Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making Bahian-style moqueca in a clay pot

Few meals excite me as much as a seafood moqueca over rice with a tasty pirão. Include a fresh salad and I will think (no, I will know) I have died and gone to heaven. If everything is cooked in clay or stone pots it most certainly inspires a blog post.

A couple weeks ago I met a young neighbor who had never been to Niterói’s remarkable fish market. It always surprises me when I, the gringo new resident, know more about local treasures than folks born and raised here. I guess that is not all too surprising. Some of our friends who have lived here all their lives have never been to Sugarloaf or Corcovado in Rio. To be fair, I lived in San Francisco for more than 8 years before I finally visited Alcatraz Island (and then only when taking a tourist friend to see the place).

At any rate, I used my recent craving for a mouth watering moqueca as an opportunity to show my new friend what he has been missing in terms of quality fresh seafood at discount prices available only at the São Pedro Fish Market.

Some people like a fish moqueca. Others like a moqueca swimming with plump, flavorful shrimp. Me – I say use them both. If you are going for a full on seafood moqueca you may want to include mussels or clams, and maybe some squid, but for the sake of avoiding local mussels pulled from our polluted bay and the near-certain rubbery squid that would result from over cooking (it is a stew, after all, and squid is super tricky when it comes to cook times), I went with just fish and shrimp. Simple and delicious.

We perused the numerous stands at the market hawking shrimp in various sizes. I bought about ¾ of a kilogram from the cutest fish monger I could spot who was still selling his morning catch of crustaceans at a decent price. I paid R$10 even. They were pretty big little guys. I was happy.

For fish I went with two big steaks of firm flesh dorado, a little less than a kilogram overall. It is best to choose a fish with a firm flesh so that it holds its shape and does not disintegrate when cooking in the stew. I think I paid about R$8 for the fish, total.

Back in my kitchen the first order of business was to shell and de-vein the shrimp. I saved the heads and shells and boiled them up with some chunks of onion, celery, a bay leaf and salt and pepper to get a simple broth I would use later in the pirão.

After looking up a few Bahian-style moqueca recipes online I cross referenced that with what Luiz said he usually does. It’s essentially a fish stew made with coconut milk. You can feel your way around and do what pleases you without really running the risk of ruining anything. Just don’t overcook your seafood and you will be OK.

Here is approximately what I used:

- the fish and shrimp
- a red and a green pepper, sliced into thin rounds
- one large onion, sliced into thin rounds
- several cloves of garlic, crushed
- several tomatoes, seeded, sliced crosswise
- a couple little hot peppers, seeded, chopped fine
- a bunch of cilantro and scallions (cheiro verde), chopped fine-ish
- 400 ml coconut milk
- dendê oil for frying (this is the crucial ingredient for getting that Bahian flavor)

You will also need about a cup of yucca flour (farinha de mandioca) for the pirão.

The stew does not take very long to cook so be at the ready with your ingredients and cooked rice. You may want to fuss over a salad in advance. The pirão is quick and can be made after the moqueca is simmering. Just be mindful that once you add the fish and then the shrimp to the stew you don’t want to cook the crap out of it. Less is more when it comes to cooking fresh seafood.

So here we go.

Prepare your rice the way you like it. Have your shrimp broth strained, hot and at hand.

Luiz likes to marinate the fish and shrimp while working on everything else. So we finely chopped some onions, garlic and cheiro verde and mixed them with some olive oil. Then we tossed the shrimp and fish steaks in this oil mixture and set aside. I think you could skip this step if you are somehow pressed for time, but it is a tasty step.

Pour a couple tablespoons of dendê oil into your clay pot. Keep in mind that the flavor of the oil is quite strong. You want that flavor, just not so much that you overpower everything. Think curry – it tastes great – but a little goes a long way. If you like to drown things in oil for cooking, use half and half with canola oil. Heat the pot and the oil over medium high heat.

Toss in and sauté up your onions and garlic. Everything will take on the characteristic orange color of the dendê. Things should smell pretty wonderful at this point, taking you back to the streets of Bahia. Reduce heat and add the sliced peppers and chopped chilies. Cook just to soften. Add the coconut milk, about a cup of shrimp broth and the chopped cheiro verde. Salt to your taste. Bring the mixture to near boiling. Gently add the fish steaks and cover with a couple layers of sliced tomatoes. Cover and cook slowly for a few minutes, until the fish is nearly cooked. A few minutes before you are ready to serve, stir in the shrimp. Cover and cook until the shrimp are cooked, but not obliterated.

