Austin, Texas: Round Two, Part 2 (Casa Brasil)

28 October, 2011 § Leave a comment

Welcome to Austin

That says it all!

My second interview stop in Austin started and ended with some of the (in my opinion) paramount elements of Brazilian culture: parties! Coffee was involved – Casa Brasil Coffees to be exact – and my weekend encounters with the proprietors of that coffee company all began on Friday night at a party called BREWED AWAKENING. I originally learned about Casa Brasil Coffees through Elias and Ben over at Rio’s Brazilian Café on my first trip to Austin last June, but I ran out of time on that trip and was not able to make contact with anyone at Casa Brasil.

Logo courtesy of Casa Brasil

So when I arrived in the city this time I found out that Casa Brasil was hosting a shindig/benefit at a local bar for the launching of their bicycle-delivery service. Yes, it is now possible to not only get their coffee at one of the many area grocery stores, restaurants or farmers markets; it can be delivered via pedal power to a home or business too! Before arriving, I spoke briefly with Joel Shuler, an American and the owner of Casa Brasil, on the phone but had not yet met him in person. Here is a little background on Joel according to Casa Brasil’s website: “Born in Michigan and raised in Iowa, Joel’s interest in Brazilian Coffee began in his teens when he was accepted into the youth program of Gremio Foot-Ball Porto Alegrense in Brazil. Though injury cut his soccer career short, his passion for Brazil remained. He learned about Brazilian coffee through months on the ground, visiting producers, co-ops, and universities to learn how quality coffee is grown and identify those growers that are producing it. One of few to have both the Q Grade Certification and the Port of Santos [city in Brazil] Cupping and Classification License, Joel holds a deep respect for those that grow, research, cup, and help bring about great coffee. He feels that every cup is a new experience, and that learning to appreciate coffee can truly add pleasure to one’s life.” This gringo guy clearly would understand why I was dedicating so much time to Brazilian culture.

Logo courtesy of http://blog.casabrasilcoffees.com/When I entered the party I actually met his gorgeous, Brazilian wife Lisiane Shuler first who was selling bags of coffee and handing out flyers about the company as Austin Hipsters swigged micro-brewed beers and two lanky-yet-muscular young men pedaled their hearts out on stationary bikes in some kind of drunken competition. I introduced myself to Lisi and we got to talking…and talking…and talking! I knew immediately I had found a lady with similar interests about Brazilian culture and the world. Also quoted from Casa Brasil’s website, Lisi officially “was born and raised in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil and graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Master’s degree in Social Work. Through the Sabor e Progresso Initiative, Lisi helps Casa Brasil to empower coffee communities in her native Brazil through programs like Casa Brasil’s Merit Scholarship Program for the children of coffee producers and English classes for coffee communities. Apart from her work at Casa Brasil she has worked with Coffee Kids through the ADESPA project in Acatenango, Guatemala, and as counselor for MUSADE in Costa Rica helping victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.” Wow! AND she also helped her husband with their coffee business!

Pamonha

Pamonha

Back at the bicycle party, Joel had arrived and I was invited to join them at their home that coming Sunday for yet another party, this one involving getting my hands literally on some homemade Brazilian food and the chance to do some interviews. Some of Lisi’s friends hailing from the Brazilian state of Goiás (in the middle of the country and where the capitol Brasília is located) were coming over to make pamonha, a Brazilian-style tamale served both savory and sweet that is as popular on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro as it is in the farm country of the interior. Traditionally, pamonha is associated with the Festa Junina (June Festival) that was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and celebrates several Catholic saints and the end of the harvest season. Similar to Carnaval (but usually with more clothing involved since June is Brazil’s wintertime after all), people also like to dress up but instead here to look like “country people.” They do some dancing (a quadrilha, or type of square dance in this case), they play particular kinds of music (forró is the most popular, which personally sounds similar to what is found in Cajun Country in the U.S.); they eat special foods like pamonha and a cake made from aipim (manioc/cassava/yucca); and in general they just want an excuse to get together with friends and family and have a giant party. For me, the pamonha-making party was a great film-making and cultural opportunity, even if we were not planning to sport the gaudy costumes!

On Sunday I arrived hungry and excited to the Shuler’s place, armed with some additional filming equipment (my Canon T2i DSLR, the ZOOM audio recorder, and the Audio-Tecnica lavalier mic), and an “assistant” (my friend Adam Wetherington, a professional cook by trade) who doubled as a second cinematographer as well as another hand in the kitchen. We both learned a lot about the       challenges of shooting a documentary in a group setting of strangers in extreme lighting conditions, and how to make pamonha from scratch. I also looked forward to testing my translation abilities, as almost the entire shoot would be filmed in Portuguese.

