Denver, Denver, What Nice Churrasco You Have!
8 July, 2011 § 2 Comments
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.
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!
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.
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.