Scoop out a few ladles of your yummy, fabulous moqueca sauce and add it to about 1.5 cups of the hot shrimp broth. Bring to a boil. While stirring constantly, slowly sprinkle in the yucca flour until you have a thin meal (thinner than polenta). Heat slowly and continue to stir. The mixture will thicken as it cooks. Be careful not to add too much yucca flour or things will get thick and sticky. You want it thin, yet with some texture. For a real treat add a couple chopped up shrimp and some shredded fish from the moqueca. Stir, salt and otherwise correct seasoning to your taste, cover and set aside. It’s ready when you are but don’t delay too long. It continues to thicken over time.

OMG – I’m drooling just typing this. 

Set the table or just call your family to serve themselves from the pots on the stove. Fish and shrimp moqueca, rice, pirão and a bright salad. It doesn't get any better than that!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In celebration of the humble Brazilian dish towel

If you live here you definitely have one. I’m willing to bet that we all have at least five or six. Between the three or four we have received as gifts and not yet used (still sitting in a closet), the several in the kitchen drawer currently in rotation, and the four or five well worn and soiled towels since moved on to the household cleaning buckets, we are probably currently tossing around more than a dozen panos de prato in our apartment.

Re-purposed from previously-used cotton sack material, the pano de prato (kitchen, dish or ‘tea’ towel) is ubiquitous in Brazilian homes. You can pick them up cheap, in their most basic and plain style, on the street from the guy selling them in various sizes and weaves for about $R2 a pop. They work great for exactly what they are intended.

What tickles me is how many versions of the towel you can find. Some are simply crocheted around the outside edge to let you know it is for your dishes and not your floor. Others have been delicately embroidered with geometric patterns or kitchen images. Home sewing machines have moved grandmas everywhere to secure appliqués of every happy description, dressing up the sack cloth.

In nearly every tourist town we visit there is an older guy (usually more than one) sitting on the sidewalk or on a planter’s edge in the central square with a display of panos de prato embroidered (most certainly by his wife back at the house) with a “Remember such-and-such” on them for sale as souvenirs.

Our re-gifting drawer, filled with things we were given but now plan to give to other unsuspecting recipients, is brimming with beautifully painted, embroidered or crocheted towels that come our way on a regular basis.

The painted ones look great, but all that acrylic paint would seem to run at cross purposes to the need for the towel to actually dry a wet plate.

In any event, the humble dish towel is a cute feature in every Brazilian kitchen. They are work horse dish towels that turn to decent floor rags when they get too grey for next to the sink.

I use a bleached and sterilized one to strain my soy milk meal when making my own tofu.

Simple joys: turning something old into something new. Being practical in just the way your mother taught you – and her mother taught her. Never throwing anything away. And keeping it all so cheerful.

The pano de prato. It’s quintessentially Brazilian.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Travel options in Brazil for the adventurous and others

Luiz and I are seasoned travelers. Between the two of us we have been to more than 30 countries all over the world. Within Brazil we have been to more locations than practically any other Brazilian we have met.  Most of that travel has been on what most people would consider a shoestring budget.

While some may find negotiating for a room with a private bath in an otherwise (clean and quaint) sex worker-filled little hotel in Paris objectionable, we find it a way to secure a room on the cheap (with our own bath!) Truth be told, we did not realize it was an establishment utilized by sex workers until after we had checked in, but we stayed. The room had a great view of an adjacent flowered square, if we craned our neck hard to the left while leaning off the tiny balcony (better view than the advertized “Acropolis View” we once paid for in Athens, seen only out the bathroom porthole).

Over the years our pantomime communication skills have gotten us out of many a tough spot, including catching a train on time in Bangkok where we resorted to pulling on an imaginary overhead cord and voicing a train whistle to get the tuk-tuk driver onto the right road to the station.

Travel and adventure have gone hand in hand. We enjoy planning in advance but tend to nail down as little as possible prior to actually arriving at our destination. Our general rule of thumb when landing in a new city is to have a place picked out for the first night then stay open to changes thereafter once we get the lay of the land. We follow our nose and trust our gut. In the end it can really save a fist full of cash – and it’s fun! For us, the journey is indeed what we enjoy about traveling.