Toninho grating the fresh corn, with Sarah assisting (in foreground)

Toninho grating the fresh corn, with Sarah assisting (in foreground)

The whole process centered on Toninho and Elaine Rodrigues, a Brazilian couple whose adeptness at and zeal for making pamonha was impressive. My introduction to them was to first see Toninho sitting outside on the warm porch, hunched over a large, clear plastic container, fervently working away on a huge grater of his own design, and with a beaming smile that stayed on his face the entire day, and therefore a perfect magnet for the camera! I did not even have to ask why making pamonhas from scratch was worth all of the hard work; his blissful expression alone amid the perspiration explained it all! While Toninho was sort of the rock star, his wife Elaine was the tour manager. She hung out and enjoyed the nice weather with their young daughter in a hammock chair, and approvingly smirked at her husband’s comfortability with being center stage, all the while unassumingly directing the food preparation traffic. In the end, it was Elaine who made it all come together into a meal.

The pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) is ready

Pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread)

Though, let me not overlook or downplay Lisi’s role in all of this! Her colorful, bright kitchen was where milk was added to the raw corn mixture and it was seasoned (either with sugar or salt), stuffed into corn husks, expertly folded and packaged (under Elaine’s guidance), and finally boiled to form individual pamonhas. Lisi also was in charge of baking fresh pão de queijo (our appetizers) and preparing the side dishes for the savory pamonha (tender, shredded and fried beef, and diced, sauteed zucchini). Delicious! Both of these ladies more than anyone else also endured the sweltering heat in the kitchen as the Texas sun got higher in the sky outside, and the boiling water, hot oven, and multiple stove burners turned the inside into a realistic reproduction of the tropical weather common during Brazilian summers.

Making pamonha: filling the husks with corn mixture

Adam gets some lessons from Elaine on how to properly stuff and fold the pamonha mixture into the corn husks.

Making pamonha: working on stuffing/tieing techniques

Adam and Lisi work on their stuffing and tieing techniques.

Like many Brazilian gatherings I have been to, the atmosphere was light-hearted, communal, and full of animated conversations. Kids, pets and other guests (including another American woman who was fluent in Portuguese) roamed in and out of rooms. The women gathered on the porch to chat or they helped out in the kitchen. The men also did their part with the food preparation, but more often than not they paused in front of the big-screen television set to check in on the progress of their preferred futebol (soccer) team as they competed in a match being beamed in from Brazil via satellite. Toninho also pulled me aside to show me YouTube videos about his hometown of Goiânia and how proud he is of it. As he stated several times during the official interview, eating pamonhas was a way to conserve a bond to Brazil that he was willing to move away from, but not completely abandon. Food provided a tangible medium through which he could express his longing to be near Brazil again, even if just for an afternoon.

Prato feito (made plate)

Prato feito ("made plate") of (clockwise from little package in background) sweet pamonha, sautéed zucchini, Brazilian-style rice, shredded/fried beef, savory pamonha.

So what about the food? Well, if the speed at which everyone swallowed first the pães de queijo (how it is spelled in plural form), then the savory, “entrée” pamonhas with the beef, zucchini and rice, and finally the sweetened variety as dessert was an indication of how spectacular it all tasted, then know that after almost five hours of preparation, plates were licked clean and everyone was stuffed within probably twenty minutes after being served! To me, everything was perfect that day: time spent with friends both familiar and new, there was sunshine and nice weather, we were given a warm reception into an unknown place, the food was unforgettable, new kitchen skills were learned, Brazilian futebol was on the TV (though not my team Botafogo), informative film footage was shot, conversations were had in my adopted language, and above all I was reaffirmed that I was headed in the right direction with this project. Phew!

Bye, bye for now Austin! I hope to see you again soon, and this time for a much longer spell of time (i.e., as my new home). After all, if my new Brazilian friends can call it home, then I think it is also the right place for me!

PS…Also check out Casa Brasil’s blog and Facebook page!

Advertisements

Austin, Texas: Round Two, Part 1 (Rio’s Brazilian Café)

26 October, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rio's Brazilian Café - Exterior sign

Rio's Brazilian Café - Exterior sign

Yep, I went back. That little, ol’ country-city town has me smitten! I also wanted to do some actual filming this time so I first returned to Rio’s Brazilian Café (where I visited last June) to catch up with co-owner Elias Martins who is originally from the marvelous city of Rio de Janeiro. (When I was there before I spoke mainly with Elias’s partner Ben Googins: an aficionado on Brazil to be sure, but also an American, so by default he was sort of disqualified from being a focus of my interview.) This time around I was invited into the inner sanctum of the kitchen to see where Elias, Ben, and the rest of the staff make all the magic happen. We chatted (gossiped really); we snacked on pão de queijo (cheese bread); we salivated over some of the tropical ingredients that are essential to Brazilian cooking (manioc root, coffee, squashes, fruits like mango and passion fruit); then we got down to this business of an interview.

