Thursday, February 14, 2013

Surviving Carnaval

It can be done. Surviving the four-day onslaught of music, dancing, drinking and eating that is Brazil's Carnaval is possible. In fact, Flavors of Brazil has just done so, successfully, for the seventh time - twice in Salvador (home to Brazil's largest Carnaval), twice in Rio de Janeiro (famous for it's epically spectacular samba parades), and now three times in Recife/Olinda (known as the country's most traditional celebration). It's all a matter of judiciously expending the body's caloric and energetic resources. Go all out by all means, but don't go all out all the time - it just can't be done. Carnaval goes on non-stop for at least 96 hours, and no one, no matter how much Red Bull they drink, can do the same.

For a very short look at what Carnaval looks like at street level and at full intensity, watch this video that we made last Sunday in Olinda. The video shows one of the city's many blocos (Carnaval bands) passing by, with a singer atop a make-do sound truck pulled through the streets by the band's strongest members, and with the group's multitude of fan following along behind, singing and dancing in time to the Carnaval music.
We'll return to our normal, more culinarily  focused, posts starting on Monday, Feb. 18.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Carnaval Battery is Almost Charged

Today's the day before the official start of Brazil's four-day orgy of drinking, dancing and, well, just plain orgy-ing, called Carnaval. Always held on the four days before the beginning of Lent, Carnaval 2013 begins on Saturday this week and will culminate next Tuesday, February 12. The Monday and Tuesday of Carnaval are national holidays in Brazil (as is the morning of Ash Wednesday, the day of Brazil's massive national hangover), but many Brazilians begin celebrating as early as a week before Carnaval and some activities continue for the first few days after the official end of the celebration.

Probably every place in Brazil, large and small, has at least some sort of Carnaval celebration, but the huge city-wide parties that go on for days which has made Brazilian Carnaval known around the world, really only happens in three large cities - Rio de Janeiro, with its all-night samba parades showcasing competing schools of samba, Salvador, whose Carnaval is known as the world's largest street celebration and where millions of people throng the streets to see Brazil's most famous singers and musicians whip the crowd into a frenzy, and Recife, where Carnaval takes place in two locations - the city center and in the nearby historic small town of Olinda.

What fuels all that Brazilian Carnaval energy? How to Carnaval-goers sustain themselves for four days and nights of music, dancing and celebrating? What do Brazilians eat and drink during Carnaval? The answer to the drinking question is easy - beer. Brazilians overwhelmingly keep themselves hydrated with beer, though sodas, waters, juices and other alcoholic drinks are always available. But it's beer for most Brazilians, and it's not by chance the the giant beer breweries are major Carnaval sponsors. In the four days of Carnaval Brazilians consume about 400 million liters (or quarts) of beer - about a million a day. That's nearly 5% of the yearly total consumption for the country.
Recife's Galo da Madrugada (Rooster of Dawn), the symbol of the city's Carnaval

Food occupies a second place to drink in Carnaval culture. People have to eat, obviously, and have to eat more when dancing all day and all night on streets and sidewalks. But food isn't the focus during this time of year. People who are are out celebrating are more likely to buy a hot dog or popcorn from a street vendor just to keep going than they are to search out a good meal. In the big Carnaval cities, most restaurants, particularly upmarket ones, are closed. People eat what's cheap, filling and nearby.

This year, Flavors of Brazil will be celebrating Carnaval in Recife, our favorite Carnaval city. When the dust settles next week, on Ash Wednesday or shortly thereafter, we'll report back here at the blog.

Happy Carnaval, everyone! (Bom Carnaval, todo mundo!)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Gastronomic Awareness at the Market

Since it was constructed over 100 years ago, Fortaleza's central food and produce market, the Mercado São Sebastião has grown and prospered, but has never been considered a gastronomic hotspot, even though one can buy all the traditional food stuffs of local regional cuisine as well as eat traditional northeastern food in a number of restaurants and lunch-stalls. Located in a distinctly down-market part of Fortaleza's downtown, the market has primarily served nearby residents and workers in the food industry, whether they are produce wholesalers, restaurant managers, or food producers. The lunch stalls which encircle the central produce section serve hearty, traditional meals from the early hours of the morning to the market's hungry vendors and customers, as well as to a few night owls who are accustomed to stop for a hot bowl of soup before heading home to sleep off the night's festivities.

The richness of the market and it's gastronomic value have always been underappreciated in Fortaleza, and many of the city's food establishment (produers and consumers alike) have never passed through the market's doors. That's all changing now as Fortaleza (like all of Brazil) is becoming more interested in all aspects of food and agriculture. Savvy consumers are doing their daily or weekly shopping at the market, knowing that the quality is high and the prices are low. Locavores and foodies arefamiliarizing themselves with the lunch stalls in search of the best panelada, galinha caipira or baião-de-dois. Things are definitely looking up at the market in all kinds of ways.