But not everyone likes to travel this way. Some people, lucky them, have the luxury of leaning on padded budgets rather than always keeping a watchful eye out for the value discount.

Here in Brazil Luiz and I have traveled via various means at one time or another: plane, bus, organized excursion, hired driver, van, tucked under the wing of a new friend in a new town, and even the rare passenger train.

Over the years we have seen our travel choices evolve as our budgets have grown (if only slightly) and our tolerance for hammock overnight stays has faded into memory.

Speaking from personal experience, here are some thoughts on ways to get around in Brazil, including their joys and pitfalls as we have seen them. Whether you are planning to come visit us soon and extend your stay to do some exploring, or you live locally and need a little push to get something (anything) in motion, perhaps these ideas will get you started.

Going it on your own. This is our preferred method. We are pretty comfortable reading guidebooks, tracking down tips online, piecing together transportation and lodging options and generally following our nose. Luiz and I share a travel style, that is, we do not freak out over the details and are confident things will sort themselves out just fine. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, we see our vacations in terms of every minute and every discovery/challenge from the minute we leave our apartment on one end through unlocking our apartment door upon return on the other - that way any unforeseen bumps in the road at any stage are just more grist for the mill. For us, it is not only about the destination.

Choosing a pousada (hotel or B&B) upon arrival can be fun. Just plan to arrive with some time before sundown so you can walk around and check out several options. We tend to start the search with an up-to-date guidebook or personal recommendation, but looking around and taking a peek inside several places can be a fun way to discover the feel for the place as well as getting more of an inside view of various buildings, neighborhoods, and price range values. Leave your luggage at the bus station, or take it to the first pousada and ask them to look after it while you check out some others. They will generally agree because it means you have to return to them at least one more time, increasing their chance of you choosing them.

One of the times we went to Paraty we took an hour or so walking around the historic district and checked out several pousadas before choosing a 150 year old house-turned-pousada with a beautiful back garden. Most of the properties look pretty much the same from the front, but once inside you never know what you will discover. Even if you are not actually in need of a place to stay, wander into several places and ask to see a room and their other amenities. Some of these places are amazing!

Don’t buy into the hype expressed by travel agents or by many folks online: a place is never without a room to let. High season, special event weekends, World Cup or Olympics – there is ALWAYS a room available somewhere. It is safe to say you will never find these rooms online, but they are out there. Trust me. OK, so it may not be the best room you have ever stayed in or in the best location, but it is there. We have found a room in Provincetown, MA during the 4th of July and Florence, Italy on the eve of Carnevale. It takes some doing, but the room is out there (and often for much less than you would have paid online). Get on the ground, talk to people (everyone you come across), do some leg work, be flexible. One time Luiz and I arrived in a tiny seaside village without a room booked. A woman learned of our need, packed a bag and her small son, moved in with her mother, and rented her house to us for several days (fully furnished, of course, and with access to her washing machine). We needed a room and she needed the money.

As a car-less couple we have the sometimes disadvantage of traveling via public transport options. Almost all of the time we work the local bus system and other options rather than renting a car. Most, if not all, of the local sights are usually accessible by bus or some other option developed to shuttle travelers to and from said sights. Renting a car is seldom the only solution to a problem. It is usually a perceived convenience – one which we rarely see as such. There is always (95% of the time) another option (like renting a scooter for the day, for example). More about car rental later.

Going it on your own keeps almost all of your options open and generally allows for easy budget reallocation as new info presents itself. Flexibility is key. But you have to have the chops for it, especially if language is a barrier.

Buying a package. This is the tempting half-independent, half-packaged route. The tour company puts together the flight, rental car, hotel and maybe even tickets to a local attraction or more. It works for folks who wince at the idea of digging through guidebooks or searching travel site bulletin boards for the necessary tips to make the most of an unfamiliar destination. If you go with a well respected and proven travel company you are pretty assured to get an OK hotel at an OK price. And you might even get a deal on the airfare. But the devil is in the details.

Our experience has been that the hotel is nice, but often “nicer” than we really require. We would just as well stay in a place without a pool, workout room, or bedside telephone (which we never utilize anyway) and go with a smaller, more personal place at a lower price. The real kicker is typically the location of the packaged hotel. We put a premium on a central location since a good location often trumps the need for a rental car or frequent taxis. After dark we enjoy being in a location where we can wander through a pleasant area and enjoy an outdoor café or beach side stroll. Package deals invariably put you further than you want from where you want to be.

