28 January 2009

Obama Day 8: tough first days on the job call for extra potent drinks after work

So it is about a week after the US Inauguration and spirits are high here in Brasil as people put trust in the new US president to follow through on his ambitious promises to change the world image of the United States from World Bully, to World Progressor. So far he has done pretty well. If you want to monitor his Executive Branch activities check out The St. Petersburg Times' sharp "Obameter" that monitors the guy's campaign commitments at: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/ . I thought we should therefore raise a glass and continue with all the hullabaloo and hope for a renewed USA and keep the libations flowing. In Brasil folks clink shot glasses filled with a sugar cane liquor called “cachaça” (kah-shah-sah) while gleefully shouting (and eventually slurring), “cheers” in Portuguese: “saúde” (sa-oo-jee)!

What better way to make a little party than to mix up the most well-know Brasilian cocktail: the caipirinha (kah-ee-pee-deen-yah). Here is how it is done:

  • Get yourself some limes, wash them, cut them in half (through the middle not from stem top to bottom), and score them by making 2-4 cuts into the rind (like pictured) without cutting all the way through...though if you are lazy you can just cut the lime up into how ever many small sections you want.

  • Put some well-refined sugar (as much or little as you like) in a glass, tumbler, mug, whatever as long as it has a wide mouth opening. If you use a less-refined sugar it will take longer for it to dissolve and therefore more wait-time before you can drink. Put the cut lime flesh-side down on top of the sugar.

  • Take a wooden or plastic muddler, spoon, potato masher, or something to squash the lime into the sugar until you have lots a sugared lime juice in your glass. Add as many limes as you like.

  • Put ice in the glass (chopped is best), followed by a generous shot of cachaça. Pour the whole mixture in a martini shaker or just put your hand securely over the glass, and shake! Add optional straw and drink till your heart's content.
When I was eleven years-old, my grandfather handed me a tiny, glass medicine bottle and told me (with a devilish grin) to take a sip of the mysterious, clear liquid that was in it. As I knocked-back a healthy dose, all I remember was what felt like a mixture of rubbing alcohol and liquid fire burning a corrosive path from the tip of my tongue to back of my throat and down my esophagus. Coughing and spitting and crying from the confusion of being poisoned by my own flesh and blood, I wiped my eyes of their tears to see my grandfather laughing at my near-death experience. Now, you may think that I had been subjected to some kind of torturous hazing ritual by the patron of my own family, and maybe I kind of was, but I sure never made an attempt to sample from grandpa’s liquor stash, unless he was present. And if any of us grandkids were curious about smoking, he did the same live-and-learn example with cigarettes and cigars as a way to scare us away from experimenting with those kinds of vices until we were at least a little older. Did it work? Sorta. If nothing else it taught all of us to respect and maybe fear our no-nonsense, Southern, mountain-man grandpa. Maybe it was also all those Christmases when he dressed up like Santa (he looked just like him), made every one of us give him a kiss and let the babies pull on his snowy beard.

The probably 190-proof (95% pure) alcohol that my grandfather gave me was colloquially called “white lightening” or “moonshine” by the backwoods distillers and patrons of the South in the earlier part of the 20th Century. Though moonshine can still be found in personal liquor cabinets and hidden in the back of divey bars, modern regulations have re-packaged it, given it the name “Everclear,” and regulated its strength as either 151 or 190-proof (though the stronger one is illegal to sell in fifteen US states).

Ok, so what does all this have to do with Brasil and cachaça? Well, first off, another name for cachaça is "Aguardente" which translates to "burning (or flaming) water," so in other words; it is just like what Grandpa had stored in the basement. This Brasilian version though is generally lower in alcohol content (between 38%-48%), if it is produced commercially. Though many of the small-scale, artisan and better-tasting pingas produced in my corner of the world might have labels displaying how strong they are, just as many do not and a test of their strength is gaged only by how quickly you forget how to walk a straight line while you are drinking them. Maybe that is why another fitting name for cachaça is "Aquela-que-matou-o-guarda," or "the one that killed the cop!"

