Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Healthy eating in Brazil

After eating a lot of deep fried foods (fries and chicken mostly) in Peru, Brazil and Argentina, for lack of other options, Brazil is a fruit and veggie heaven. I can honestly say that I'm in love with Brazilian food, I cannot wait to come back here one day, and try all the things I haven't had the time to try this time around.

For about 2USD you get a cold coconut on the beach, with a tiny drilled hole through which you can sip the cold agua de coco inside.When you're done, you can ask the guy where you bought it to cut it open for you, so you can eat the white pulp inside. They even carve you a tiny spoon out of the coconut shell, so you can scoop out the pulp. Since these are young coconuts, the pulp layer is very thin and gelatinous. It gets harder and thicker later on, as the coconut matures and shrivels up.

Boiled corn on the cob is one of my top favorite simple foods in the world. And Brazil does it the same way as they do it in Romania: harder, chewier corn, covered with butter and salt. (I've never had good corn on the cob in the US, or maybe I just don't like the way they do it there: baby corn, white and soft. I like it chewy.)
On our second day in Rio, we spent the entire time on the beach, trying out all the street/beach food that came our way. We really pigged out on every snack food possible, but we couldn't help ourselves: slices of watermelon brought to you on the beach, coconuts, corn on the cob, hot dogs boiled in a tomato stew, filled churros and tapioca crepes.

The tapioca crepe is very interesting. The guy puts some tapioca flour in the frying pan, and the flour slowly begins to coagulate into a crepe. Never seen anything like this before. The dry flour slowly turns into a solid thing, without the aid of water or other coagulant. Then, he flips it over, stuffs it with whatever you asked (cheese, coconut flakes, chocolate, jerk beef flakes, sausage slices, etc.) folds it in half and hands it to you. We tried various fillings and our top favorite was the coconut flakes and chocolate one.

 Pao na chapa is a Brazilian staple breakfast, but you won't find it on the menus of any restaurant. But locals order it all the time. I first found out about it in Anthony Bourdain's episode on Brazil. (Digression: I just discovered his personal blog while googling for him and I'm planning to leave a comment telling him what a great inspiration he's been.) Back to pao na chapa (which means "grilled bread") - I told a Brazilian girl in our hostel about "the bread on Anthony Bourdain's show" and she told me how it's called, but by the time I got to the corner store I had already forgotten how to ask for it. Somehow, I could not memorize "na chapa." I later found "na chapa" on different restaurant menus, next to the name of various items of food or meats that can be grilled. I'll never forget it again. Pao na chapa is a very simple thing: super fresh french white bread, with a thin layer of butter and then grilled. We ate a lot of this in the mornings, and accompanied it with fresh squeezed juices.

"The Coxinha is a popular Brazilian snack, also popular in Portugal. It is made from shredded chicken and spices (occasionally including Catupiry-style cheese), enclosed in wheat flour—variants made from potato or manioc are also common--batter, and deep fried. It is shaped to roughly resemble a chicken drumstick.
Coxinhas were originally made with a chicken thigh, thus the origin of its traditional shape. Coxinha literally means "little thigh", and it is how chicken drumsticks are known in Brazil." (Quote courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Requeijao is again something you'd find only in Brazil. It's a cheesy spread located somewhere in-between butter and cream cheese. It has the consistency of soft melted butter and a very soft cheese flavor. People spread it on French bread for breakfast, to which they then add sliced cheese and ham. I personally found the flavor to be boring (maybe because I prefer stinky cheeses), but I liked the texture a lot.

Brazil is juice heaven. You could easily have a really healthy diet here. I'd even go as far to say that it would be a paradise for vegetarians, more so than San Francisco. Every fruit you could ever image grows here, is in abundance, is cheap and can be found at every street corner. Corner stores have a juice section on the menu where you can choose between 30 different fruits. Anne and I decided to try a different juice every morning. On the right of this image is my juice of the day: beets with orange. On the left is an açaí smoothie. Yep, I drank both of those for breakfast.

Açaí is huge in Brazil, maybe because it comes from here? (wink wink). Grown in the Amazonian rainforest, the açaí palm produces small berries, with little pulp and very rich in antioxidants. The berries are freeze-dried and then served as a blended pulp. In Rio, açaí bowls come blended with granola and honey and they are absolutely delicious. You can get a bowl like the one above for about 3 USD at almost every street corner.

Anne and Bruna with their Acai bowls.

We ran into a food stall where people were 3 women were selling food from Bahia, the northern part of Brazil. I don't remember the names of the dishes they had, but a lot of the sweet dishes had shredded coconut, while a lot of the savory dishes had mashed yams and shrimp cooked in a spicy sauce. We only tried some of the sweet dishes. I feel very ignorant writing this half-assed description, but we had a really hard time talking to people in Brazil. Nobody speaks English there, they refuse to speak Spanish, so it was really hard to ask questions and have coherent conversations with any of the people we met. My biggest frustration for our stay in Brazil, actually.

