“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.

  1. (and 2-100 really) Water!!!!

I recognize that I am here during a particularly unusual time with respect to water, but, for someone who usually drinks several liters of water a day, it has been extremely difficult to live without drinking the tap water. The closest grocery store (Dia—not exactly the best, but usually quite cheap) stopped selling bottled water a week or so ago, and without a car, it is very hard to drink enough water every day, especially since the temperature has started creeping up into the 90’s. I still use tap water for cooking, since it’s generally being boiled anyway, but with the reserves running so low, I question whether this is a good, never mind safe idea. Our house still has running water consistently at home from what I can tell, but everyone I’ve talked to has had their water cutoff for some length of time and without warning. It’s a little disconcerting to think I could come back from a run before work and not be able to shower, or worse still, not be able to use the bathroom normally.

  1. Chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate

As I anticipated, chocolate chips do not exist here. This is of course not difficult to get around, but there seems to be a strong preference for milk chocolate (40% Nestlé chocolate is marketed as “bitter-sweet” chocolate, for example), and most tastes to me like it was sweetened with artificial sweetener. Lindt and other imported chocolates are easy to find, but a 100g bar that would cost $4.00, at most, in an American grocery store, costs R$13.00 at a standard Sampa supermarket. I realize there is an exchange rate, but generally, I am paid in reals and not American dollars, so thinking of R$13.00 as $5.25 doesn’t do me much good.

Cocoa brownies or cake gone wrong!

It is also impossible to find unsweetened chocolate bars here. People look at you like you’re crazy when you ask them too. Why would you want chocolate without sugar? I do tend to agree. However, it is possible to find unsweetened cocoa powder (cacau em pó) in the organic section (it always amazes me what you can find in the organic section, but I think we have the same idea in the US that organic=healthy) of the more posh “Pão de açucar.” Armed with sugar-free cocoa powder, I was able to make a smitten kitchen recipe for brownies that I thought came out pretty well, although my boss, who to be fair had never tried brownies before, thought they tasted like cake gone wrong (bolo que não deu certo). This made me wonder if that was indeed the brownies’ humble origin, but, according to Wikipedia, the brownie was intentionally created for the Chicago (from where all good things originate, obviously) 1893 World Fair.

  1. Cheddar cheese
Taste-testing Brazilian cheeses in the Queijaria!

You can find absolutely any kind of cheese you want here: Swiss (Emmental), Gouda, cream cheese, brie, ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, something that could be the “real” American and countless Brazilian specialties, and yet, I haven’t found anything that even remotely resembles a good sharp cheddar. My English co-worker assured me that she’s seen it, but my search has been quite extensive—or at least my legs are quite sore from hiking all the supermarkets of my neighborhood. Still, it’s probably better that when I don’t feel like cooking, I can’t just throw cheddar cheese on a tortilla.

  1. Vanilla extract

Ugh! This might be at the root of all my chocolate problems here. I have gone to a vast range of supermarkets, but it is impossible to find vanilla extract. For me, it’s a constant dilemma of whether it’s better to at least add something (and if the liquid to dry ingredient ratio is hanging in the balance of the addition of vanilla) or if I should just go without. At first, the smell of raw dough with its artificial vanilla extract was nearly nauseous. I seem to have gotten over this fairly quickly and reverted to my dough-eating habits, but something still just tastes “off.”

  1. Bagels

I don’t know how this is possible, but I actually don’t really miss these. Maybe it’s because I always knew I shouldn’t be eating so many of these dense bricks anyway? Or possibly it’s because, out of curiosity more than anything, a few weeks ago I tried a Starbucks bagel, and it was a circular piece of wheat bread, toasted until all the life/moisture had been drained out of it. Perhaps that was enough to scare me away from bagels for a time. If in the future I’m really craving them, I can always make them at home.

Attempt #1 at tikka masala. Apparently I bought a mix of habaneros and serranos as opposed to just serranos—-fun surprise!

This list was actually difficult to make. Unlike in many European countries, it is easy to find peanut butter although I don’t eat it anymore anyway. It took me a minute, but I also found brown sugar and oatmeal in the organic section, and I haven’t tried it yet, but it is not difficult to find skim milk (leite desnatada). There are millions of types of yogurts, fresh-squeezed juices, breads, and fruits and vegetables of the world. Eating out, the food is, as promised, relatively mild, but, given that I have the freedom to cook at home, I’ve been able to spice my food more or less to my palate (although I still need to look for cayenne pepper—pimenta de caiena). The bigger challenge has been gauging what I can reasonably carry on foot for a mile or two back to the apartment. It feels like being in college again, except at that point I think I only ate cheese tortillas and Papa John’s pizza, neither of which required much heavy lifting.

2 thoughts on ““Flavors” of home

  1. Hi Cat,
    I’ve been enjoying your blog. A different country – Italy in my case – one would think wouldn’t be the same for “Flavors of home”, but no, apart from the water being excellent and abundant, you could have made the same list here. By the way, the difference between baker’s chocolate and cacao is that during processing, cocoa butter is removed from cacao powder and added to baking chocolate. In other words, if you want creamy brownies, you need some cocoa butter. In the past I made brownies using 70% chocolate bars, cutting down on the sugar. How do I do it now? My suitcase typically has a couple cans of baking powder, a bar of baker’s chocolate, vanilla – and yes, a few boxes of brownie mix!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Nancy! It’s really neat to get your perspective living in Italy too. I just got back to the US yesterday, and I still have to remind myself I can drink as much tap water as I want—pretty awesome!

      And thank you for the chocolate info. I love learning about baking in general, especially when it’s related to chocolate! I was concerned these cocoa brownies would be a little dry or lacking in flavor (although I tend to trust smittenkitchen pretty implicitly), but they were surprisingly good! Luckily baking powder is findable here, but if/when I go back, I’m definitely bringing a big bottle of real vanilla extract and a few bars of sugarless chocolate so I can make the awesome chocolate truffle cookies Margaret got me addicted to. Anyway, hope everything’s going well there and you’re keeping warm! 🙂

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