When arriving at a new and foreign place, many aspects of its culture are closed to us. However, much before we comprehend the language or understand the culture, much before the gestures and body language of the locals make sense, even in our first day there, we can taste and enjoy the local food. It is the first gate we cross to a new culture. It may be quite limited – it won’t explain all the local idiosyncrasies – but it would provide the first glimpses. Which ingredients do they use? How do they cook? Do they care about aesthetics? What kind of cutlery do they use? Endless questions, maybe not very important ones, but the only ones that are easy to answer in the first days.
Brazil’s multifaceted ethnic mix has created unique dishes which blend up into a very special cuisine full of flavors as complex and wonderful as their creators. The local staples are rice, black beans, and manioc flour, which are combined with different meats and fish to create basic meals. The best known and the indisputable national dish is the feijoada, a stew of meat and black beans (feijao) served with rice. The meat type and amount can change enormously, but the dish uses only modest amounts of spices – if any at all. The dish is usually big enough to share between two. If the stew contains mainly vegetables (and especially potatoes, yam, manioc, or carrots) and little or not meat at all, it is called cozido.
But meats and rice are not enough for a complete diet. Caruru is a dish originating in Africa which became very popular in Brazil. It is made with vegetables cooked in water and drained. Then peppers, onions and shrimps are added and everything is grated with okra paste and dende oil. It is fabulous with any fish – the traditional companion of the dish.
A fruit is always a great way to end a meal and Brazil offers plenty of them. Even better are fruit juices, which here are called "sucos". Ice and sugar are usually added, unless the drink is asked to be "natural." "Vitamina" is a juice prepared with milk instead of water. "Batida" is prepared by adding to the fruit and the water a bit of "cachaça," a sugar-cane liquor. Many of the fruits do not have names in English; guarana and graviola are such two and their taste justifies settling down in the country.
It would be impossible to finish such a note without mentioning the local coffee beans. I did not manage to drink a bad coffee in Brazil regardless how cheap or badly prepared it was. Even the simplest stall in a poor neighborhood and the overcooked coffee in a thermos at the back of a long distance bus were elixirs rarely available elsewhere.
The food is the first cultural gate we cross while arriving at a new place. If that gate is a pleasant one – and Brazilian food is gorgeous – then the other gates seem to open in a friendlier fashion. Suddenly, facing a new – sweet sounding – language is not so intimidating. Bon appetite!