We went to Buzios for a couple of days and pretended to live like the rich and famous. Buzios is a peninsula about 3 hours north of Rio, surrounded by many beaches, surfers, cruise ships and packed with Argentine tourists. Anne and I split a churrasco (grilled steak with a skirt of fat) with a side of cassava (yucca) fries and rice with farofa. Farofa is a toasted manioc flour mix very popular in Brazil (and in Nigeria too, apparently). They serve it almost everywhere as a side/condiment (the way they'd serve a small bowl of salsa at a Mexican restaurant). You can sprinkle it on top of everything, mostly to add texture and a bit of flavor.

Queijo na chapa (grilled cheese) is sold by the piece on the beaches of Buzios.

Buzios is known for its seafood, so we decided to get some fried fish at a cheap joint packed with locals. Buzios is full of expensive restaurants for tourists, but they were mostly empty, while this place was always packed. That is always a good sign. We got some fried fish and Bruna got a fish stew. We licked our plates clean at the end.

Anne after she picked all the meat off her fried fish. This was to be Anne's last meal in Brazil, as she got sick with a stomach flu after this, and didn't eat anything for the next two days. (Don't blame it on the fish, we both ate the same thing and I was fine. We think it was the water out of which ice cubes were made; that's always the number one culprit when travelers get sick.)

 On our last day in Rio, a few hours before going to the airport, Bruna and I found a place that sold Feijoada, a traditional Brazilian dish that I've been dying to try out. "Feijoada is a stew of beans with beef and pork, which is a typical dish in Portuguese and Brazilian Cuisine, is also typical in Angola, Mozambique, Goa, India and other former Portuguese colonies. In Brazil, feijoada is considered by many as the national dish. Feijoada was brought to South America by the Portuguese. The name comes from feijão, Portuguese for "beans"." (Quote from Wikipedia article.)

Above: Feijoada stew with black beans, rice, collard greens, farofa and fried pork fat ("jumari" as we call them in Romania.)

All in all, Brazil's food was a huge positive surprise. Aside from steaks, Brazilian food is not much known in the US (or at least not in my circle of friends.) While not spicy, it is very fresh and cooked in a healthy way, that preserves the distinct taste of the ingredients. Supermarkets are packed with fresh produce and overall, it seems that Brazilians are aware of the importance to eat a healthy diet.

Update [Anne writing now]:

I can barely hear the words "Brazilian" and "food" in the same sentence without gagging, due to my illness on our final days in Rio, but I wanted to add a bit to this post.

I really liked the food in Brazil. One of my favorite things about Rio was the fresh fruit juice stands (sucos) on almost every corner. The juices were fresh, diverse and inexpensive. I tried to keep track of all the different juices I tried. Here's what I can remember: orange, orange/carrot/beet, maracuja (sour passion fruit), watermelon, caju (fruit from the cashew tree--very delicious), acai, kiwi, strawberry, coconut and I'm sure I'm forgetting some ...

Tuti fruity was a menu option. I still don't know what this means.
One of my favorite things we did in Rio was try all of the "beach food" from the vendors. I think my favorite item was the tapioca sandwiches because they were so different from anything I've ever had before. I still don't understand how the tapioca flour melted into a perfect, crispy shell.

Corn on the cobb. Both Monica and Bruna agree that this harder, chewier corn is better than our soft, sweet corn in the U.S. I didn't tell them, but I like ours better.
One day in downtown Rio (Centro), we came across a group of people selling desserts from their native city of Bahia in northern Brazil. Many were coconut-based, and Monica and I each got one.

Delicious cake made out of coconut--not too sweet. Perfected with a drizzle of a sweet dulce de leche-type sauce over the top.
Tic tacs flavored with cherry and maracuja. I bet these were pretty tasty.
More street food. Like caramel corn but way better. It had some sort of cinnamon-y flavor that I couldn't quite place. I swore these tasted like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, but Bruna just laughed at me. I kept the bag for memories.
Monica ate this nacho-cheese-filled bread thing. I'm not sure if she liked it or not. I think it was just okay.
At the beach in Buzios, this couple was selling all sorts of grilled meats and cheeses. Monica got a sausage that tasted like a summer sausage to me.

Oysters on the beach. Monica wanted some, but was afraid they might be spoiled from sitting out in the heat.
Hopefully the bad associations I have with Rio due to my sickness will pass over time. I know it wasn't Rio's fault, it was just bad luck and it was bound to happen sooner or later. I'd love to go back to Rio, even if only for the sucos.