. Fellow expats have found that mixing a teaspoon or so of lime juice into firm yogurt or the sweeter coalhada and then letting it sit for an hour makes for a near passable sour cream substitute.

While queijo prato is a favorite cheese for melting on a ham sandwich or a burger I find it pretty mild in flavor. It’s like a super mild cheddar or Colby cheese. Best to buy the pricier versions for stronger flavor.

There are deals to be had on some brie or gorgonzola cheeses, but once you move into harder cheeses or any imported varieties, break open your wallet. And feta – poor lonely feta – sorry baby, but you are just too expensive to crumble over my salad these days. I have been experimenting with making some at home but have yet to get a breakthrough result I can share.

Canned and frozen vegetables. Sad, sad state of affairs. I’m not one to use canned vegetables, except tomatoes or tomato sauce and paste. But given the tough and flavorless nature of fresh corn here I now use canned corn for my salads. If I want peas with any flavor (besides salt) I go for the frozen variety over the canned. For some reason frozen vegetables are expensive, but I don’t use a lot of them anyway. In terms of canned beans I have used them in the past to save cooking time when making refried beans, hummus or when making a salad. Here they are either not to be found, or are just stupid expensive (for a handful of beans!), so I just wake up in the morning and put some beans on the stove to be used much later in the day. A pressure cooker is a life saver in this case.

Frozen fish. Call me spoiled. The flash frozen and vacuum packed fish that filled the freezers at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco have not made it to Brazil. Actually, in Niterói we have an AMAZING municipal fish market with more choices at great prices than I could ask for. But when I want a bag of frozen, cleaned shrimp for a quick recipe – forgeddaboutit. Almost everything in the frozen food section at the grocery store is not vacuum packed and thus fish fillets, shrimp and seafood bits are always freezer burned and generally ultimately soggy and a disappointment. For me, cooking ‘fruits of the sea’ is all about advance planning and making a trip to the fish market downtown (and the street farmers' market often has great options for just a little more $). We are lucky enough to live on the coast so eating fresh fish nearly always eclipses any idea of buying something frozen.

Ice cream. Now here I have worked a fantastic solution. But first, the situation: your garden-variety Kibon or Nestlé brand ice cream sold in supermarkets is gross. I’m prepared to venture a guess that it is 35% puffed air. Creamy? No. Don’t mistake that melt-in-your-mouth dynamic with creaminess. It is melting fast because there is nothing there. And the flavor leaves you wanting as well. All for the scandalous price of R$20 per 2 liters (about ½ gallon). Want real ice cream, like Häagen Dazs? Ha! Try doubling the price and cutting the volume to 25% (or worse).

My work-around? Luiz and I got an ice cream maker last time we were in the States (thanks for the birthday present Di and Dody). Since we have such a tiny freezer we got a maker that has its own compressor, so it freezes the ice cream in the machine. Actually, it’s best to put the finished product in the freezer for about an hour to really get it frozen, but it does the trick. Now we are in business! I can make fruit ice cream, doce de leite, chocolate, vanilla, sorbets, you name it. It is WAY creamier (all milk and cream, no air), I can use sugar substitutes so my diabetic husband can indulge his weakness for triple chocolate ice cream, and it comes out to less cost than the cheap stuff at the grocery store.

Ethnic foods. While Brazil is certainly a country with immigrant populations it is not common to see ethnic neighborhoods or grocery stores (again, São Paulo is a notable exception here). Here in Niterói I have found one Arabic store that sells some foodstuffs (but not Israeli couscous, unfortunately) and one tiny storefront that sells a very limited number of Japanese cooking items. Some natural foods stores have some things that can fill a gap here and there, but there is really nothing like a full-on ethnic grocery. In Rio there are a few mom & pop Chinese grocery stores and places to buy Japanese ingredients as well. I have found one wholesale shop in Rio with a good selection of Chinese ingredients. Outside of a few Chinese restaurants and some sushi joints, finding ethnic food restaurants is difficult as well (so tracking down where they buy their ingredients is out). I will comment on eating out in a future post.

It would seem that there is simply not enough demand for food items outside of the Brazilian cuisine box to support the sale of these foods considered specialty items by most locals. In this case I rely on the natural food store for dried foods, spices and the occasional seed or flour to piece together an ethnic meal.

Spices are often the key to success here. The regular spice display in most supermarkets is very limited and rather expensive overall. My bulk foods natural foods store really saves the day here. They have a great selection at reasonable prices. I just have to keep track of the powders, seeds and crushed leaves once they are in my kitchen. I find it best to store these items in the refrigerator.

We expats who love Mexican food have been conspiring over the years to find solutions to our Tex-Mex cravings. Hot sauces are doable, but the selection of fresh hot peppers is limited (but oven roasting everything goes a long way toward getting the flavor you want). Guacamole is definitely doable, even though most avocados here are of a different variety than we are used to - plus our friends often balk at eating it since avocados are considered a sweet dessert food here. I have a seriously delicious refried beans recipe using fejão carioca. Experimenting with available spices makes fajitas and tacos very much within reach as long as you stick to flour tortillas. Corn tortillas are near 100% unavailable in stores (there is a wholesaler in Rio, but you have to buy 120 corn tortillas at a pop). Crispy taco shells often cost R$2 a piece (imported) and Doritos dippers is as close as you get to tortilla chips, no matter the price. While, as I mentioned, there is a work-around fix for sour cream, you cannot use regular corn flour to make corn tortillas. Masa harina, the corn flour with lime sold in Mexican grocery stores in the States, is not available here. Quite simply, without a care package of masa harina from afar – no luck on the corn tortilla front.