Here in Paraty, we are famous for our cachaça or "pinga" (peen-ga) from the verb "pingar" which means "to drop." This are became known as a pinga producer beginning in the 1800s after farmers attempting to get rich off of refined sugar realized that there was too much rain here for large-scale sugar cane cultivation. Instead, by utilizing the countless rivers and streams swimming through the forests and mountains here, a big wheel could be fitted to churn hydro-electricity that could power a mill and thereby make a lot of product that required a lot less sugar cane. An industry was born and for many years the word "Paraty" or "Parati" (the other way to spell the name) became synonomous with the word "cachaça." Even Brasil's king Dom Pedro II (born 1825-1891) reportedly placed special orders for the highest quality "Parati."

You see, to say you are going to buy a bottle of cachaça is like saying you are going to buy a bottle of vodka or whiskey; they are types of distilled alcohol. Here I will quote directly from Wikipedia:

Cachaça, like rum, has two varieties: un-aged (white) and aged (gold). White cachaça is usually bottled immediately after distillation and tends to be cheaper…Dark cachaça, usually seen as the "premium" variety, is aged in wood barrels and is meant to be drunk pure. Its flavor is influenced by the type of wood the barrel is made of...I however feel that if I want my cachaça to have a charred wood overtone, I would just drink scotch.

There are also other grades of cachaça that are hard to find outside of Brasil. "Azulada" (a-zoo-la-dah), in which tangerine leaves are added and results in a very high-quality mix that has a slight blue cast to it (see photo below). "Gabriela" is a local concoction that infuses cinnamon, clove and sugar together to get something truly magical and lovingly reminiscent of something that would be found in a large pot on the stove at a family Christmas gathering (though I prefer Gabriela with an ice cube). Pinga blended with pumpkin, banana, passion fruit, chocolate, etc. are among the many ways producers find ways of tantalizing consumers. Another popular way to drink pinga here is to put a healthy dose of honey in a cup then pour a dangerously large amount of the alcohol on top and mix until the honey becomes one with the pinga. Delicious! Below is a photo from a shop that sells, floor to ceiling, every variety of cachaça under the sun along with jarred, sweet compotes and preserves and locally made hot sauces.

Every civilization that has had access to either some sort of starch or fruit, has discovered through either a happy accident or painstaking chemistry experiments, that a little time and a thing called fermentation will turn a potato or a grape into a glass of Good Times. Alcohol has been used to commemorate both sadness and celebration the world over, and though there are those folks out there who think the stuff is the work of the Devil (and maybe they are right), it also is a liquid marker of a culture's culinary ambitions. A good, stiff drink so often compliments the flavors and scents of a meal since the dirt used to grow the vegetables and feed the animals that will be made into food also adds the same nutrients and complexity to what can also be turned into an alcoholic beverage, so everything logically synchronizes and harmonizes once put together. Though good food can stand on its own, a drink before, during, and/or after makes it an experience!

After this was posted, I was corrected by several Brasilian bartenders on what I thought was an authentic caipirinha recipe. To avoid an unwanted sour taste on the tongue, cut out and discard the middle, white, core parts of the lime before muddling with the sugar. Thanks!

19 January 2009

Obama Day 0: time for a party!

Today is Inauguration Day in the United States, and apparently record numbers of people will be showing up in Washington D.C. to get a glimpse of the first person of any color other than "cracker", to be elected to the highest political office of the land. Everyone is being warned that the temperatures will be cold enough to turn a red-state Republican blue so therefore, it is best to come naked in support of the Democratic Party. A fluffy scarf, earmuffs, and two pairs of socks are encouraged though.