Being aware of the gastronomic and touristic potential of the market, the management of Mercado São Sebastião, in conjunction with SEBRAE, a governmental agency which aids small businesses, has initiated a project at the market to maximize its potential as a gastronomic destination. The market's vendors are being offered a course in local gastronomic history and tradition, standards of sanitation and hygiene, and entrepreneurship. The project includes a new gastronomic logo, which merchants who have completed the course can display at their booths, as well as signage in the market to help tourists and visitors find their way through the aisles and stalls.

In other cities of Brazil, a visit to the market is an essential part of tourists' itineraries. Belem's Ver-o-Peso market is the most visited destination in that city, as is the Mercado Público de Florianópolis in the southern state of Santa Catarina. Fortaleza, fortunately, is waking up to the fact that they already possess a market with similar tourism and gastronomic potential, and this new program is a valuable first step forward in making the Mercado São Sebastião an essential part of Fortaleza's tourist itinerary.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

RECIPE - Bean Soup Brazilian Beach Style (Caldinho de Feijão)

To wrap up Flavors of Brazil's series of posts on Brazilian beach-style soup recipes, we're posting one of the most traditional as well as most popular caldinhos (cups of soup in Portuguese) - bean soup with coconut milk. Along with the ever-popular fish and shrimp soups solds on the beaches of Brazil, bean soup is a favorite choice for Brazilian beach-goers on beaches all along the coastline of Brazil.

This soup can be made with any variety of dried beans. Even in Brazil, the choice of beans in this soup varies from region to region and from vendor to vendor. In Rio de Janeiro you're most likely to find black bean soup, and in the northeast of the country the most popular choice is carioca beans (similar to pinto beans).

This recipe starts with about three cups of basic Brazilian beans, already cooked. We published the recipe in back in 2010 and you can link to that recipe here), you can use those beans and some of their broth as the soup base. Either way you'll end up with a hearty and nourishing bean soup, enlivened and "Brazilianized" by the presence of coconut milk. The recipe makes a large quantity of soup, but it freezes marvelously, so you needn't worry about any going to waste.
RECIPE - Bean Soup Brazilian Beach Style (Caldinho de Feijão)

3 cups approximately, cooked Brazilian-style beans, and their broth (recipe here)
3/4 cup (200 ml) coconut milk
1 small chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
2 Tbsp chopped green onion, for garnish
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro, for garnish
2 Tbsp finely chopped red or green bell pepper, for garnish
Combine the beans and their broth, the coconut milk and optional chili pepper in a large bowl, then blend them, in batches if necessary, until you have a homogenous mixture.

Pour the blended mixture into a large sauce pan and heat over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, reduce heat, and cook for about 10 minutes at a simmer.

Pour the hot soup in cups or mugs, and sprinkle the surface with chopped green onions, bell peppers and/or cilantro.
Serve immediately.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

RECIPE - Fish Soup, Brazilian Beach Style (Caldinho de Peixe)

Brazilian beach-style soups, whether eaten on a hot summer's day on the beach, or at home on a cold and damp winter's day, are marvelous pick-me-ups and satisfy without filling. In Brazil, these soups are served in small cups, often plastic ones when they are bought from vendors at the beach, but they are only improved when they're served in small proper soup cups or bowls.

These soups (called caldinhos in Portuguese) are fortunately also very simple to make and don't involve a lot of time or effort. Whether January brings you chilly winter weather or the dog days of summer, you'll find that Brazilian beach-style ish soup really hits the spot.
RECIPE - Fish Soup, Brazilian Beach Style (Caldinho de Peixe)
Makes 4 small cups or 2 bowls

1 medium-size fish steak (any type of white fish)
1 medium fish head (non-oily fish only), thoroughly cleaned and rinsed
2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 medium green pepper, seeded, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled
handful fresh cilantro
1 cup (250 ml) coconut milk
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
additional chopped cilantro (garnish, optional)
croutons (garnish, optional)
chopped green onions, green part only (garnish, optional)
In a food processor or blender combine the tomatoes (put in first), onion, green pepper, garlic and cilantro. Pulse to begin, then blend until you have a homogenous mixture. Reserve.

Cut the fish steak into large pieces. Combine the fish steak and fish head (whole) in a large saucepan and add 1 liter (1 quart) cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Add the blender mixture and cook, at a slow boil, until the mixture has reduced by approximately half. Remove from heat.

Take the fish head plus any skin or bones out of the soup and discard. Pour the remainder in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a clean saucepan, then stir in the coconut milk and olive oil. Heat thoroughly, but do not boil.

Serve in bowls or cups, and pass additional cilantro, croutons and/or green onions in small cups as individual garnishes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Recife's Surprising Favorite Beach Snack - Soup!

