“You won’t find the true spirit of Rio in the flashy bars and tourist-traps of Ipanema – you’ll find it in the bustling street markets and little restaurants that only the locals know.”
Tom Le Mesurier, Eat Rio
I visited the market in Rio thanks to the specialist foodie tour company, Eat Rio. I couldn’t have made a better choice, the tour was really well thought out to give, in just a day, a good experience and overview, not just food in Rio, but in much of Brazil. One of the stops on the tour was to one or Rio’s principal markets, the Bairro de Fatima.
I love markets (see guest contributor, Alan Hallsworth, on the subject), and without our guide, Angela Leite, who was funny, knowledgeable, super-well-organised and considerate I wouldn’t have had a clue where to go, what to look at, or how much I should be paying for it. As it was I had a terrific day and learnt more than I ever could have imagined.
What did I see… and more importantly what did I taste?
First off, as we entered, a street vendor was selling cuzcus. “What is that?” I asked intrigued, “It’s tapico covered in coconut and condensed milk”. I had hopes – I’m a great condensed milk fan (see post to come, dulce de leche). But they were dashed, horridly slimy, and too sweet even for me. Worth a go, though, some of us did like it!
Caldo de cana
So, following on with the sweet theme, our next stop was a stall selling sugar cane juice, made on the spot. It was particularly interesting to see this happening and to taste the result because when I got to the Pedra Branca distillery which makes cachaça some days later, this is exactly the process (a little more modernised) they were carrying out there.
It was interesting to taste the juice – sweet of course, and …. not really all that noteworthy. Even more was happened to the taste when we added some fresh lime, which Angela had handy in her bag (her rucksack produced more goodies at propitious moments than Mary Poppins’ handbag). It suddenly became quite good. The basic ingredients of a caipirinha… no wonder that cocktail is such a success, a revelation.
And talking of caipirinhas… the next fascination was a fruit called a jabuticaba – it looked like a large black grape, or black olive. It grows around the bark of the Brazilian grape tree. It’s eaten raw – a little sour, and also used to make a fruit wine, or spirit. And it’s sometimes substituted for the lime in a caipirinha…. Can’t imagine it’s quite the same marriage made in heaven though.
Keen chocolate lover that I am, I also had high hopes for this. Dashed again! All you can do is nibble at the slimy white pith around the hard beans. A lot of work for not much reward.
Fruta do conde
Then there were some intriguing fruit which looked like hand grenades. And unlike all the other fruit in the market, which was displayed in generous heaps to be freely squeezed and smelt and tested, these seemed, like hand grenades, to be kept in crate cages.
These, I learnt, were custard, or sugar apples. It’s well-named with sweet, creamy flesh, which does, indeed, taste a little of custard. It breaks open easily when it’s ripe.
There was a plethora of chilli peppers, including the little heart-shaped biquinho peppers. I’d come across these before in the churrascaria I visited, where they were served, pickled, to go with the meat. They aren’t hot, it’s easy to nibble away at three or four without exploding into a haze of red.
…. and then, at the end, after stall after stall of fruit, vegetables, cheese and fish we came to the tapioca stall doing a roaring trade. What is a tapioca – it’s basically a sort of stiff pancake filled with whatever you fancy – cheese and ham, shredded dried beef and mozzarella; or you can have sweet ones with condensed milk and coconut, or banana, or all three.
They are simply made: the moistened tapioca starch is put straight into the frying pan – no eggs, milk, batter etc. The starch is extracted from the cassava root – and that is the hard part, preparing the flour is, quite frankly, pain and grief, to say nothing of the extraction process. The men do the hard grind – literally grinding the starch through a sieve. It was the Brazilian winter when I was there, but the temperature was in the nineties and it looked like very hot work.
It’s a hard toss up between a tapioca as a hunger-pang-staver-off, and a pastéis, but I went for pastéis,
A type of aubergine, but very very bitter. Children hate it – worse than Brussels sprouts!
A colourful experience for all the senses!
This post is dedicated to Angela Leite