Brazil In My Mouth - February & March

Are you as excited about this as I am?! It's our first food post from Brazil! Below are some of the most memorable things we have eaten in February and March.

Picanha is a cut of beef that is popular in Brazil but not well known back home. The dish pictured below is a very typical meal here in Rio. It is often referred to as picanha, although the cut of beef can vary. You can state how you want the meat cooked (rare, medium etc) or it sometimes comes on a hotplate so you can cook it yourself, Korea style! Whatever the cut or cooking method, this delicious, juicy steak always comes with the same sides - chips, rice, a salsa of onion, pepper and tomatoes, and farofa. Farofa (bottom right) is toasted cassava flour. In this picture it is plain, but it often comes mixed with onions or scrambled egg. It has a nutty flavour and the texture of sand. It's really odd and I'm not sure what it adds to the meal but it is quite nice.

As you probably noticed, the beef comes with a lot of carbs. One portion of this dish is definitely enough to feed two, probably three if Dave isn't one of them! The chips vary in quality and the farofa, as mentioned, can be different. Often the mountain of rice is plain but sometimes, like here, it comes with veggies, ham and even little matchstick potato chips - even more carbs, yay!

This is possibly the most well known Brazilian dish. It is eaten a lot here, but only really at the weekends. It takes so long to cook that nobody has time to make it during the week! It is essentially a bean stew that gets its flavour from the smokey meats (sausage and beef) that are cooked with the beans. It is quite plain in flavour but good, hearty food. It is served with rice, shredded garlicky cabbage and slices of orange. Apparently the orange is to aid digestion.

After the hike in Tijuca National Park we ate the feijoada pictured above and this dish - steak, potato rosti and roquefort sauce. I have seen potato rostis on several menus here and am intrigued to know how they came to be so popular. I will say that this one tasted a little too much like oil for my liking, and I'm not a blue cheese fan so it wasn't my ideal dish but the steak was, of course, delicious. If there is one thing Brazilians know, it's how to cook beef!

Kilo Restaurants
Pretty straightforward concept really - you walk around the buffet tables, gradually adding yummy things to your plate. Once you're happy, you take the plate to the person at the till, who weighs it and charges you accordingly. Different restaurants charge different amounts per kilo and obviously the quality and variety of food differs from place to place but the process is the same. There is one next to where I have my Portuguese classes and the food is really good. I have eaten there once and it cost me R$13 (£2.70) which was a bargain! The plate below was one of Dave's, from a more expensive place. As you can imagine, he sees "Kilo Restaurant" as a suggestion, rather than nick-name...

Quiosques (kiosks) are beach-side huts offering a variety of drinks and snacks with a great view of the sea and sand. Each quiosque is different and some definitely have better food than others. The one opposite our flat is great for agua de coco, whereas the one next to it served us this amazing platter of grilled prawns, battered fish, garlic bread and cassava chips. I love the abundance of cassava here - a sweeter, more fibrous alternative to potato that I must learn how to cook!

Northeastern Food
We visited a market (to be blogged about soon) that sells a lot of tat and food from the northeastern region of Brazil. We ate at a restaurant called "Estação Baião de Dois" and sampled some nordeste (northeastern) delicacies: 

Acaraje is a popular street snack in the northeast, but is also very common in Nigeria and several other African countries. It is a bun made from a black-eyed pea dough, which is fried in palm oil and stuffed. This is the only acaraje we have tried so I don't know how authentic it was. The stuffing was a slightly bitter paste, probably made from some kind of green vegetable, with whole grilled prawns. It was tasty, although a bit too substantial for a starter. I'm keen to try these in their natural habitat.

Casquinha de Siri is, I think, a general term for a stuffed crab shell. This one had a very mild flavour that was almost like curry, and was really tasty with a squeeze of lime and a few drops of chili oil. I'm not a big seafood fan but to me this was just on the right side of my fishiness limit, and it was shredded so the texture was a bit like fish. This is the first crab that we have seen on a menu here, much to Dave's disappointment. I wonder what other seafood they eat up north...

After those two starters, we order the obligatory beef. It came, of course, with mountains of rice, farofa (with onion) and cassava chips. An interesting condiment on the table was manteiga de garrafa - basically a bottle of liquid ghee to pour on our chips! I'm starting to see how the brown influences up north have had a delicious impact on the food. We also got a side of beans, or feijão, and these have cemented "the northeast" as an essential foodie holiday destination for us. The flavour of these feijão was richer and deeper than anything we have eaten thus far in Rio and that green stuff is CORIANDER! I loved it so much that we got the waiter to put the leftovers in a doggiebag for me. I froze it and have been rationing it out for my lunch ever since.

Next up is an assortment of random dishes that don't have so much story behind them but were still worth writing home about:

Grilled octopus. We have seen octopus on quite a few menus here but this is the only time Dave has ordered it so far. He says it was a bit chewy and not the best octopus he has had. The pool of orange stuff on the plate is palm oil, which is a very popular cooking oil in the north of Brazil, where African influences are much stronger in the culture and cuisine.