Tropical ingredients

Tropical ingredients (from left to right) - acorn squash, Casa Brasil coffee, aipim/mandioca.

When I first began to ask Elias questions I got a little nervous. I would ask how cooking Brazilian food on a daily basis and literally having his hands in the recipes of his birthplace kept him connected to his cultural roots. But surprisingly to me, he would reply that he does not have strong ties to his Brazilian cultural heritage, and that he prefers hamburgers to feijoada (Brazil’s national dish). Elias did not seem to have the knee-jerk sentimental reaction towards Brazilian food and cultural memories in the way that I had seen invoked from other people born in that same South American country. Were my previous observations incorrect? Was my entire project one big false extrapolation of generalizations that I had made of a culture not my own by birth? I could just hear Malinowski applauding me. On the other hand, maybe I was actually hearing Durkheim reminding me that the actions of one individual do not always reflect the characteristics of an entire society, especially in our modern world of globalization and the constant movement and adaptation of cultures. No one person can be a cultural ambassador to her or his home country of origin. Nor should they! After all, every time I traveled abroad and someone implored me to give an explanation for the societal ways of the United States or expected me to only want to eat hot dogs, they were always sorely disappointed by my antagonistic responses. Why should a Brazilian living here be any different?

Elias Martins

Elias Martins

After reviewing our interview, I also stepped back and tried to temper my over-analytical mind and just listen to what Elias had said. I realized that what he had actually tried to get across was that he indeed does love food from Brazil, he is grateful that his grandmother had shared recipes and preparation techniques with him when he was younger, that it was great to grow up tasting and smelling delicious regional ingredients, and that he today has a knack for translating those memories into Brazilian-style dishes here in the U.S. Cultural heritage is not only about links to the past; memories of the past have to continue living into the present and future if they are to survive. Updates to conventional ways of cooking therefore are a natural evolution in food culture.

Cheese bread dreams

An advertisement found on a table in the restaurant for their commercial, frozen pão de queijo.

Elias demonstrated this notion by not keeping to the cuff on his “traditional” recipes. For instance, in all of my travels around Brazil I had never heard of using any other ingredients in pão de queijo other than manioc flour, water, salt, a strong-tasting cheese, and some kind of fat, usually lard or vegetable oil. But Elias had gone and added basil and roasted red peppers as optional flavors! O que é isso? (What the heck?) True, his choices were unconventional, but it equally made sense to include such flavors in order to impress the cosmopolitan tastes of the foodie residents of Austin, not to mention that Elias just liked basil and roasted red pepper himself!

In the interview he also mentioned that he had the training and skill to make more upscale Brazilian cuisine (like what is found in churrascarias, for example), but opted instead to prepare “everyday” foods that every person could afford to eat and enjoy. Making changes to “common” dishes is also more acceptable in general, so the types of food that Elias served gave him more freedom to experiment. Most people are alright with adding a pinch of an unfamiliar spice to a mainstream dish, or substituting one unusual ingredient in place of another known one. The complete alteration of an expensive cut of meat, however, takes more convincing. The seemingly fine line between a chef trying to be innovative or just plain shameless is easier to test when making dishes that she or he has made a thousand times. Such creative licensing clearly delighted Elias.

Aipim frito (Fried manioc, yucca, cassava)

Aipim frito (Fried manioc, yucca, cassava). Elias putting the finishing touches on an order of fried aipim sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and accompanied by a creamy dipping sauce. In the foreground is a plate of the various flavors of pão de queijo. Oh, and there's a mango.

On the day that I was there inquires into my love life, and freshly fried aipim (also called mandioca in Portuguese, or yucca, cassava, or manioc in English, it is a root vegetable similar in taste to a potato but a little starchier and sweeter) were what brought a smile to Elias’s face. Brazilian food may have been what originally introduced us to each other, but it was American Pop Culture and a good laugh about life that connected us. And that relationship gets at the very essence of what my project wants to examine. By the way Elias, I like Cher too!

Little Brazil: A Store With Big Potential And An Even Bigger Heart!

20 October, 2011 § Leave a comment

Emporio Do Brasil (now called Little Brazil)

(Now called Little Brazil)

One of my most successful visits so far was in Denver, Colorado and at a shop called Little Brazil (though it was still called Emporio do Brasil when I was there). The shop was tucked deep in a corner of a small shopping center in the outlying area of Westminster and although it was a bit of a challenge to locate on the map, once I stepped inside and met one of the business partners, Kallen Marques, all of my reservations melted away and I knew I had found the perfect place/person for my project!