When you're at the beach on a hot and sunny day and you start to feel peckish, what perks your appetite? A cooling fruit salad? A bowl of gazpacho? A chilled, frosty drink? If you're from Recife, in Brazil's always-tropical northeast, it's not like to be any of those things. What makes your mouth water on a scorching afternoon at the beach is a cup of hot soup.

Hot soup?

That's right, in Recife, according to a survey by the city's municipal government and judging by the number of soup vendors that populate the city's most popular beaches, what beachgoers want is a cup of soup (called caldinho or "little soup" in Portuguese), steaming hot. Whether it's bean soup, shrimp soup or fish soup, soup is what hits the spot in Recife.

There is a scientific basis to this predilection for hot soup on a hot day. Ingesting hot food causes the body to sweat, and as the sweat evaporates, it cools the body. It's for the same reason that Thai food, Indian food and other cuisines from hot climes are often spicy - the chiles cause sweating, which cools the body. It's counter-intuitive, but it does work. And it seems that Recife's beach crowd has figured it out.

The garnishes that accompany caldinho are almost as important to customers as the soup itself, according to many of the ambulant vendors that walk the beach all day long, dishing out plastic cups of soup from a thermos jug and adding garnishes according to the customer's desires. Traditional accompaniments include quails' eggs, torresmo (pork rinds), corn kernels and olive slices.

In addition to ambulant vendors, there are beachside stands that sell soup to walk-up customers, and in the most popular of those, it's not uncommon to sell 80 liters (80 quarts) of soup on a weekend afternoon. Many of the stands are weekend-only propositions and are staffed by members of a single extended family.

Customers and vendors alike stress the importance of sanitation and hygiene, and regular beachgoers often have their own list of trusted vendors, from whom they buy caldinho exclusively. Vendor José Carlos da Silva, who has 20-years' experience selling soup on Recife's beaches, points out that the hot soup itself is normally safe to eat, but that one must take extra care when choosing the accompaniments which are normally at ambient temperature.

Coming up in our next posts are some typical caldinho recipes from northeastern Brazil. They're great whether served on a tropical beach, or in a snowbound cabin in the mountains.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

New Juice Combos for Brazilian Dog Days

We are aware that the majority of our readers live in the Northern Hemisphere, some of them in very cold locations, and for those readers thoughts of "lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" are far from mind. But Flavors of Brazil comes from Brazil and here in the Southern Hemisphere, January and February are the hottest months of the year (Just three weeks ago, Rio de Janeiro suffered under its hottest day since 1915 - 44C or 111F). So while you might be searching the closet for woolen mittens, or wrapping a thick scarf around your neck before heading out, here in Brazil, everyone is trying to stay cool.

One of the most effective ways to cool the body down is with a cold drink, nutritionists tell us, and Brazilians have long used icy fruit drinks to reduce body temperature when the temperature rises. (They also drink a lot of cold beer too, though nutritionists advise that alcohol impedes the cooling effect of icy liquids. So, in the interests of body-temperature management, we'll restrict the discussion in this post to fruit drinks.)

Brazil is famous for the variety and quality of its fresh fruit drinks, and juice stands are commonplace fixtures on streets and in shopping malls all around the country. Brazil has such an abundance of delicious tropical fruits (oranges, pineapples, mangoes, limes, passion fruit, watermelon, etc.) that juice menus often have twenty or more choices.

Recently, people in Brazil have begun to discover that mixing fruits together, or adding additional non-fruit flavors to a drink can have spectacularly delicious results. As a result, each year, new combinations become popular. A few years ago, fresh pineapple juice blended with fresh mint leaves swept the country, and today it's rare to find a juice stand that doesn't offer that combination. But we all crave novelty, so barmen and women in juice stands, hotel bars, and seaside restaurants continue to offer new mixtures to satisfy demand.

A recent report in Rio de Janeiro's O Globo newspaper highlighted the most popular new juice combos for summer 2013 in that famously hot city. One very popular drink this summer is mango with mint, which employs the cooling sensation that mint gives to pump up the refreshment factor of the juice. It's long been known that citrus-based drinks cool very effectively because their acidity encourages production of saliva which cools the mouth, so new citrus combinations are very popular this year, particularly tangerine combined with carrot.

The addition of non-fruit ingredients to juices is new in Brazil, but popping vegetables into the juicer along with fruits is increasingly popular. Vegetable juices aid in retention of water in the body, which increases the body's ability to resist heat, so there's a valid nutritional reason for adding vegetables as well. Nutritionist Andréa Santa Rosa Garcia recommends a mixture of coconut water and lime juice, blended with parsley and kale, and adds that this combination can also help to alleviate stress.

If it's 10 below where you live, tag this article for reference when the dog days return next summer. If you're enjoying a Southern Hemisphere summer, whether here in Brazil, in South Africe or in Australia get out your blender, get adventurous when shopping for fruits and vegetables, and combine, combine, combine.