This hotel was across the street from the ocean beach. We don't need to pay for a pool...

Packages are often a deal for what you get. You just have to want all of what you are buying. Another plus is that you can forward the link containing your package trip details to your friends and recruit them to come with you. Packages have worked great for us when trying to motivate a group of friends (often families with children) with varying vacationing styles to bust out a week long party at a distant beach side resort area.

Brazil is over flowing with travel agents pulling together packages to popular destinations. Choose wisely. The cheapest option is often the most risky in terms of your overall satisfaction. Getting an official license to be a travel agent is tough, but not that tough. A lot of people are getting into the business, especially as the Brazilian government continues to pour gazillions of $$ into the tourism sector. Everybody knows somebody who runs an agency, owns a pousada, rents a van, acts as a personal guide, etc. If you hook up with a low overhead agency it is best to find them by way of a personal referral you trust. You can save a lot – or wind up being very frustrated. Guarantees or refunds may be spoken about, but rarely play out in reality. So-called refunds typically take the form of credit applied toward future bookings or are steeply discounted for cash refunds. (True cash refunds from businesses of ANY KIND in Brazil are rare.) Read the fine print in your contract carefully. Again, choose an agent wisely.

A word about the Pantanal. In my book, for successful wildlife viewing nothing beats the Pantanal. The Amazon gets all the press, but the nature of the dense Amazon jungle makes wildlife viewing very difficult at best. The Pantanal, on the other hand, is a visually expansive wetlands area half the size of France that is sure to satisfy even the most Discovery-Channel-like expectations. The vast majority of people visiting the Pantanal will utilize a tour company for some or all of their adventure. Going it on your own is technically possible, but not practical. Nearly all of the Pantanal is private property, so unless you and your family are renting a houseboat and crew for a week and meandering through various waterways, it’s best to choose a tour operator that is offering what you are looking for. Choosing how, where and when to visit this area can be complicated. In brief, my personal opinion is: visit the northern end of the region; dry or wet seasons each have their unique appeal; spend as much as you can on quality accommodations, activity options and guide services. Send me an email if you want further help.

Buying into a planned excursion. Excursions are those soup-to-nuts adventures (or not) where you buy into a pre-planned itinerary shared by a group of people led by a guide. Luiz and I have gone on several such adventures with mixed results. They can be a lazy three day weekend taking in an annual festival in some quaint mountain town, or a 10-day hiking trip into the forest searching out waterfalls, snorkeling inside caves and conquering mountain peaks.

We utilize excursion travel when the destination is out of reach by bus or includes wandering about that is facilitated by a tour guide. A good guide can open up the secrets in some locations that would otherwise be missed.

The trick behind a great excursion experience is to know your company/guide well and to be certain you share values and priorities about your desired excursion experience. Things are not likely to go perfectly your first couple times testing out operators, but with a little investment of time, research, conversation and sought-out recommendations you should be able to find a company that is a good fit for you. But in the beginning, manage your expectations.

This is our style of restaurant on the beach. We would never be taken here while on a regular commercial excursion. But when we travel with our eco-tourism group it is EXACTLY where we eat (we ate). That is Luiz at the counter ordering fresh fish for lunch.

I guess I say this because Luiz and I have had a few missteps in the excursion department, even while being conscious consumers.

We have not taken excursions led by international operators. On the contrary, we have gone with much more local folks and companies. We don’t demand much. In fact, most of our trips exceeded our expectations in the transportation and accommodations department. It was in the “things to do” department that we have had to be most investigative and assertive.

An old coffee plantation manor house turned family museum and restaurant near Conservatoria.

We enjoy seeing the natural sights like waterfalls or big parks. Our taste tends toward historic towns, characteristic architecture, municipal museums and family run restaurants. Our experience with city/town excursions thus far is that many set aside a significant amount of time to go shopping. Shopping for clothes, wine, chocolate, house wares – you name it. If the region is somehow famous for a consumer item the tour is sure to stop at a few shops and encourage you to load up. As you might imagine, the guide gets a commission for any sales s/he may bring to these shops. The pay scale for guides sucks, so naturally they are very motivated to show you all the places to shop.

Urgh. Nothing could be more off the mark for us. So now we are very careful to drill the operator about how the time will be spent, if there will be shopping stops, what alternatives are available if we choose to step off the bus, and where they plan to corral us all for lunch.