Kallen Marques

Kallen Marques

Kallen is one of those people who really enjoys living between two worlds, so to speak, and is successful at it on both planes. All I had to do was put the camera in front of her and off she went into tales of new identities in the United States, memories of places and people in Brazil, the balance of finding common threads between the two, and how food and the food culture of her past has always been a link to her present-tense life. She was articulate and exuberant (in fact, I watched her eyes glaze over as she spoke) when I posed questions about how she was able to maintain a connection to the cultural heritage of Brazil; in other words, how to keep a piece of her roots alive even while living in a new country whose customs are usually compatible, but often just do not mesh together very well. Kallen has found a way to immerse herself in American culture while simultaneously giving Brazil a giant hug of yearning and appreciation. According to Kallen, running a business that sells Brazilian food and cooking family dishes helps her do this.

Brigadeiro

Brigadeiro - A desert that Kallen stayed up all night making for a celebration hosted by Little Brazil and that conjures up warm memories of Brazil for many people from the country.

When I met Kallen, she and her partner had just taken over management and had a lot of plans for directions in which they wanted to take the shop. That was in June. Since then Emporio do Brasil became Little Brazil; they now email out a weekly newsletter (in both English and Portuguese) that informs customers of new arrivals to the store or products they could not get from Brazil that week/month, in addition to upcoming events hosted by Little Brazil or another Brazilian spot in the city; and a revamped website with information on their history as a business, catering services, community events, and any other tidbit of information that a person interested in Brazil, but living in the Denver area, would want know. The store is growing and is now cemented as a central location for anyone who longs for (or wants to learn about) Brazil.

Several times in the interview Kallen asked if she was rambling too much or was going off on tangents that did not pertain to my line of questioning. All I could say then, and am even more assured of after reviewing the film footage is, “Keep talking!” I greatly appreciated that she had such a passion for Brazilian food and I felt as if we were kindred spirits when we discussed it and food in general. Regardless of the cultural relationships associated with our personal food traditions and differences in language, climate and general upbringing, we still giggled like little girls as we recalled a particular dessert that we both loved in Brazil and how both of our grandmothers had such idiosyncratic ways when they cooked. It was if we were unable to control our excitement about a special secret that only we were privy to. But what was obvious in that one, lovely afternoon spent conversing with Kallen in Little Brazil, was that the utter joy that springs from memories of past food traditions is anything but a secret!

So many folks get a tug on the ol’ heart string when they remember favorite foods and the circumstances around which those items were prepared and eaten. Recreating those recipes and sharing them with friends (even new gringa ones), or even just recalling those connections and documenting them in a student film, are a few ways to keep cultural heritage living and breathing in the here and now…and exactly what I want to examine in my project. Thanks Kallen!

Denver, Denver, What Nice Churrasco You Have!

8 July, 2011 § 2 Comments

45065115_40fdc25f83_z

Churrasco in the city of Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Image courtesy of setesete77 on Flickr.com.

There is a beloved food tradition in Brazil as engrained into the cultural psyche of Brazilians as it is in Americans: the BBQ. They call it “churrasco” (pronounced “shoo-HAS-coo”) in Portuguese but it is the same idea as we have in The States – meat lovingly seasoned and tended to over an open fire – not to mention the general allure and dare I say “instinctual” seductiveness that barbecuing has over the male gender. Time and again (in both countries) I have seen men morph into a different kind of creature when BBQ is mentioned; men who in their daily lives would not dare “cook” a meal unless it involved everything in instant form coming from boxes or the frozen dinner aisle, or who would serve food that is actually take-out disguised slyly as home cooking because it is eaten off of real plates (versus Styrofoam). Suddenly their cooking phobias evaporate and they swarm around the grill to competitively give their two cents about preparation methods and to monitor/critique the techniques of the other men busying themselves with charcoal and tongs and furrowed, perspiring brow. I have to say though, as much as I like the American versions of a sloppy, pulled-pork sandwich and a sizzling, fat burger with pickles, when it comes to steak I prefer the Brazilian interpretation of barbecued beef.

2881916366_476e76da83

Modern Brazilian gaúchos showing off their horse-riding skills in the city of Pelotas, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Image courtesy of gui.tavares on Flickr.com.

