Category Archives: Food and health

It’s cookie time!

Cookie Party: USA Edition Season 14 (2014).
Well, at least Olafs excited
Well, Olaf’s excited at least

What started as a benign holiday tradition involving a few high school girl friends has now turned into more of a deranged personal obsession. For every one of the past 15 years, with the exception of the fall I lived in Spain, I’ve hosted a “Christmas” cookie making and decorating party—pretty much anything you (or a perverse college kid) can think of, I’ve seen it in cookie form. The tradition might have died peacefully in my freshman college dorm room that first December away from home, but I had already realized that in college, there are two simple means through which to make new friends: alcohol or food. Much to my grandmother’s confusion (“but what do you do at parties?”), I chose the latter.

And so it was one chilly Chicago day, that I found myself hurrying down a smoke-filled stairwell with a few hundred of my suddenly not-so-biggest fans. Whose idea was it anyway to put thick odor-blocking double doors between the kitchen where I was throwing cookies in the oven and the suite where people were decorating them? Later college cookie parties were more successful, which is to say, I don’t remember setting off any more fire alarms. After I graduated, it was only logical to bring the cookie-making to my new math teaching job at a boarding school, especially in my official capacity as faculty advisor to the new “cultural cuisine club” (college counseling took issue with “baking club” as an extracurricular activity). Now, five years of 30+ person, grad school cookie parties later, I knew that, even if my friends would just  be humoring the crazy gringa, the tradition had to be brought to Sao Paulo.

This proved to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. Thanks to a little help from
the internet, the challenge was not in the sugar or gingerbread dough itself; the only slightly unusual ingredients required were molasses and cloves, and I found molasses at Pão de Açucar and skipped the cloves because, well, I forgot to look for them. Powdered sugar is readily available, and it wasn’t difficult to find decorative sugars or sprinkles. Although sprinkles are sold at Pão de Açucar and bigger grocery stores, I bought them at a party store on Rua Augusta because it had lured me in with its muffin and bread pans. Sadly, I was rudely awakened from my double chocolate banana bread reverie by the realization that I would have exactly 3 days left in Sao Paulo to enjoy my new bread pans (next time, I’m bringing my own!) so I bought some pretty colored sugars as a consolation purchase.

Continue reading It’s cookie time!

A day in Liberdade

Somehow Bruna and Maisa have a sixth sense for knowing when I’m feeling lonely or sad. A few weeks ago, when I was having a particularly difficult weekend, Bruna messaged me Sunday morning, asking me if I wanted to take a walk down Paulista and grab lunch with her and Caio. Of course I jumped at the offer both to spend time with this sweet couple and to also force myself to get out of the house.

Upon my request, we headed to “Shopping 3,” where it appeared that half the city of Sao IMG_2762Paulo had flocked to look over the temporary stands that are set up every Sunday. Caio confirmed my estimate, explaining that, in the absence of a coast, Sao Paulo’s 40+ “shoppings” are the city’s answer to a weekend beach trip (Maisa had abandoned us for the real beach that weekend). Thus we spent a happy hour, meandering through the stands, Caio and Bruna helping me carefully pick out souvenirs. Upon leaving the shopping mall, Caio suggested that we wander around Liberdade, the city’s “Little Japan.” While I am not partial to sushi (way too ditzy for a gordinha like me), I was excited to see this famous neighborhood, which houses the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan.

Why, you might ask, are there so many Japanese-Brazilians living in Sao Paulo today? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is essentially coffee and slavery. After the slave trade was abolished mid-19th IMG_3316century, the Brazilian government offered subsidized immigration to Europeans in an effort to address the shortage of “cheap” labor. This resulted in a massive influx of Italians who continued to arrive until 1902 when the Italian government banned subsidized immigration to Brazil due to poor working conditions. This then paved the way for the arrival of Japanese immigrants who, having recently been released from feudalism into extreme poverty, were eager to own land and make a better life for themselves. When World War I began shortly thereafter, many countries such as the US prohibited Japanese immigration, thus further increasing the Japanese presence in Brazil. Although now, 100 years after the first Japanese immigrants arrived, the Japanese population is dwindling, the culture has still left an indelible mark on the Brazilian way of life, especially at the dinner table.

Continue reading A day in Liberdade

50 ways to piss off your cleaning lady

IMG_3189As I imagine some of you may have noticed, Thursday was Thanksgiving. It’s not exactly recognized here, but I still wanted to do something or, at the very least, not be alone. Almost on a whim, I messaged Olivia, my one American friend here, and we decided to do an 11am “dinner” since we both had to work in the afternoon. Then I realized Maisa would also be free since she had (voluntarily) been included in her company’s last round of cuts, and it was the perfect excuse to finally meet Frika, an Indonesian woman I’d only ever talked to online/via whatsapp. Everyone agreed to come, and suddenly, 90 degree weather aside, things were beginning to feel a bit more festive.