Down here in the Southern Hemisphere, we have different environmental conditions at this time of year. January equals heat and humidity, so we are more preoccupied with how to soak-up the sweat and keep from passing out from too much sun than with hypothermia. So to celebrate summer, and to honor Mr. Baraka Obama’s entrance into the White House (and the cleaning-out of all the dust mites that have lived there for the past 8 years), I thought a BBQ was in order. I also want to celebrate public water finally returning here to Paraty after 9 days of dry wells and the use of lots of extra deodorant.

In Brasil, a BBQ is called a "churrasco" (shoo-hah-skoh) and like its US equivalent, it involves a lot of grilled meat (steak, chicken wings and fatty sausage called “calabresa”), mayonnaise dishes, side vegetables and beer, though rice is the main starch, not potato chips. BBQ sauce and other spices that cover up the natural flavor of the meat are also not welcome here. Only coarse salt is used to season so that when you bite into a chicken wing you taste chicken, not Emeril’s Kicked Up BAM! B-Q sauce. There is also a curious dry condiment called “farofa” (fah-roh-fah) that is usually spooned on top of everything. It is made by refining the tropical root vegetable mandioca (man-jee-oh-ka), also known as manioc or cassava, into a flour, then pan-frying it with butter or oil, cubes of meat (usually bacon or sausage), spices and salt. It can also be purchased pre-packaged and has the consistency of finely-ground bread crumbs. I personally do not like farofa because although the flavor is reminiscent of kind of Thanksgiving stuffing, the flour absorbs liquid like pre-cooked couscous and makes everything it is added to dryer. I always prefer my food on the juicier side, especially at a BBQ.

Churrascos are typically a Sunday event and a way to get everyone you know together to relax, gossip and gorge. Since my husband works in tourism, Sunday is never a day of rest, so we made an extended lunch out of it at his work instead. There are different types of churrasqueiras (shoo-hah-skair-as), or grilling apparatuses, in which to put a fire, though the one we used was made of clay. Others range from humble metal boxes with legs, to elaborate wall built-ins with chimneys. Charcoal is a very different species of coal here. It is a lump charcoal which means that it still resembles pieces of actual wood instead of being mixed with other by-products and chemicals before being pressed into the perfect little squares called briquettes that are used in the US. In place of highly-toxic lighter fluid, Brasilians use common isopropyl rubbing alcohol to help ignite the fire.

Once the fire gets going, it is just like any BBQ on the Fourth of July; the person in charge of the grill has their own personalized and highly specific methods of grilling yet, everyone else also has an opinion on how the food should be cooked and they are not afraid to express it to the cook. These people also usually tend to be of the male gender. It is as if once the smell of burning wood and meat in an outdoor setting reaches their nostrils, some intrinsic, caveman response kicks in and they suddenly become an authority on cooking, though in their own home they avoid cooking at the stove at all costs and feign ignorance of all things culinary.

NPR published what Mr. President has on his iPod and I thought his Fugees and Nina Simone selections were telling, though my favorite song by Ms. Simone is " My Baby Just Cares for me,” though I think “Do I Move You” is the most appropriate choice for the election of the 44th President of the United States who just happens to be the interracial child of a black African man and a white woman from Kansas. Some miracles DO come to pass!
1. 'Ready or Not' Fugees
2. 'What's Going On' Marvin Gaye
3. 'I'm On Fire' Bruce Springsteen
4. 'Gimme Shelter' Rolling Stones
5. 'Sinnerman' Nina Simone
6. 'Touch the Sky' Kanye West
7. 'You'd Be So Easy to Love' Frank Sinatra
8. 'Think' Aretha Franklin
9. 'City of Blinding Lights' U2
10. 'Yes We Can' Will.i.am

For the first time since I left the United States to travel and see first-hand all that I knew was censored from me in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, I am not embarrassed to be from the USA. Where before I was routinely interrogated on how my country can leave such a stain on the people and places it has dealings with (directly or indirectly) and how Bush was able to be elected TWICE, I now talk to people who are excited to discuss the positive prospects for the US’s future. In Rio de Janeiro, Obama’s face has even become a popular theme for Carnaval (kah-nah-vah–ooh) masks that will be paraded in front of millions of viewers at the February festivities. Read the story here:


Nothing and no one is perfect, but today steps were taken that will hopefully give the world reason to believe in democracy and justice again. A slogan heard along the campaign trail was, "Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running so our children can fly." Best of luck Barack Hussein Obama II and happy grilling!