The only thing you will find on steak at a churrasco is extra course sea salt, which naturally draws out the flavors but keeps the juices in tact. This kind of cooking developed in Brazil after it became one of the first South American countries to import and raise cattle in the 16th Century. The animals thrived in the southeastern part of the country, mainly in the state named Rio Grande do Sul, on the great grassland plains or “Campos” (called “Pampas” in Spanish) where the climate was more mild and there was plenty of space for them to graze. Then, as things often evolve with cuisine traditions, the locals tending to the cattle developed social customs and techniques for making food that made sense if you are cohabiting with giant, domesticated pasture animals. These Brazilian cowboys called “gaúchos” (pronounced “gow-OO-shoos” in Portuguese) are the same as their Argentine and Uruguayan neighbor to the South, the “gaucho.” These hard-working guys had lifestyles that were in tandem with the world around them and when they made food, they utilized what was at their disposal in the environment and in ways that were as low maintenance as possible. That meant lots of free-range beef (before it was a trendy term), void of any fancy toppings or sauces that would have had to be lugged into the open country along with other supplies (besides, why would you want to cover up the taste of such high-quality meat with unnecessary flavorings), and cooked on rotisserie-style spits over an open, wood-burning fire. Not too shabby!

IMG_0698

Some of the buffet options at a churrascaria.

In our modern day of wanting convenience food, the churrascaria (pronounced “shoo-HAS-ca-REE-ah,” which is a restaurant that serves churrasco, as well as a cold/hot buffet) has become a popular choice in Brazil and the US for eating out…and eating A LOT of food! Let’s start with the buffet. As is commonplace in The States, all-you-can-eat restaurants are as user-friendly as they are calorie-busting, which only seems to add to their appeal! Although you will not find mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, or apple pie at a churrascaria, you will however see mayonnaise-based macaroni salad, finely chopped collard greens, and several kinds of desserts topped with sweetened, condensed milk. There is always a savory cold side with salad components, fruit, and breads like pão de queijo (cheese bread mentioned in the Austin entries); a hot section of stews, rice, beans, and other specialties; and then the dessert tray.

Now that the “appetizers,” have been covered, let us talk about the main course: the meat! I mean, the grilled meat is the real reason to come to a churrascaria in the first place! How it works here is that spry Brazilian men wearing gaúcho costumes (see photo above) emerge from the kitchen clutching giant, metal skewers of various cuts of beef, pork loin, sausages, chicken legs, or the at-first-intimidating-but-once-you-just-try-them-you-will-be-surprised-at-how-good-they-are (especially with a squeeze of fresh lime) chicken hearts. On each table is a token, flag, or other sort of marker that is color coded with red on one side, and green on the other. The servers do laps around the dining room to display whichever meat selection they have ready and if the green side of the marker on your table is facing up, it tells the server that you give the “GO” light to have him stop by and slice you a piece of that particular meat, which you pull off with small tongs. When you are stuffed and finished eating (or just need a few minutes to rest), flip the marker to red and it reads as a “Do Not Disturb” sign to the servers.

IMG_0705

Picanha steak

While this all may seem a bit like a Disneyland dinner show, I assure you the campiness is worth it! My mother and I gave it a shot at Rodizio Grill (“rodízio” means “rotation” in English) in the LoDo district of Denver, Colorado. Like most of the churrascarias that I have seen in the US it is a larger franchise, which usually makes me doubtful that the food will be as tasty as in a mom-and-pop restaurant. Also like most of my experiences at these restaurants, its corporate exterior did NOT affect the quality of anything we ate! We started with the salgadinhos (pronounced “sal-ga-GEEN-nyos,” and also discussed in one of the Austin entries) or finger foods of some kind of fried corn fritters and pães de queijo (the plural spelling) that were brought to the table when we sat down. Next was the buffet. After that were the brochettes of meat including my favorite picanha (pronounced “pee-CAHN-ya”) or tri-tip steak (also known as rump-cap or rump cover), which is considered the best cut of beef available in many South American countries. I have a note though about the done-ness of beef. I like rare to medium-rare steak with no exceptions, but that is uncharacteristic in Brazil where under-cooked beef is NOT the norm. Therefore, the photo to the right is not typical of how most Brazilians eat their steak. In fact, when I lived there I received a lot of raised eyebrows when I ate it this way. Finally, my mother and I concluded our meal with fried bananas sprinkled with sugar. Phew!

Although churrascarias are not the most intimate way to get to know Brazilian food (and does not even include the regional specialties famous in other parts of the country), it is fun and they give you a large selection to choose from, so that no matter what you include in your diet you should be able to find something to your liking on the menu. For more reading on churrasco in general check out this entry by Food University, or learn more about the specifics of the practice in Brazil by Maria-Brazil and The Rio Times.

Cincinnati, Ohio…O Brazilians, Where For Art Thou?