Luiz on a 3 day hike from Petropolis to Teresopolis.

We have yet to identify a perfect fit for small town explorations, but in the eco-tourism department we have found a wonderful group that fits us like a glove. This small company named RJ Adventura out of Rio is run by several outdoor enthusiasts/athletes who place adventure and activity above all else. We have gone on several hiking trips in Rio state from 3 to 7 days long and have a trip planned in November for 10 days in Chapada Diamantina in central Bahia state. This group can sometimes put us in pretty funky sleeping quarters, but their passion, personality, attention to safety and focus on the environment hits us in the bull’s eye. They speak a little English, but not really.

In summary, excursion travel can be a carefree good value overall, however it is really important to know your operator and get the details on your trip: planned stops, what is included, what is not included (how much extra cash you should bring), the demographics of your fellow travelers, and most importantly the values of the operator and guide when it comes to exploring various destinations.

Renting a car. The short bit here is: don’t rent a car unless you absolutely have to. Brazilian drivers have earned their reputation as myopic, often-dangerous, inconsiderate drivers (yes that is a generalization – and I stand by it, in general). Depending on where you are roads can be dangerous to drive on, lack emergency services and be overrun with scofflaws or worse. Most people do not find the experience relaxing. To make matters worse, rental rates and the price of gasoline (or alcohol, or natural gas) will make you reconsider your plans to go on vacation in the first place. Or maybe not – maybe I’m just not used to local automobile expenses as a fact of life. As I said, Luiz and I live a car(e)-free life.

Pack light!

Just for the record I went to a travel website and did a search for car rental in Rio for one week.  A tiny two door (you would need minimal luggage to make this work) rents for R$563/week. R$315 is the fee, R$248 are taxes, etc.  A four door with suitable luggage space rents for R$797/week. That’s R$528 for the car and R$269 for the taxes, etc. Then there is insurance, parking, fuel and the like to consider.

Often times, if you just need a car for one day you can rent a guy with their vehicle to take you where you want to go. Negotiate a good deal. Be nice to him. Buy him lunch. Or consider renting a scooter to explore the local hot spots. Rental cars are often the default setting for some but they are only sometimes the best solution in any given situation. Give it some thought.

Airline tickets. Brazil is a huge country with very long distances between popular locations. First time visitors often ask about cramming trips to the Amazon, Salvador, Rio and Foz de Iguacu into one two week vacation. [Good luck with that.] Plane travel within Brazil used to be prohibitively expensive. Fares were ridiculous. But in recent years, thanks to a degree of deregulation and the introduction of low-fare airlines, the prices have dropped considerably. It is now definitely worth comparing fares for bus transportation vs. airlines. But do consider how the location of the airport vs. the bus station impacts local ground transportation options. If you have a favorite website for checking airfares beyond a generic Google search for same, please mention it in the comments.

Bus tickets. The inter-municipal busses in Brazil are very comfortable, safe and affordable. Controls keep track of your luggage and (mostly) prevent busses from pulling out of pit stops without you if you tend to straggle. We choose to book the overnight schedules for longer trips. Be sure to buy tickets for the more comfortable so-called “leito,” “semi-leito, ” or “executiva” options. These busses provide seats that recline partially or completely for easier sleeping. Some are ridiculously comfortable (three seats across, fully reclining). The higher price also tends to weed out many families with children, so the bus may be quieter as well. Unlike in the States, buses in Brazil tend to be quite direct with just one or two stops between major cities. Travel times are relatively fast, for ground transportation. Tales of crazy bus drivers traveling at insane speeds on dangerous roads are a bit exaggerated nowadays. Back in the day it was all true, and then some. But now – not so much. This governmental website is a good place to start when looking for road transportation options.

A good travel agent can help you with most all of the options I’ve mentioned. Their minimal fees tacked on for helping you out with bookings, etc. are worth the service.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Checking out the Gay Pride Parade 2013 in Niterói

It’s always a shot in the arm to be out with my people. Unlike a lot of folks, I really enjoy a huge crowd. I like the energy, the smiles, the friendly moshing, and especially the people-watching. Let me qualify this: I like huge peaceful crowds.

For more than 25 years Luiz and I have been attending Gay Pride events that have inevitably attracted huge crowds. Huge can be relative. Rio-huge is bigger than Niterói-huge is bigger than Itaipuaçu-huge. San Francisco-huge is bigger than Oakland-huge is bigger than Santa Cruz-huge. But in all our years attending queer pride events, they have ALWAYS been peaceful, no matter the number of celebrants.