This is a pretty standard piece of grilled white fish, but with the interesting addition of grapes in the oily vinaigrette. We have seen this a few times and while it isn't bad, I'm not too sure what it brings to the table. Generally we have found meals in Rio to be lacking in vegetables and with sauces that are neither here nor there. 

This salmon was extremely salty but with no sauce whatsoever. It did come with some interesting rice though - broccoli rice. I assume there was some broccoli blended up and mixed in with the rice but I couldn't really taste it. There was a slight hint of parsley, which was annoying but at least I could tell myself I'd eaten something green for dinner. 

Another piece of fish with a vaguely pestoey sauce. This time the carbs came in the form of mash, which was very creamy and tasted like it was at least 50% butter. Atop the mash were two slices of fried banana. They had a nice, soft texture and hardly any flavour so we suspect they were actually plantain rather than banana. Does that count as a vegetable? I don't suppose it does if it has been fried!

Seafood risotto with a huge prawn on top. There was fish, squid, some prawns and mussels in this, and I think maybe even a pea or two! Risotto seems to be very popular here, often cheesy and either as a main meal or a side dish. I don't know whether an Italian would be happy giving them the title of risotto, but they always look tasty to me!

I haven't eaten any sushi here yet but Dave got this platter from a place down the road from our flat. It cost about £12, so pretty similar to the UK. It's a very popular food here in Rio, with restaurants and snack-shacks all over the place. It is probably because it is healthy and people are so body conscious here in Rio.

This one is a bit boring but represents something new in our lives. It's a burger from a "healthy" cafe and juice bar down the road. The reason I'm mentioning it is because Dave has decided to try going gluten-free this year and this place does gluten-free bread. Next to the burger you can see a "salad"; shredded chicken in mayo, a bit of corn and a few raisins mixed in, and a load of those matchstick potato chips on top. There are seriously so few vegetables with Brazilian meals! Luckily we are getting a lot of our 5-a-day in the form of various fresh fruit juices. I'll be blogging about these sometimes weird but (almost) always wonderful juices once we have worked our way through all of the options!

And finally, something sweet...

Brigadeiros are truffles made from condensed milk and coco, cooked down, rolled up and coated in sprinkles. They are extremely popular for all celebrations here and are sometimes served with a spoon in a little pot, rather than rolled into balls. These ones were very kindly gifted to us by one of the men who works on reception in our building. He wrote me a wonderful letter to go with them, explaining the origin of the name. I won't type it here, you can just wiki it!

This dessert was from my new favourite restaurant, Guacamole! It's a Mexican restaurant that we went to for Dave's birthday and as part of the celebrations Dave got a free shot of tequila, we were serenaded by a mariachi band were given this wonderful chocolate brownie and ice cream wishing Dave "Parabens" (congratulations). Such fun!

So much fun, in fact, that we went back again a few weeks ago! It wasn't anyone's birthday so we had to pay for this dessert ourselves but boy was it worth it - a huge ball of ice cream and five doce de leite stuffed churros. Drool! Doce de leite and churros are both really popular here and you can buy a more basic version on this dessert from street vendors.

Last but not least, these were the desserts on offer at the northeastern restaurant. The yellow one in the middle is jack fruit, but most of them are shredded coconut with a variety of different flavourings: papaya, guava condensed milk...and doce de leite! Guess which one we picked? I think I might be a doce de leite addict before too long. It went so well with the coconut, which was fresher and tastier than the desiccated coconut we get back home. 

So, that about sums it up for our first two months here. Not bad going really, considering we just eat chicken salad for dinner during the week. Still, we have a lot more work to do! This weekend we are going to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state Minas Gerais. It's just the next state up from Rio de Janeiro, but is much bigger and people keep telling me how good the food is there so I am very excited.

Weekend Funtivities

We have recently had the opportunity to take advantage of our young(ish) bodies, free time, nice weather, good friends, and the motivation to do some exercise and be more active. We have been using the BikeRio bikes, which are the bright orange Boris Bikes of Rio, to travel around our local area of Barra. Katie has been cycling to the shops and back and I have been waking up Saturday mornings to go for long cycles, like some kind of guy who cares about his fitness. 

The joy of cycling where we live is that there is a dedicated two-lane cycle path, completely separated from the mayhem of the Carioca drivers. Carioca is a term used to refer to a person from Rio. The cycle lane runs alongside the longest beach in Rio and is a great place to watch the sunrise, the sunset, and the bums of every beach goer – old and young. It truly is spectacular. The BikeRio bikes cost R$10 (£2.20) to use as much as you want for a month and the best way to use the system is with the app (for all those interested – do not use the telephone system, it never works!) There is also a docking station right next to where we live so it is a very convenient and cheap way to get around the neighbourhood. There are stations all over Rio and the same concept is used in some of Brazil's other larger cities.