18 January 2009

So what can I cook for lunch if I don't have water?

How about not cooking at all? I normally find food preparation meditative and a time for me to creatively play, so chopping meat and vegetables and standing over a hot stove is not a chore, but rather a good time. I also am poor at the moment and cooking at home is significantly cheaper than eating out. That being said, I also am living in a place that has a water shortage and I want to conserve what limited supply we have in bottles here at home. It also is super, duper hot and humid (sorry, snow-bound Northeastern US) and I long for something filling yet light. Enter one of Brasil’s most famous natural commodities and, more recently, exports: açaí (a-sah-ee).

This amazingly healthy, little red-purple berry not only could sustain you were you stranded on some desert island (or re-nourish you were you recovering from a bad hangover), but it’s darn tasty too! The colorfully-painted, mostly-naked hunter-gathers of the Amazon region have been consuming açaí far longer than the health-conscious in first world countries have been looking for a way to counteract their polluted, overweight, civilized lifestyles.

Here in Brasil, açaí became all the rage among surfers who wanted to keep up their energy while eating light so as not to sink below the waves. Açaí is so packed with nutrients that they could eat it, surf all day and not lose those irresistible washboard stomachs.

So why is açaí a good choice for me to eat when what little public water we have is tainted and undrinkable without chlorine drops added first? Many açaí shops buy the pulp of the fruit in frozen blocks and then blend them with a little ice and either honey or sweetened with guaraná (gwah-dah-nah) syrup (another Brasilian berry-like fruit that I will get into detail about in a future blog) to get a product with an ice cream-consistency. My favorite açaí shop on the other hand, imports it ready-to-go and therefore mixed with water that does not come from our dirty, yet recuperating, river. And after all, the word açaí itself comes from the Brasilian indigenous Tupian word meaning “fruit that cries or expels water” (thanks Wikipedia), so it is only fitting.

My husband and I sit down at the ever-busy açaí shop and wait for our bowls of yumminess to arrive. We ordered the most popular version which comes drizzled with honey, sliced bananas and granola stacked on top (see photo above, top). There are many other ways to top açaí though, and how one likes their açaí can rival how one prefers their ice cream. Other goodies include sweetened, condensed milk (which Brasilians will put on anything already too sweet); a powdered milk called “Ninho” (that translates as “nest” but really is just a brand name); or ice cream. Açaí is also drunk as just a juice or blended with other fruit like strawberries or oranges. Some northern Brasilian states like their açaí room temperature or even salty. Normally these shops also sell other kinds of fresh-squeezed juices mixed with water (“suco”) or with milk (“vitamina”).

The açaí arrives. It has a slightly gritty consistency that many people find distracting and therefore opt for the more liquefied variety. I however, appreciate a bit of grit because without it, the fiber couldn’t stick as well to the spaces between my teeth and stain them that wine-colored purple. The flavor is pretty unique. It is kind of like a fusion of every dark berry you’ve ever tried, mixed with sugar, and put through an ice cream maker. That is probably why in North America and Europe açaí has become a much-touted health food/weight loss aid and embraced as an alternative type of juice and pressed into tablets to be swallowed with breakfast. Good-for-you ice cream: who can say no to that?

In Brasil, açaí is also more than just a refreshing desert/meal. Ironically, most Brasilians do not consider it necessarily a “health” food as much as a hot weather food. In fact, despite açaí’s healthy nutrient content, it also has a high concentration of good fat, and Brasilians will warn you that too much will make you lumpy around the middle. (I guess those surfers burned off all the excess calories with all that paddling). It is also commonly found as a flavoring in gum, Halls throat drops (does anyone actually eat them as anything other than candy?), toothpaste, in powered form, ready-made juice concentrate and even a scent for shampoo and conditioner (though açaí doesn’t have a strong smell).

