Image of fruit in a Brazilian supermarket by Julia Georgallis. First published in Spring 2018 for The Bread Companion.
First published in Spring 2018 for The Bread Companion. The sun is sinking over Ipanema and my skin is salty and hot after a day at the beach. We pack up, finish our beers and the sky changes colour. Some people behind us have started dancing, a casual samba in the sand and parents are trying to drag their children from the waves. And then, everyone turns towards Dois Irmãos (the Two Brother’s mountains) and as the sun dips down for the night the beach explodes in applause. The Brazilians are clapping the sunset, giving it a pat on the back, saying ‘thankyou for the day.’ This is not a one off occurrence; it happens often wherever there are Brazilians and a good sunset.
But once the sun has set, and I talk now specifically of Rio, we are warned to go home. Because when darkness arrives the beach is a different, more dangerous place. This is a fairly good analogy of Brazil — laid back and lighthearted, but always with a dark undercurrent. Applauding sunsets. Impromptu dancing in the rain (this, too, happens regularly). Cheering on the bus driver at the beginning of horrendously long bus journeys. It all sounds so naïve. But it is absolutely impossible (and patronising) to romanticise Brazil for very long. So how is it possible, then, for me to feel so comfortable in a country that can be so very uncomfortable? Because, for the record, Brazilian hospitality is absolutely a thing. People are generally accommodating, helpful, patient and don’t really complain even in the face of painfully long queues at the supermarket or bank or Metro. But now and again this hospitality is overridden by an outburst of violence or regularly pickpocketed or accosted on the street. Things, below the surface, are not tudo bom.
I think about my safety often in Brazil, mainly because people remind me constantly that this is not a safe country. But, usually, I don’t worry too much about it and head to the beach and eat an açai bowl or a piece of beach-cheese or a deep fried ball of manioc stuffed with pumpkin and sweetcorn and while my belly is full, I sort of forget about it all again until the next uncomfortable moment. This is comfort food for an uncomfortable place. It is a heavy handed, rich, fried and sugary cuisine that, very often, feels like your mum made it.
I have heard many complaints, however, by fellow backpackers, that Brazilian cuisine lacks variety. I would contest this. There are strange and glorious tropical fruits that are always juicy, often sour and sometimes make your mouth feel weird, used for all kinds of delicious treats like the aforementioned açai or caipirinhas or in desserts. There are avocados as big as my face. There are the cassava based starches – manioc and tapioca mainly which are used for everything from deep frying to making pancakes to cakes to sprinkling over meat. There are sweet things like doce de leite and Portuguese salty exports, like salgados, snacks enveloped in potato or cheese and deep fried sweet bread. There are fantastic barbecues, sushi in the big cities, soups and meaty and fishy stews, different rices and millions of types of beans. It might come in the same sort of format, but it is good food nonetheless and I never don’t feel like eating it.
Acquiring it, too, is also very easy and very fast. It might be assumed that hot, tropical countries do everything quite slowly. This is not really true when it comes to eating in Brazil (with everything else though, it’s spot on). I haven’t spent hours pouring over the internet or wandering around to locate good sustenance. Food is everywhere. It is on each street corner and each main square and on every beach. In fact, it very often just falls into my lap. A very common place to eat is at a por kilo restaurant, which are everywhere and where meals are charged by weight. The atmosphere in these is often like that of a buffet at a family party – there is no waiting, just take what you want, pay, eat and leave. And, in general, Brazilian food is the kind that doesn’t take long to prepare, consisting of one-pot meals and boiled and fried things — Bahians even cook with green bananas and underripe manioc to save time waiting for these things to ripen.
So unlike backpacking in other places, where it might take time to get used to the way of eating, to find good things to eat or good places to eat them, I have wasted none doing these things in Brazil. Having been here for a few months now, there are certainly other things about the country that I find hard and that I’m sure Brazilians themselves find even harder. So it is nice that, two or three times a day, there are no surprises when we eat — important in a country where so many other things do come as a surprise and are not always so easy.