A few weeks ago we were invited to a friend's house in Recreio (west of Barra) for a classic Brazilian barbeque. It was around 13km away, straight along the beach, so we decided to cycle...during the hottest part of the day. Wow that was a mistake. Not only were we both shattered, red and sweaty by the time we arrived at the party but we also both got sun burnt to varying degrees. Yes, mine was significantly worse than Katie's, considering the paleness of my skin. I remember when being pale was a sign of beauty in South Korea. Here it is like a crosshair on my white back, while the largest object in the Solar System is hunting me down ready to paint it red. The week that followed involved a lot of after-sun and a vow to always wear P20 and never to rely on any of the other SPF 50 we brought with us. Damn you Hunter Sun.

Although the cycle was tiring and hot, it certainly was entertaining. We saw a lot of cool birds, mainly in bikinis on the beach, but also the flying kind.

A black vulture, which is very common around here. We also have the white vulture, otherwise known as David, on the beach, wearing sunglasses that he mistakenly thinks hide the fact that he is staring at every woman that walks past!
A burrowing owl. Yes, I (Katie) have bought a bird book and yes, I am ticking things off as we see them.
A smooth-billed Ani. Weird looking thing isn't it?
A buff-necked ibis. I promise none of these are pigeons and you won't see them in England!
Okay kids, five points to whoever can name these birds, perched atop the cacti...
Yes Gary! You're right, they are more black vultures!
The barbecue was great and Katie got to meet the other cool grads that I work with. We don’t have any memories, I mean photos, of the event but it was a fun way to spend a Saturday evening with some truly smashing people.

A few weeks later and we were back on the orange wagon, cycling around Barra in an attempt to buy dinner, beer, and supplies for the hike we had arranged for the next day. The hike was up in Alto da Boa Vista (roughly translated as “top of the good view”) and the experience truly lived up to the name. We went with two guys from work: Thiago and Jorge. Both are brilliant and we are happy to call them friends. Thiago picked us up and we drove to get Jorge, who was of course not ready. Jorge is the epitome of a Carioca hippy. He is a laid back surfer with a great attitude to life and an irresistible charm. We could not believe his house. It was situated in the mountains in a kind of commune with other houses that his aunts, uncles, and cousins live in. His cousin had awoken once with a snake wrapped around his neck – the perils of living in Tijuca forest! Jorge also told us of his weekly task of trimming the mushrooms that grow in his bathroom plug sockets – yes we did understand this correctly...and no this is not a normal Brazilian chore.

There is a room in Jorge's house dedicated to his Grandfather's hobbies of stuffing animals and making statues. Truly unbelievable and freaky at the same time.

Once again we set off at around midday (when will we learn!?) but this time we had strong sun cream and the shade of the forest to protect us from the Hunter Sun. It was very humid though and sweat was pouring from the three of us, while somehow Jorge stayed dry. The Rio Mowgli has clearly adapted to the extreme humidity of the forest. 

Don't grab this to steady yourself!
By the time we reached the first vantage point of “top of the good view” it was clear to the sweaty members of the troupe that this place would not be known as “top of the good smell” after we had contaminated the fresh mountain air. We climbed to two peaks (Tijuca Mirim & Pico da Tijuca) and both were spectacular. The first place we reached was Tijuca Mirim and it was there that I got my first peak at the two big football stadiums in Rio. The Maracanã, home to Flamengo & Fluminense, and the Engenhão stadium, home to Botafogo.

The Engenhao stadium
In the centre of this photo you can see the Maracana stadium

The President Costa e Silva bridge, which links the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi
This brief stop on Tijuca Mirim gave us a good view of what was to come during the final leg of our journey to Mordor, I mean Pico da Tijuca, the highest peak in Tijuca forest. Huge steps have been carved into the rockface by slaves. Steps that were soon to be conquered by us.

They might not look like much, but at the top of those steps we were standing over 1000 metres above sea level.

Tijuca forest is allegedly the biggest urban forest in the world, besides another one in Rio that was recently incorporated because of the expansion of the city. The area was previously used as a coffee plantation which then shrunk massively in the beginning of the 20th century. However in the second half of the century, the forest was replanted with over a 100,000 trees by Major Manuel Gomes Archer and the help of slaves (I hope Major Archer was kinder than Agent Archer). The variety of trees made this hike particularly interesting.

We reached the top and celebrated by sweating some more.

Jorge's house is there somewhere!

This is Barra da Tijuca, where we live. Our flat is out of shot to the right.
We saw some interesting wildlife at the top. Jorge was fascinated by this spider and took a video of it eating. It was a nephila clavipes, a species of golden orb-web spider.

A white-throated hummingbird! Or in Portuguese, a beija-flor.
Some of you might recognise that word from a previous post

Golden Orb Web Spider

We had a brilliant day and like all good hikers, we rewarded ourselves with a grand feast. We ate a mountain of feijoada and steak, which Katie will talk about in a later food post.

P.S. Tried out a new feature on my camera and tracked the hike.