Okay, well, since the açaí that I am eating is cold, it is also melting and needs my undivided attention. Até mais! (Until later!)

17 January 2009

Welcome to 2009 and all the destruction that it brings!

**My intention with this blog is to give visual/written blurps of my saunters, gallops and sometimes belly-flops as I venture through a life as a North American woman living in a lovely colonial, tropical, in-the-middle-of-Paradise town in Southeastern Brasil (yes, that is how it is spelled in Portuguese) and who is addicted to food, cultures unlike her own, how food plays into those cultures, documentation through words and photography along the way, and run-on sentences and their under-appreciation. Though I had planned to inaugurate this blog with colorful photos of my town Paraty, witty commentary and tantalizing recipes for local foods, other events pushed themselves, literally, to the forefront of my life and where I was to direct my attention. Instead, I will start off by saying that normally this blog will contain more culinary connections to life here, as food is much more than just sustenance to me and I know there are many out there that agree with me. For now, I will dedicate more time tomorrow to the food and today I will give you an introduction to myself and my situation. Bon appetite!**

Normally the first few weeks of the New Year are filled with resolutions and new beginnings and a cleaning out of the old dust that needed to go from the previous year. Well, I guess you can say Mother Nature was impatient with us here and made a move to speed up the process.

A flash flood hit Paraty on Saturday morning around 2am after excessive rain in the mountains above us engorged the river Perequê-Açú that stems from there and runs through the entire area before dumping its almost black, mineral-laden mud into the ocean at the sea entrance to town. By 4:30am, the water had risen 8 meters (26 feet) over its capacity and covered-over the whole area forcing 1000 residents to flee their homes. The equivalent of a year's worth of rain filled the river in one night! The force of the water destroyed a section of highway that goes to the mountains, broke water lines and washed out a reservoir that collects the city's water from waterfalls in the mountains. As of today, one week later after the town was inundated with water, there is ironically still no public water for the 15 thousand residents other than what people have collected in special water barrels that each house/apartment building has for its own use, what they buy bottled or from water companies who export the life source by truck to paying customers. Another 10-15 thousand tourists were not included in that figure, though most have left. It's a bit desperate because in order to clean-up mud, wash clothes, take showers, etc, you need water and that means that people are siphoning river water with buckets and hoses and therefore only recycling the dirty water. No one seems to know when public water will return. My husband Maico and I have been making trips out to waterfalls to take “showers” which sounds like it would be a tropical delight but trying to wash my nether regions with soap in front of others who have the same idea as us makes it a bit tricky and not at all “Blue Lagoon”-like. Well, like my mom said, if we don’t get to bathe as often at least we'll all smell the same! Somehow, that is comforting.

The river is a lifeline here with houses, hotels, boats, etc. lining its banks and draws tourists from all over the world to see the colonial beauty that grew-up around it over the past 400 years. Up until about 15 years ago however, most of the buildings were concentrated near the port which the Portuguese built when gold, liquor and sugar were still being exported from there and pirates were waiting outside of the bay to pick-off the loot on their way out to the open Atlantic. Some very smart, long-term thinking Portuguese engineers built the town slightly under the sea level but on top of stones that angled down and could utilize gravity to wash any high tide water (and street garbage) out to sea. That is why when the flood hit that area was barely touched despite sitting sandwiched between the river and the ocean. Most everyone else felt the effects of living near a river in boroughs that were thrown together out of necessity to house people since the population has more than doubled in those 15 years, and with zero planning for what would happen if the river overflowed. There also has never been public preparedness on what to do during a flood, or after. Welcome to the Brasil, says every Brasilian I talk to!