22 June, 2011 § Leave a comment

IMG_0639

Well, I already knew when I returned home to Cincinnati, Ohio that the Brazilian population there was sparse to say the least because in years past I have searched the city for anyone hailing from that-lovely-tropical-country-in-South-America-that-does-NOT-speak-Spanish, with little luck. I have found a few Brazilian folks scattered around town but no one was able to meet with me in the brief time I was there so this time around I was resolved to leave Cincinnati having not encountered any Brazilian-ness whatsoever. To my surprise I randomly met a man who worked a produce stand at Findlay Market in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood downtown. He told me he got this T-shirt when Brazil won the World Cup in 2002 and it is his favorite shirt. Hey, whether or not you were born in a country or just appreciate it, showing Brazil pride is nice to see!

IMG_0637

PS…Two summers ago when I was home I went to Boi Na Braza Churrascaria Brazilian Steakhouse and I had a wonderful meal! As far as I know this restaurant is the only one of its kind in Cincinnati but it is popular so hopefully on my next visit, there will be more Brazilian places to check out!

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Rio’s Brazilian Café (in Austin, TX)

15 June, 2011 § 1 Comment

(Before reading this post please press play and soak up the tropical breezes with the band Pink Martini while you read this.)

IMG_0505

Bolinho de Aipim de Queijo (Little ball of manioc and cheese)

What can I say…I am a sucker for mandioca (as the Brazilians call it)! This is interesting to me since I am not a huge fan of the common potato. Not sure what mandioca is? Read up on this staple tuberous root vegetable (also known as manioc, yuca, yucca or cassava and often substituted for a similar tuber called aipim in Brazil) here, here or here to learn why it is the basis of most diets in tropical countries. In fact, Native Brazilians like the Tupi have been cultivating mandioca and including it in their cultural food heritage for as long as anyone can remember. As for myself, I grew up in the Northern Hemisphere, in Ohio, where the closest to “tropical” we ever got was a Piña Colada or extra pineapple on a “Hawaiian” pizza! So when I moved to the humid, palm-tree regions of Costa Rica and Brazil I was exposed to mandioca (called yucca in most Spanish-speaking countries) for the first time.

IMG_0507_2

Pão de Queijo (Cheese bread)

In the US, we have a popular dessert called tapioca that involves little gelatinous balls resembling spider eggs in a sweet, milk-based pudding. Well, tapioca has a gummy texture because it too comes from the mandioca root. So imagine what would happen if you took that root, peeled it, dried it and ground it down to a flour, then used it as other cultures would use wheat, rice or corn. What you would get is a stretchy and soft “bread” dough that could be used to make anything from the Brazilian version of tapioca (which looks more like a sweet or savory crepe), to pão de queijo (cheese bread), to mandioca frita (fried manioc, which tastes like a sweeter, starchier french fry). At Rio’s Brazilian Café my beloved mandioca is properly utilized in many of the appetizer dishes including the Bolinho de Aipim de Carne, which as the café’s menu reads is “Yuca root pastry stuffed with ground beef, garlic, Serrano peppers, and scallions, then rolled in toasted yuca flour and deep fried”; Bolinho de Aipim de Queijo, the same bolinho as the last one only stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese and roasted red pepper; and of course pão de queijo, but with the option of basil, roasted red pepper or regular flavors!

IMG_0504

Salgadinho (finger food) sample platter

Despite the immense size (the 5th largest country in the world with a population of 203,429,773 people as of July 2011) and ethnic diversity of Brazil, salgadinhos (appetizers/finger foods, pronounced SAL-ga-gee-nose with the “gee” like the “g” in “giant” if you are from the state of Rio de Janeiro – otherwise it sounds more like a softer “dg” sound) are what every Brazilian seems to identify as food that everyone in the country can relate to. The only things that people argue over are the specific ingredients used on the inside, or preparation techniques used in a particular region or family’s food traditions. I think that is why I like Rio’s Brazilian Café’s subtle “Americanizing” of some of the salgadinhos that they sell like, for example, using smoked Gouda cheese and basil in a few of them. This allows the history and cultural identity to traditional foods to stay the same, but with a nod to the diversity of flavors in the United States, which after all, is where the restaurant lives. In-house Brazilian and co-owner of Rio’s Brazilian Café is Elias Martins, a “Carioca” (a person from the city of Rio de Janeiro). He is the gorgeous man behind these food creations and the go-to source for questions about all things Brazilian. Watch the video below from Good Day Austin‘s cooking segment to see Elias and his American partner Ben Googins (who himself lived in Brazil for many years) do their thing and make basic pão de queijo and caipirinhas. If you do not know what the latter is, watch and get thirsty!