The organizing groups are decidedly political organizations.

It’s just gosh darn great to go to Icaraí beach in Niterói and join tens of thousands of other LGBT folks and our allies and dance together in the street. Sign me up. Every year.

The event really got going at about sunset.

Over the years our experience at these events has been mixed and varied. In San Francisco the Parade was very political back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Then it morphed into a corporate-sponsored vanity event for a while and in recent years it seems to have morphed into an event that sufficiently pisses off some for being too political and others for being too commercial (that means it has probably found the inevitably mutually dissatisfying middle ground).

Rejection + hatred + aversion + discrimination + violence against LGBT = HOMOPHOBIA

In Rio and Niterói the events are decidedly political in nature, from the organizers’ perspective. Rallying slogans have been to criminalize homophobia, to come out of the closet and to fight for the right to love who you want. All the while, the folks that gather have one heck of a good time in the sun and into the night – dancing, singing, parading, laughing and just plain enjoying each other.

Keep calm and love the one you want.

The whole dress-up thing was a lot more prevalent in San Francisco, I must say. Rainbow this and rainbow that. We frequently hosted a Gay Day brunch for our friends prior to taking to the streets which often included cooperative over-the-top dress up sessions and swapping rainbow accessories.

Last Sunday in Niterói I venture to guess that Luiz and I were two of only 10 people at the whole event wearing rainbow bling. Seriously. People were going all out in the fun department, but it was decidedly rainbow bling-free. WUWT? Whatever… we felt right at home all the same.

With our new buddy Pedro.

This year we met up with a young guy who touched base with me via this blog. Turns out he is a neighbor, living less than one block from our apartment. Go figure. Pedro. Nice guy. We met up in front of the grocery store at the corner and walked to the parade together. It was interesting to get a fresh faced and local queer perspective on the whole being out/parading/gay night life/community thing going on in Niterói. Well, at least one guy’s take.

In short it would appear that Luiz and his crew had more queer fun in Niterói in one weekend back in the day than these kids today are having in an entire summer season. But hey, that’s just our smug perspective. I think there is something to be said for going out and meeting people in the streets, in the bars, in the cafés, in the parks, and at parties that tops the hand-held computer app approach (puns intended). But again, that’s just us older guys talkin’ over here…

I’ll keep my overall summary to myself until I pursue further research on the subject. Any and all firsthand experience of queers in Niterói is welcomed in the comments (pun NOT intended).

Service in the street.

Don’t get me wrong. We had a great time out with the kids in the streets. We always do. No matter how much things may change, some things will always be the same for me. Give me a chance to go out with my people and I’m there.

Next Sunday, October 13th, is the Parade in Rio. Check it out.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Homemade tofu demystified

Adapting to local food realities is a process. I’ve posted about it many times. Today I have a DIY success story about tofu. An old myth I’ve carried around has been exploded, thanks to some help from fellow Brazil Blogger Laura at Back-to-the-Land in Brazil.

Fresh, homemade tofu – welcome to my kitchen.

Given the silly-high price of tofu in the natural foods stores I have not eaten it (aside from in restaurants) in years. I just can’t bring myself to spend R$10.50 on a 250 gram (8.8 oz.) block. Tofu has been one of those items I used to eat a lot of that I have given up since I moved to Brazil.

Somehow I got it into my head that making tofu was difficult. I spent time a few months back (maybe more than a year ago now) searching online for a home kitchen tofu maker that I could add to my extensive collection of electric kitchen conveniences. All I could locate were soy milk makers. I thought that was a dead end, so I gave up on the idea of making my own tofu.

Man was I confused (ignorant).

Thanks to a calming walk-me-through email from Laura and a companion DIY video she made, I set out to make my own tofu. I also watched a few more videos on You Tube, including this one from America’s Test Kitchen.

Take it from me (and Laura). Making your own tofu is easy and the results are delightfully wonderful.

Here is what I did:

Ingredients: 500 grams of dried soy beans, 2 teaspoons of Sal Amargo (a coagulant) and water. == that’s it!