I woke up that morning to the yelling of my neighbors and looked outside in their parking garage to see that water had half covered their car tires (that's the last photo and the water would eventually cover their car grills). It didn't quite register what was happening though until I looked in our outdoor corridor and saw that it was completely filled. More and more voices could be heard from the street as word reached us that the river had flooded and was taking everything in its path out to the ocean.

Normally in disaster situations I keep my head about me and put my Aries leadership skills in high gear to get through the situation without panicking. Though when I saw water streaming into my kitchen from under the front door with the appearance of Ohio River water (in other words, water from a busted sewage pipe- which it probably was since the sewage drains broke open too), I kind of lost it. I have never literally been shaken from fear that much in my life, though I have never felt that vulnerable to merciless forces before. Unfortunately, I happened to live in the way of a disturbance in the forces of nature and nothing was going to cut me slack just because I didn't want to die just yet.

In order to move into this studio apartment the size of a child-size shoe box, we recently had to buy a bed, standing pantry, wardrobe, etc. and since most apartments here do not come furnished we also had to purchase a fridge and stove. Basically, we're broke for the next few months but I finally had an in-house internet connection with plans of starting this weblog and getting caught-up on a lot of things that I had neglected over the past few months, so I welcomed the lack-of-funds-forced time at home.
I had just returned to Brasil 4 months ago after spending 4 and a half months back home in Cincinnati, Ohio and San Francisco, CA to get documents to be able to get married to Maico Almeida dos Santos, the Brasilian I met here in Paraty while traveling through here in December, 2007. We both spent too many hours and even more money getting my paperwork in order and finally made it official on 4 September, 2008 (though it was not that simple and I will elaborate in an upcoming blog). We moved into a new place together just a month ago and had everything in livable order as of a week before the flood hit. Basically, we were starting fresh and with high hopes for the future. That is why when I yanked electrical plugs out of the wall, pulled books off shelves, shoved every important document into a backpack, and put the TV and everything possible as high as possible, all I could think about was that we were going to lose it all.

I thankfully got a hold of a friend who lived in an apartment on a second floor on the other side of the river who kept calling me to say we had to come there immediately because the water was rising higher and soon we couldn't cross through the torrents on the streets and over a pedestrian bridge to her place. Maico and I did as much as we could at home until the water was up past our ankles. We then pushed open the front door (breaking a hinge in the process from the pressure smashing against the door on the other side), put our bags on our heads, and waded through knee deep water outside to get to the street where we sunk into the mud and even more water up to our waists. The river current was in overdrive and almost took me with it as we struggled to make it across a road maybe 25 feet wide, banging our feet and legs against unknown submerged concrete objects along the way. We made it to the bridge and climbed high enough to see trees, other debris and an upside-down speed boat go flying underneath us with the noise of what I always imagined an avalanche would sound like. Five minutes after we safely, though shakily, were secure on the other side and behind the gate of my friend's apartment, it was obvious that we made it with no time to spare. We saw two, 15-person wooden boats snap free from their lines and sail down the river and a horse lose its life to the forces of the water.

So one week later and we're slowly recovering and keeping our spirits up despite the water shortage. We're taking our vitamins and since I’ve cleaned more with bleach and antibacterial detergent in the past week than I have in the past few years, I think we’re keeping the germs at bay. Unfortunately, though most of the mud has been scrapped away, the residue left behind is a brown powdery dust that gives the town a Wild West feel.

Sadly too, we are officially at the height of summer and a busy tourist season. Many people make a major chunk of their yearly income in only 3-4 months so to lose most of our tourists now is quite a blow to the local economy. The streets are skimpy on visitors and the energy is deflated. I don't blame the tourists though because I wouldn't want to go to a waterless, flood-ravaged town on my vacation either.

Nothing is permanent however, and we will rebound and continue to move forward. Maybe today I'll even go down to the new "beach" that has appeared after so much mud collected where the river meets the ocean and get a little sun and relax. After all, I DO live in paradise, right?!