Then, predictably, came the stress. I always get very excited to host special events, and then the reality, in this case that I’ve never cooked a whole bird before, never mind in a foreign country, sets in. Serendipitously, Maisa was going to the store on Tuesday, so I jumped at the chance to share a taxi with her instead of trying to make the humid, two-mile journey with apples, potatoes, a turkey, and who knows what else, hanging from my shoulder. I also appreciated the chance to have a São Paulo supermarket expert in tow for this all-important trip. My biggest concern was the turkey. I’d seen plenty of chickens but never a whole turkey. Maisa seemed confident that “Chesters,” whose name was coined by a major brand, are ubiquitous here, and I should have no problem finding this specific kind of turkey. However, we were out of luck at the upscale “Pão de Açucar,” only finding one brand of giant R$55 pre-seasoned turkey. I decided for the first time in my life to pretend that I know how to go with the flow and to buy a small frozen whole chicken instead. It turned out to be the right choice since I later found out that Chester is actually chicken anyway!

The rest of the shopping trip went smoothly. I found green beans (vagem), apples, Yukon-like potatoes, and plenty of baking materials. For a moment I contemplated making my mom’s world-famous pumpkin bread—the Japanese post-doc in my former lab said it was the best pumpkin bread he’d ever had, the wording of which made me curious to know how much pumpkin bread people in Japan eat–but I decided that, in the absence of canned pumpkin, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on hacking apart and pureeing a pumpkin on top of all the other new experiences awaiting me (our lack of a bread pan may also have quelled my enthusiasm a bit). Also on the list of nearly impossible-to-find Thanksgiving must-haves are cranberries. There’s a chance the Mercado Municipal has them, but I decided it wasn’t worth traveling across town so that I might increase my potential to have the opportunity to spend hours trying to make them palatable.

Continue reading 50 ways to piss off your cleaning lady

And now for something completely different…

At the Mercado Municipal: view from above; sanduíche de pernil (pulled pork on left) and de carne seco (on right); and testing out the fruits of the world—only walking quickly away stops them from giving you more samples.

While I am something of a perpetual, unintentional tourist here, learning something new about Brazilian culture every day, my stay has been disappointingly lacking in formal tourist activities. It’s a shame too because Sampa is filled with art, Samba (and the now oft-derided, pop-like “pagode,” which my student described as music about nothing), museums and landmarks. One of my few touristy ventures has included a Saturday afternoon trip with a coworker to the Mercadão or mercado municipal, a giant indoor market in the centro (old downtown) of the city. The Mercadão, which opened its doors in 1933, is comprised of 100’s of stalls of exotic foods including fruits and spices from all over the world. In fact, aside from my touristy inclinations, one of the reasons I wanted to go to the market was to buy garam masala since I couldn’t find it in a traditional grocery store. On the second level, the Mercadão houses several restaurants famed for such favorites as pastel de bacalhau (a cod pastry), and sanduíche de mortadela (Italian sausage sandwich).

Near the market is the famed Rua 25 de Março. On Saturdays in particular, theIMG_2467
street is packed with people buying and selling knock-off designer athletic apparel, electronics, toys, and clothing. It is known as the best place in São Paulo to score a great deal while simultaneously being mugged. We didn’t linger long, but I was happy to find a fabric store selling cheesecloth so I could make my first attempt at homemade paneer (again, impossible to find here—I asked for “gaze tipo queijo”). Instead, we headed to peek into the 400-year old São Bento monastery. Though very pretty, it turned out we’d missed the real highlight of the day by hours: the monks singing Gregorian chants at daybreak.

Continue reading And now for something completely different…

“Flavors” of home

Biscoito de polvilho (com quiejo) = a chance to eat cheese puffs without the guilt!

Anytime you move to a new country, it is totally normal to miss not only your friends but also certain creature comforts of your home country. As much as I enjoyed the food in Seville, when I was returning home, all I wanted was to eat a pound of peanut butter and something not fried or sautéed in olive oil. This time around has felt a little different, however. Perhaps this is because I had mentally prepared for everything to be really different, so when I am successfully able to find something, I am pleasantly surprised, but I think it has more to do with the difference in place and time period. Brazil is extremely interested in American culture and, as such, many “American” products are available here, although sometimes they are produced by Brazilian companies. In addition, a lot can change in ten years; for better or for worse, products that were once confined to their country of origin, are now ubiquitous, especially in major international cities such as Sao Paulo. I say this because on the one hand, it takes away some of the charm of bringing back something unique for a loved one, but on the other, it makes transitioning into a new language and culture a little bit easier.

The biggest difference for me however, has been being able to cook for myself here. Not that I don’t want to learn Brazilian dishes (and I’m excited because Maisa told me she would teach me how to make a simple savory pie-type thing I can try to replicate at home over Christmas. Durhamites everywhere, beware!), but as an alternative to grabbing a tasty, but ultimately unsatisfying “salgadinho” from a padoca every day, it has been a huge relief to do more cooking over the past few weeks. It took me a little bit of time to get started (ok, like 6 weeks!), but I was investing this time in learning what ingredients/foods are readily available, the Portuguese translations for certain spices, where to go for certain less-common ingredients and what I can reasonably make without my extensive arsenal of kitchen appliances. This led me to a lot of fun and interesting blogs online, and I plan to devote more blog posts just to cooking and grocery shopping in Sao Paulo in the hopes that it will be interesting and maybe even help another clueless soul. For today though, here are the top five foods that have been the most challenging to find or go without in Sao Paulo.

Continue reading “Flavors” of home