- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I learned early how to cope with the stresses of our annual, crazy, eccentric Carnival, which this year begins Friday and ends Tuesday, the eve of Lent.

The secrets to surviving Carnival are to stay hydrated and to eat just enough to keep going day and night, dancing and partying being among the prime activities. That doesn’t mean overeating. It means snacking regularly to keep energy levels high.

So it’s perhaps natural that Carnival-celebrating Brazilians snack on foods similar to Spanish tapas, but with influences from Africa, Portugal and also Arab countries. The result is dining that is multicultural but distinctly Brazilian.

Every city in Brazil gears up for Carnival, five days and nights of uninterrupted festivities during the hottest month of summer. And every minute is filled with parades of samba bands and floats that wend through the main streets and into arenas. There are also banda parades (similar to U.S. marching bands) and all kinds of masked balls, music shows, alternative bands and costume contests, with an equal number of events during the day and at night.

In Rio, it begins with an opening ceremony at 2 p.m. on Friday, where the mayor hands the key to the city to the Carnival king and queen. It finishes on midnight before Ash Wednesday, signaling the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of fasting, or at least cutting back, that most Brazilians (at least traditionally) practice before Easter.

With so many events packed into such a short period of time, there are two things that are kept short: sleep and meals. So how does one not only survive, but also enjoy the maximum number of events? We Brazilians gear up by making rettes, soft drinks, coffee and sometimes small meals.

Padarias (bakeries) often have a lanchonete attached, and they are good places for cheap and delicious tapas-like snacks. You can also buy food at a growing number of fast food outlets, which look garishly American, but take the hamburger or hot dog and Brazilianize it with such touches as a creamy rich, white bean sauce for burgers, much improving it in the process.

It is hard to generalize about Brazilian food, largely because there is no single national cuisine, but numerous, very distinct regional ones. Nature dealt Brazil a full hand for its varying cuisines. There are abundant varieties of fruit, vegetables and spices, as you can see for yourself by walking through the markets, both open-air shops and modern supermarkets.

Brazil’s four main regional cuisines contribute their special styles to Carnival snacks.

• Comida mineira from Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. This is based on pork, vegetables (especially couve, a collard green that looks like curly kale) and tutu, a kind of refried bean cooked with manioc flour and used as a thick sauce.

• Comida do sertao from the interior of the northeast. It relies on rehydrated dried or salted meat and the fruit, beans and tubers from that area.

• Comida baiana from the Salvadoran coast. This is the most exotic to North American palates, using fish and shellfish, hot chilies, palm oil, coconut milk and fresh coriander.

• Comida gaucha from Rio Grande do Sul. This has to be the most carnivorous diet in the world, revolving around every imaginable kind of meat grilled over charcoal, called churrasco.

Not wanting to waste any Carnival time for meals, we locals opt for Brazilian snacks as a good and extremely rewarding solution. Brazilian snacks are the best, a fusion combining the European food of the colonial Portuguese with palmito (hearts of palm), which was introduced by the African slaves, as well as with foods and preparation methods of the indigenous Indians.

Street vendors and lanchonetes offer a wide variety of snacks from the different regions of Brazil. Among them are empadinhas (small pies), which have various fillings of carne (meat), palmito or camarao (shrimp).

The Portuguese brought the bolinhos de bacalhau, fried balls of bacalhau (salt cod), but there are many more varieties of bolinhos, including bolinhos de milho (corn balls), bolinhos de abobora com carne seca (pumpkin balls with dried meat) and bolinhos de atum (tuna).

There are pasteis, a fried, thin pastry filled with chicken and ham, meat or cheese; esfihas, originally from the Orient, which are pastries stuffed with spiced meat; and risoles, crumbed, half-moon pastries filled with tomatoes, cheese, meat or chicken. Coxinhas are richly spiced, tasty chicken in dough, rolled in the form of a pear (coxinha means little thigh) and then fried.

Quibe, originally from the Middle East, is a mix of minced meat, mint and couscous fried in oil. Enroladinhos are another kind of attractive salgadinhos (appetizers): spicy sausages wrapped in bread.

From Bahia and our African heritage come acarajes, fried bean cakes with shrimp and hot chiles. Goiania, the most central state, gives us pamonhas, a specialty also in Sao Paulo, which are rolls of corn husks filled with corn puree and boiled. That is the sweet version. The salty version is made with a filling of cheese or a sausage.

There many more snacks, like croquettes de queijo (cheese croquettes), queijadinhas (little cheese custards), frigideiras de camarao (shrimp frittatas) and let’s not forget the simply delicious pao de queijo, a savory cheese snack that goes perfectly with coffee.

A popular and healthy drink to go with these snacks is the batida de fruta, orange juice or milk mixed with all kinds of fruits in the blender. You can pick from the lanchonete selection or put your own mix together.

By the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, we should have caught up with our sleep. So it is time to savor Brazil’s national dish, feijoada, a black bean stew with an intriguing variety of dried, salted and smoked meats, including pork, tongue, pork loin, ribs, sausage and bacon, served with rice, vegetables, orange slices and farinha de mandioca (manioc flour), and farofa, toasted farinha with banana or eggs, onions or bacon mixed into it.