The dried beans sold in bulk at my favorite natural foods store are half the price of those sold in packages at the supermarket. I got them for R$5 per kilogram (store bought pkgs go for R$5 per 500 grams). Finding the coagulant was more of an adventure. Sal Amargo is magnesium sulfate (sulfato magnésio), commonly called Epsom salt in the USA, and can be found at some pharmacies. Laura had suggested that I might also find it at my local grocery store in the spice section, but I had no luck there. I actually went to about 10 different pharmacies before I found it, including a couple homeopathic shops who offered to order me some for a crazy price. When I finally located a pharmacy that sold it, it was just R$3.80 for a 30 gram pouch (enough for 4 or 5 batches of tofu).

Keep in mind that Laura lives in an area in Brazil with a larger Japanese immigrant population than here in Niterói. It makes sense, then, that Sal Amargo would be more commonly available there. So if you live in such an area, perhaps you will find it more easily than I.

Anyway, here is the simple procedure. I went with the America’s Test Kitchen procedure because it seemed slightly easier than Laura’s but they are VERY similar.

-         Wash your soybeans, removing any bad beans or small stones that may have found their way into your supply. Cover substantially with water and let them soak overnight. You want at least 8 hours of soaking.
-         Drain and rinse your soaked beans.

-         Place about 1 cup of beans and 3 cups of water into a blender and liquefy the beans. Pour into a large pot for boiling. Repeat until all of your beans have been liquefied. Use a sturdy stainless steel or aluminum pot. Avoid a non-stick pot as the boiled mixture will create a film ring (and maybe some scorching on the bottom) that will require a bit of scrubbing to clean and you do not want to scrub away at your non-stick coating.

-         Stirring to avoid scorching, bring the slightly grainy mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. It will foam up so keep an eye on it and stir.

-         Strain the heated mixture through a sterilized straining cloth (I used a new saco de farinha = recycled flour sack or tea cloth) into another pan for further heating. You want about 3+ liters (or 13+ cups) of milk, more or less. You can add more heated water to your leftover soy solids to extract more milk, if desired.

-         Dissolve two teaspoons of Sal Amargo into a cup of water.

-         Heat your strained soy milk to boiling. Remove from heat. Using a figure 8 stirring pattern to ensure good mixing, carefully pour in half of your coagulant liquid. Stir for about 30 seconds then let it sit for about 2 minutes. You will see the curds forming. They form from the bottom up, so liquid will gather at the surface.

-         Gently sprinkle the remaining coagulant over the top and stir the surface carefully so as to not break up the curds already forming lower in the pot.

-         Put a lid on your pot and let it sit for 20 minutes or so.

-         Carefully strain out your curds with a slotted spoon or other utensil and transfer to your prepared mold. Here Laura first uses a small strainer pressed into the curds to isolate the whey which can then be skimmed off with a ladle. I did this too. It concentrates the curds and seemed to help keep them firm and together when transferring to the mold.

-         For a mold I used a cheese mold I bought some time ago at the Mercado Central in Belo Horzontes. It was perfect for the task at hand. You can easily make a mold by lining a perforated plastic container, like those grapes are sold in, with your cleaned straining cloth.

-         Cover your curds with the rest of your cloth and then weigh down the top with a box of milk or juice.
-         Apply pressure, draining your curds, for about 30 minutes.

-         Place your compressed curds into an ice bath. It helped to transfer the wrapped curds into the water first, give them a few minutes to chill, then remove them from the wrap and chill completely.

-         Thats it! Fresh tofu!
-         Store in an airtight container covered in water in your fridge. It will stay fresh for about 5 days, changing water daily.

This stuff is delicious. And the texture turned out nice and firm, the way I like it. Plus, I just spent about R$3.25 making a quantity of tofu that would cost R$21 or more in the store.

Goodbye tofu-making misconceptions.

It seems my fears were unfounded. My impulse to buy a machine to help in the process was half right. The real work in the effort to make tofu is first making the soy milk. You need fresh soy milk because the stuff sold in stores has been treated in such a way that it no longer works to make tofu. So if I were to get me a soy milk maker it would take care of more than half of the work. But then, I would have to clean the machine. Personal preference here, I guess. Overall the process was pretty simple and if I am doing the laundry or other chores that have me in and around the kitchen anyway, the down time needed to boil, set and press the tofu could be doubled up into other activities.

The best part is the great lunch of fresh tofu. Or maybe a green Thai curry with tofu and vegetables… the possibilities have opened up. Tofu is back in my life!

Be sure to check out Laura’s blog for lots of heartwarming posts about living in Brazil (especially if you love to make bread).