I see adaptations to age-old food recipes as metaphors for the adjustments Brazilians (or any newcomer to another country) must make in order to come to peace with the sometimes jarring differences one comes across when trying to eat, yet still hold on to what is familiar, in your new home. For instance, when I lived in Brazil I remember constantly being frustrated with the thinner texture and melt-ability of mozzarella cheese there. It never took on that “crispy cheese” flavor that I like. I never liked Brazilian pizza for that reason despite trying it over and over again. My compromise was that I ordered extra toppings to mask the flavor of the cheese and compensate for the general lack of tomato sauce used under the cheese. Other expats I met all around Latin America had similar ways of bringing their comfort foods abroad with them. I knew a Brit that when she located PG Tips tea from England in a random shop in Costa Rica, instantly hugged the box and closed her eyes like a child on Christmas morning; an Italian in Buenos Aires, Argentina who searched high and low for freshly made pesto and when she finally discovered it in a tiny, Italian pasta shop bought two orders and ate half of one straight out of the container with a spoon, glossed-over eyes, and a beaming grin; and a Danish friend in Brazil whose family visited her and brought over black, salted licorice that left the taste of rubbery sea water in my mouth, but that made her loudly squeal with delight when the bag was given to her.

IMG_0517

Dessert - (Left) Mousse de Chocolate com Maracujá

Desert was also served at Rio’s Brazilian Café and boy was it luscious! My friend and I  ate a rich chocolate and passion fruit mousse served with fresh whipped cream, and the dessert special of the day, which was creamy rice pudding with coconut milk. Yum!!!

They also serve and sell a medium and dark-roasted coffee (the only way it is prepared in Brazil) called Casa Brasil that is made literally down the street from the café by an American guy that (like myself) fell in love with Brazil and wanted to do something tangible with his passion. He purchases the beans in bulk from a sustainable farm and brings them back to Austin himself, thereby cutting out the business Middle Man and ensuring that the beans are fresh. Casa Brasil also works with environmental and social groups in Brazil to help make coffee a viable, ethically produced product that a worker can be proud to represent. Check out the video below to hear the man himself speak about his work.

Another example of this dedication to one’s adopted country (even if you do not still live there) is Ben Googins, the co-owner of Rio’s Brazilian Café. His enthusiasm for Brazil and its food is enough to convince any boxed-mac-and-cheese-with-hamburger-eating-American into an aficionado of churrasco, bife à milanesa or feijoada, the last of which also happens to be the national dish of Brazil. Ben explained to me many of the idiosyncrasies of Brazilians living in Austin, TX and while I will not divulge any of the local gossip he let slip, I will say that (just as I expected) the Brazilian expat community there is different from what I encountered in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. It seems that for most Brazilians in Austin, they tend to pair up with an American partner and they independently create their own family unit that stays less intertwined with a large, central Brazilian community. There are big cultural celebrations that bring os brasileiros together like fantastic Acadêmicos da Ópera Samba School of dancers and drummers that prepare for Carnaval each year at the Palmer Events Center, but in general cultural heritage is something Brazilians living in Austin hold onto in private rather than en mass. I wonder if that is why Rio’s Brazilian Café is such a success: Brazilians living in that city are starved for a taste of home in the form of food, drink, music, atmosphere and memories, and this restaurant delivers all of those details.

The interior is warm, visually entertaining, and reminiscent of being in a local eatery in Brazil where many a “restaurant” is no more than a few tables set up in/outside of a person’s home. It is laid back and welcoming!

IMG_0511

Rio's Brazilian Café Interior (Click on photo to see larger version)

IMG_0510

Rio's Brazilian Café Interior (Click on photo to see larger version)

The exterior is like the colorful, tropical hangout you hope to see when going to a place with “Brazil” in the title! With the balmy weather and plethora of sunshine in Austin, a patio or outdoor eating area is also a requirement for any restaurant there. Sitting under a green-grass umbrella shading the super-brightly colored tables and chairs, and knowing I was about to eat some tasty morsels was reason enough to just sit back and smile! Bon appetite! Tchau!

IMG_0519

Rio's Brazilian Café Exterior

PS…check out Rio’s Brazilian Café’s very own YouTube channel and other video and photo links to all the fun stuff Elias and Ben are up to!

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Oh Austin…My Oh My!

8 June, 2011 § 1 Comment

IMG_0459

Partial view of downtown Austin.

IMG_0580

Plaque on the exterior wall of the College of Communication building on UT's campus.