The original version was invented during the colonial period by slaves who creatively employed leftovers from the tables of their masters. Today, making a good feijoada is a fine art (preparation takes all day), and you’re expected to eat it at a leisurely pace, starting it off with a caipirinha, Brazilian sugar cane liquor mixed with lime, sugar and ice. Most restaurants throughout the country serve feijoada on Saturday.

And after that meal, not to mention the strenuous activities of Carnival itself, it’s back to bed. Feijoada is a heavy dish that needs to be digested in peace.

Bolinhos de bacalhau(Balls made of cod fish)

Introduced by the Portuguese colonizers, these are ever-present on restaurant menus and as street food.

12 ounces salt cod

Water

1 pound potatoes

Salt

2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley

1 bunch of scallions, white parts only, minced

4 eggs, separated

Freshly ground black pepper

All-purpose flour

Corn oil for deep frying

Soak salt cod in cold water overnight, changing water several times. Put in a saucepan, cover with fresh water and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until soft. Drain. When cool enough to handle, remove bones carefully and mince fish.

Cook potatoes whole, in their skins, in boiling salted water. Drain, then peel and mash. (Do not add milk or butter.) In a bowl, beat together mashed potatoes, salt cod, parsley and scallion. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, until smooth. Season with pepper. If the mixture is too thin, add a little flour to make it stiffer.

Heat a pan of corn oil to deep frying temperature, about 350 degrees. Beat egg whites until stiff, and fold into salt cod mixture. Using a spoon dipped in flour, gently shape spoonfuls of the mixture into balls no larger than eggs. Deep-fry them, a few at a time, for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Frigideira de camarao (Shrimp frittata)

Similar to the Italian frittata, this is an oven-baked flat omelet. This recipe is adapted from “Cafe Brazil” by Michael Bateman (Contemporary).

1 pound peeled raw shrimp

Juice of 1 lime

2 garlic cloves, crushed, then chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2/3 cup chopped leek

Olive oil

1 large tomato, skinned, seeded and diced

2 sprigs of fresh cilantro, chopped

3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk

Butter for greasing pan

6 eggs

½ teaspoon baking powder

Salt, to taste

Tomato wedges for garnish, optional

Leek greens for garnish, optional

Cooked long-grain white rice, optional

Marinate shrimp in lime juice, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste for 30 minutes. Fry leek in a little olive oil until soft. Add tomato, cilantro and coconut milk, and simmer until mixture begins to thicken. Add shrimp and heat through to incorporate the flavors.

Butter an ovenproof iron frying pan and transfer shrimp mixture to it. Beat eggs with baking powder, adding salt to taste, and pour over shrimp. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until set. Cut into wedges and serve with steaming hot white rice, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Banana da terra frita (Fried plantains)

This recipe is from “Cafe Brazil” by Michael Bateman (Contemporary).

Plantains look like bananas, but they never ripen to become as sweet as bananas, even when the skin color changes from green to black.

2 large plantains

Vegetable oil for frying

Salt

Cut off ends or plantains, then run the tip of a sharp knife along the ridges and pull the peel away. Cut plantains in two and divide each half into four, cutting lengthwise to make long slices. Pour about 1 inch of oil in an iron skillet or frying pan and bring oil to about 350 degrees. Fry plantains a few minutes on each side until nicely browned. Sprinkle lightly with salt and serve hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Pao de queijo (Cheese rolls)

These cheese rolls are found everywhere. This recipe is from “Cafe Brazil” by Michael Bateman (Contemporary).

1½ cups tapioca flour (or wheat flour)

4 tablespoons sunflower oil, plus more for greasing hands

Water

Generous pinch of sea salt

1 egg, beaten

6 tablespoons plain yogurt

½ cup freshly grated hard cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

Sift flour into a bowl. In a saucepan, combine 4 tablespoons oil and salt with 6 tablespoons water and bring to a boil. Slowly pour onto the tapioca, stirring it into a stiff dough with a wooden spoon.

When dough has cooled slightly, stir in egg, then yogurt and, finally, the grated cheese. Grease your hands with an oily piece of paper towel, then form dough into 12 balls. Arrange them on a nonstick baking sheet. Put into preheated 450-degree oven and immediately reduce temperature to 375 degrees. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

You should be able to tell that the rolls are done by the appetizing smell, but you can test for doneness by inserting a skewer; if it comes out clean, they are ready. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 12.

Caipirinha (Lime cocktail)

1 lime

1 tablespoon lime juice

4 teaspoons sugar

2 shots of cachaca (see note)

Ice

Wash the lime well and cut it into wedges. Put them into a bowl along with lime juice and sugar. Squish with mortar. Pour contents into 2 glasses, add the cachaca and fill the glasses with ice. Serve each glass decorated with a slice of lime on the glass rim and a straw. Makes 2 servings.

Note: Cachaca is a sugar cane liquor popular in Brazil and other parts of South America but also available in some U.S. liquor stores.

Vera Calabria is an opera director and freelance writer.


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