Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers, which includes pretty much every expat we’ve ever encountered. This month: Authenticity, Brazilian-style.
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“What’s the most depressing thing I’ve seen this morning?” I demanded of my husband as we arrived at our hotel on that first day in Brazil.
Was it something in my tone of voice that made my husband stick out his jaw? Having your wife positive about a new location is always a good thing. Any hint of wifely discontent can put the terrors into most expat husbands, even the most rufty-tufty oil field types.
“The favelas on either side of the motorway for the entire journey from the airport?” His voice had a slight tone of — could it be? — belligerence. He’d decided to meet head on what he feared was my Western European squeamishness over visible poverty. I’d agreed to come, after all; it wasn’t his doing that the favelas existed.
“Oh.” I felt a pin pricking my outrage. “Actually no. It was the model of the Statue of Liberty outside the shopping mall we passed, the one with the Hard Rock Café.”
Not the voice of a woman with a strong social conscience, then.
“Aren’t we in Brazil?” I asked lamely.
Living in the shadow of the USA
In my defense, I was afraid that this most exciting and culturally rich of countries appeared in thrall to the ego of a foreign superpower. Here, where Christ the Redeemer looks down calmly over Rio and Guanabara Bay, it distressed me that he was unable to turn his cheek from the abominable reproduction Liberty. Such are the drawbacks of being made of stone.
My frustration really hadn’t abated much by the time we left several years later, but it was tempered. Here was a country that had its own great music, landscape, history and food. Brazil’s son Santos Dumont’s first flight had been overshadowed by the earlier but aided take off of the Wright Brothers’ heavier than air plan.
But surely the same could not happen to Brazilian fast food – and at their own hands?
Coxinha — wins the Pepsi Challenge against the Chicken McNugget, any day
When I was in Brazil, workers could fill a canteen with beans, rice, a little meat and some pasta for 5 reais. A meal from McD costs four times that and cannot keep a belly as full for as long. Yet not only was there a Hard Rock Café, Dominos and McDonald’s, but the bloody Statue of Liberty to boot, holding her torch triumphantly aloft as if lighting the invasion of foreign fast food. (I know, I need to get over that tacky statue.)
Brazilian fast food choices, which can be grabbed on the run in a similar way to a hamburger, are extensive. Kibe consists of meat and bulgur wheat shaped into rugby balls and deep-fried. Empadhinas are little pastry pies often filled with palm hearts but options are endless. There are bollinhas de arroz (rice balls) and, a slightly more costly option these days, bollinhas de bacallao (salt cod).
Then there is the coxinha. Oooh, heaven. It is a pear-shaped, breadcrumb-coated, deep-fried confection of pulverized chicken, creamy catupiry cheese, and onion. I don’t want to be rude, but for heaven’s sake, Brazil — how could you choose a chicken nugget over that?
Please. It’s time for a Coxinhas R Brazil brand to sweep all before it.
Turn the milk sour with your grouse? Or simply dance the samba?
Brazilians probably have a greater openness and sense of fun than I do. They seem to tolerate kitschy statues and dodgy food for what it is, just a bit of fun not to be taken as a serious threat to national pride. There is a great deal of pride in being Brazilian and, I’m told, there are as many Americans trying to emigrate to Brazil as vice versa – it is a new land of opportunity.
Brazilians seem less sulky or passive aggressive than many in dealing with what they don’t like. One amusing example came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when America required passengers arriving on planes to America from Brazil to be subject to the same security searches, and delays, as planes coming from countries deemed a threat. Brazil has no history of terrorism and people were offended. However a cheerful approach was chosen. Officials simply decided to apply the same principle to American planes landing in Sao Paolo, Brazilian style. To ease the pain of the wait, passengers were treated to smiling samba bands and charming dancers. Nothing was ever going to change, but the point was made and relations not permanently soured.
A meal fit for a (Burger) King
Perhaps this non-confrontational approach is best. The invasion of American fast food is all-conquering everywhere. Its advance hasn’t been slowed by a thousand angry French farmers and restauranteurs, or by the Italian Slow Food movement. But its growth in Brazil alongside a rapidly emerging obesity crisis comes alongside economic improvements. According to a recent BBC Programme on the rise of obesity around the world and particularly in developing and BRIC countries, the answer is to be found less in the innate appeal of the food, but in the message that is sent out when you’re seen eating it. McDonald’s is an “aspirational food”.
(You might notice that I started a new paragraph rather suddenly. It was to give you a moment to recover from the shock of seeing the words “McDonalds” and “aspiration”, not only in the same sentence, but right next to each other. The idea of being proud to be seen eating fast food is a difficult one that takes time to absorb. I too enjoy the odd foray into the depths of culinary depravity, but I hide the bags – I admit hypocrisy right here. May I continue now?)
You might think you would aspire to a Wolf oven or even a Meile vacuum cleaner, but McDonald’s? No — bear with me. A Brazilian McDonald’s meal costs four times that of a plate of rice and beans. Its cost would buy you any number of coxinhas. It is impressive conspicuous consumption. You pay to eat a meal which won’t actually fill you and you will have to pay to eat again soon after, but the point is: you can.
It’s a fairly modest aspiration for the new middle class. Thousands of Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty over the last 10 years. But potential hunger is still a recent memory and the fear of slipping back must be strong for many. An outrageously priced Big Mac is still less expensive than a ritzy restaurant in Leblon and it’s certainly easier to avoid potentially embarrassing etiquette gaffes for those not yet accustomed to what is known in America as “fine dining”. This is what fast food companies can trade on, and before you know it, new habits are formed.
If you’re going to gain Brazilian pounds, make them worthwhile
Why get fat on this so-so food, though, when you can get gloriously fat on real cooking? You can easily pile on the pounds with Brazilian feijoida, Let the weight gain be a result of leisurely, indulgent meals and not sandwiches grabbed in plastic furnished, fluorescent lighted “restaurants” that are tiled like public lavatories.
I’d say the same to America. Ditch the McD and get fat on Southern and Soul Food, some of the most luscious food in the world. Wow, those Southerners know how to take a healthy low-calorie green vegetable and give it the cholesterol punch of cheesecake. My two personal favourites: collard greens cooked in fatty port cuts and sweet potatoes mashed with butter and topped with a crumble made of brown sugar pecans and a handful of marshmallows. Sounds appalling, but it is the closest thing to ambrosia since Zeus was a viable god to worship.
Both Brazilian and American Soul food has the opulence and indulgence to deaden and dazzle the senses at the same time. It has what a dried up hamburger and flabby white bun bread cannot hope to rival even with liberal dollops of ketchup.
Oh please. Get fat on real fat and be patriotic about that: your nation’s fat.
Make it worth your while.
Make it worth your money.
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”