I had intended to visit this artsy, Foodie, liberal-leaning, “Blue”-dot-in-the-middle-of-“Red”-Country city for a long time. I already knew that this capital of Texas was named “The Live Music Capital of the World” as it is the home of such music festivals as Austin City Limits and South By Southwest (SXSW) – which also includes a fabulous film festival – and that it has a great university (UT Austin). In fact, a visit to the school whose mascot is named after Texas longhorn cattle was one of my main incentives for visiting this city in the first place. As a student of Anthropology, Film and Media Production, and Brazilian Cultural Studies I knew that UT Austin had reputable programs and resources in these areas so I wanted to check them out as an option for graduate school. Once we met in person, the university and I became fast friends! There was a good variety of architecture on campus ranging from the brand-new Student Activity Center (which is a beacon of modernity and where the Anthropology Department lives on its top floors), to the iconic bell tower of the campus’ main building that was re-built in 1937, to the Victorian-style Littlefield Home from 1893 that literally stands as an eccentric example of a different era’s innovative design. Despite its modest exterior, I too was impressed by the Radio-Television-Film Department of the College of Communication where high-tech equipment somehow felt at home among the well-loved, army bunker-like studios that produced programs like the Austin City Limits Live TV show, which was broadcast from 1974 until last year (when it was moved to the Moody Theater in the downtown W Hotel).

IMG_0585

Main building bell tower on UT's campus, built 1937.

I also already knew about the well-respected academic and extracurricular activities sponsored by the university’s Brazil Center as part of the Latin American Studies Program. Had I visited the campus during the school year I could have seen a movie at the Brazilian Film Series, or listened to a visiting speaker talk about Brazilian music or other cultural gem. I had checked the Center’s events calendar well in advance and realized that like most university goings-on, they were rather limited during the summer. Instead I expanded my search for Brazilian food culture and looked out into the larger city population. Before I arrived in Austin I had made contact with a handful of Brazilians that both worked in some sort of food business, or were involved with socio-cultural activities such as Capoeira (Brazilian-style dance/martial art) or drumming and dancing groups who perform for Carnaval celebrations every year in town. I had arranged to meet, greet, interview, photograph, film, and/or just sit and chat with these folks. Unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned.

This blog is not just the virtual record version of my senior thesis; it is also a forum where I can vent my personal experiences and grievances with the project. So I will be honest. From the beginning I knew that I was going into this project with high expectations to do something culturally significant (since that is what I am in school to do after all); that I would have fun with novel, yet somewhat unfamiliar media (so that people would be interested in following my work); while often being restricted to a tight time frame in which to work; and all the while contending with my ever-present “Super Woman” complex that makes me think I can accomplish anything I set my mind to as long as I stick with it and “make it happen.” Ha! Obviously I was going to have problems!

To make a long story short, I got flustered in Austin. Don’t get me wrong, some productive side effects of all my neuroses did occur. My OWLE Bubo did great things to both wide-angle and close-up views, the Case Mate fuel cell rescued me several times, and I really like the ProCamera app as a way to improve the limitations of video capabilities in low-light settings, which for me is the major shortcoming of the phone’s default camera. I also got quite a few inquires from curious passers-by who saw me fiddling with the OWLE, so I was able to spread the good word about this newfangled device.

But, the more taxing situations kept distracting me. The design of the OWLE blocks the phone’s internal flash unit. The phone case that cradles the phone into the device is thin, making me nervous about keeping it in the case when doing normal phone functions. There is only one input jack on the iPhone, which is fine if you only want to plug in a headset but not very handy when recording long videos where you need headphones AND an external microphone. The powerful, cold shoe-mounted, external LED light that I bought to brighten up dark scenes works wonderfully IF I want to light something large and far away, but it bleaches everything out if I use it with the macro lens on something close by. Several of the Brazilian contacts that I had prearranged to meet fell through or time just got away from me once I had to operate in the city. Finally, after counting on the opportunity to film several people while in town, in the end I was only able to get still photos of one Brazilian restaurant and a Brazilian-esque cocktail.

All that said, my time spent in Austin was splendid! After a few days a very good friend there cheered me on when I was getting stressed out and reminded me that I have to keep my head about me and stay positive. He was right. Every struggle is a learning experience. After all, even Super Woman can have an off day (or week), and cannot possibly be invincible all of the time! Sometimes a lady has to shove the mental Kryptonite aside and just carry on!

IMG_0566

"Lake" Austin at sunset.

Challenges:

  • Staying focused in a new, exciting town
  • Being able to stick to an agenda when there is a lot to do in a short period of time
  • Coordinating with people I have never met and who are also on tight schedules
  • Adjusting to the technical learning curve necessary when using new film/video equipment
  • Not getting too frustrated when things do not turn out the way I had hoped they would
  • Getting this post written in a timelier fashion

Successes:

  • Met fascinating people and ate amazing food
  • Got a better perspective on the city from the locals’ point of view
  • Got a better perspective on the Brazilian scene from the locals’ point of view
  • Will be applying to UT for graduate school and would really like to live in Austin
  • Learned more about how I should organize/prepare myself for upcoming Denver’s shoots

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………