For Indian curries and Thai sauces I have relied on spice packets from abroad. I think I could gather most of the spices here, but I’m inexperienced in making these flavors from scratch (I do use prepared “curry powder”).

Sugar-free items.  There are many varieties of sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners here. Luiz relies on them. But he will tell you that distinct flavor differences exist and you should taste your way through a number of them to find your favorite. Prices vary a lot. Luiz has rejected almost all of them in favor of Splenda, which we have never seen available here. This is an item we stock up on when friends travel abroad.

Luiz thinks there is a market niche that is ready for exploiting regarding sweets for the diabetic. While there are some really fantastic chocolate purveyors in Brazil, none of them has a grip on the sugar free market. It is typical to find one or two items in the entire shop that is sugar free and in many boutiques there is nothing available. Other sweets of the sugar free variety are also in short supply: jams and jellies, prepared desserts, hot chocolate, candies of all kinds, etc. Luiz picks up what he can find, but mostly I prepare stuff at home to fill the need.


Cooking in stone and clay pots. I love this. There is just something magical about going from the top of the stove to the oven and then to the table with a beautiful pot made of clay and mangrove tree sap. Our big pot is perfect for moqueca and our small one makes perfect rice every time. Our pots made of soap stone, bought in Minas Gerais, simmer our feijoada flawlessly for hours. Plus the pizza stone cooks a perfect crispy on the bottom pizza without fail.

Brazilians are among the world’s most brilliant bean cookers. Feijão (literally: beans, but commonly used to refer to a flavorful creamy cooked bean almost-stew) has as many champions as there are mothers and grandmothers. My MIL cooks up black beans in such a way that you would swear you were eating warm, creamy chocolate. Regional bean varieties are black, brown, white or somewhere in between.  Talk about working magic in the kitchen. This is it. Most grocery stores have a whole area dedicated to a myriad of animal parts (knuckles, hoofs, organs, ears, noses, skin and ‘lesser’ cuts) that can transform the humble dried bean into a family favorite and daily mainstay. Wherever you are in Brazil it is worth your while to master the local approach to beans. This is poor people’s food brought to a whole new level. [Dried beans are dried beans, so they work as you expect in your favorite recipes. But do take the time to explore local methods.]

Fruits. Wonderful, wonderful fruits. For this I typically rely on street vendors and the farmers’ markets in our area. It’s all about buying what is in season and being adventurous with some pretty strange looking things. Bananas, mangoes and papayas come in a number of varieties – all of which are worth trying. Strawberries, tangerines and pineapples sing with flavor when perfectly ripe. Ask your grocer/vendor to explain their orange varieties. Some are good for juicing, others not so much. Just let go of your want for seedless oranges - or grapes for that matter - better to just go with the flow. There is a terrific little lime with orange pulp (limão galego) typically with a green and orange rind or green with crusty grey blemishes that makes amazing lime-aid. Guava (goiaba) comes in a couple varieties. Buy it when it is totally ripe, but beware of over-ripened fruits that can have squiggly intruders inside. Star fruit (carambola) is another one I like when super ripe. It looks a bit blemished, but tastes all the sweeter. I love me some persimmon (caqui), again, when super ripe. Figs are often available and cheap when in season. Lots of people love passion fruit (maracujá), the juice, the pulp, in tarts, etc. but personally I give it a miss. Similarly I find jackfruit (jaca) an acquired taste, although it can be stupid cheap when bought on the side of the road. A fellow blogger who loves an adventure and a good deal just blogged about the virtues of mangosteens (mangostão), check it out here. It seems like watermelon is ALWAYS in season. Regarding fruits - get a good blender (that can crush ice) or a juicer and experiment. Take good advantage of this lush edible resource.

Naturally, it is the stone fruits, berries and some apple varieties that never really show up on market stands, or when they do they are very pricey. Things like peaches, plums, cherries, cranberries, blueberries, etc. require some cold weather to complete their life cycle. These are rare fruits and are most often frozen or imported. Too bad for me that I grew up with peach and plum trees in my back yard as a kid in Michigan (saudade). We would go cherry picking and buy fresh apple cider at the orchards. Here kids grow up nailing a coffee can to the end of a long stick and climbing giant mango trees to knock off a few choice fruits. I’ve pretty much changed gears in the fruit department, totally enjoying the local options while still pining over missed cherry pies and blueberry cobblers.

To live locally you have to cook locally.

Now that I've lain out a bit of my experience cooking in our new environment I see that it is not so new anymore. My desire to replicate US American foods against the tide of available ingredients has calmed over the years. More and more the foods that jump into my mind when thinking about entertaining friends or celebrating a holiday are Brazilian in nature. I’m more excited now about getting it right on the Brazilian front than testing out yet another work-around concoction to simulate a dish that nobody has ever heard of (except me).

Some old favorite recipes will never fade away, like my fabulous cheesecake or my spinach lasagna. But just as my Portuguese has evolved over the years, so has my taste for delicious food. Nowadays I am more inclined to want to prepare a Brazilian seafood stew or a chicken stroganoff for my US American friends. 

Living local. Eating local.

Fellow expats, I’d love to hear where you are on this food journey. Work-arounds? Favorite Brazilian dishes you cook? Tips for others?

[Told you it was a long post.]