In a tiny backwater parish in southern Louisiana, down a long peaceful country road which seemingly goes nowhere in particular, past several fields of grazing horses and under a line of ancient oak trees bowing over the little lane with moss that tickles the top of our school van as we drive by, lies one of the most remarkable locations of my childhood. It was The Academy of the Sacred Heart school for girls. The school, started by french nuns before the Civil War, to educate women in America, seems framed in a simpler time, bearing little resemblance to today’s world of hyperbolized everything.
As soon as one steps foot on the grounds of the school, there is a calmness about the surroundings as if the hands of a clock slow down and the tick tock mechanisms inside are muffled and inconsequential to the broader world.
The school allows boarding of girls as early as the 7th grade. Girls came to the school from all over the country, their bags filled with stories of life far away from the quiet enclave of country life where days were spent picking skirtfuls of wild blackberries and running through open fields until we looked back at the school building, feared we perhaps had run too far, and raced around as fast as our penny loafered feet could carry us to the safety of life at this antebellum school, the quietness and tolerance of the nuns, and the predictability of daily lessons.
Each year a handful of girls arrived from South America, Mexico, and Central America. I didn’t understand at the time the broader reasons in the big and often troubled world that might have carried their young lives to this remote location with its bucolic isolation, pastoral views, and french influenced education run by nuns.
What I knew, was that these girls, with lilting accents and cautious smiles, must hold enchanting stories of foreign lands, foreign foods, and riveting experiences.
One girl in particular, Sophia, became my friend in about 8th grade, or 4th prep as we knew it. She couldn’t speak English well at first, she was shy, and didn’t seem to understand altogether why she was where she was and what to make of it all. I would flash a big smile at her, cross my legs on the floor next to her in class, and help her understand what was happening around her through my exaggerated gesturing.
Occasionally, Sophia would receive a package in the mail from her far away family. It didn’t matter if we were in the middle of a class. The package was rushed into the room by one of our black and white clad nuns, whose eyes twinkled with pleasure as she ceremoniously presented the gift to Sophia.
Little did I realize, until I became a mother to my own 2 children and nervously walked them into classrooms of 30 plus students, in first grade no less, how fortunate I was to have such intimate settings with only 10 to 15 girls altogether. By graduation, we were a group of 35. Our school days were long, but those stretched out days gifted us with pockets of unscheduled moments that were often the occasions of life at the school that anchor most in my memories.
We clustered around Sophia, eyes wide with palpable anticipation of her impending happiness, of the sheer curiosity of the mystery, and of the pleasure of deviation from the normal school routine. The nuns would offer her the privacy of opening the package after school where she could enjoy its contents in private but Sophia enjoyed that moment of attention and was sweet enough to share her treasures with us.
Inside the package, which was covered in foreign looking stamps and hand scrawled words that I could not understand, were all sorts of delightful and very exotic looking treats. There were thin white wafers that looked like communion wafers in church that had the most delicious caramel like spread on the inside (I now know it was dulce de leche). There were tiny packages of sweet and savory powders. Sophia sprinkled some on each of our palms and demonstrated to us how to lick the powder. Flavors of chili, something sweet and something sour made us all pucker our lips and giggle over the novel experience of the flavors.
Traveling to Central and South America always reminds me of the mysteries of life there that my imaginative mind tried to piece together so long go. Mysteries of life in Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil were influenced by the relationships of the girls who came through the school, often for only a year or two at a time, and then seemingly disappeared into a blank space of which I had no understanding. One such girl, however, was the now famous Salma Hayek. But that is a whole other story…
In early March here in New Hampshire 2016, Patrick and I left our winter boots, thick scarves and hats back in New Hampshire. Having never ventured into Brazil, I was so intrigued to explore the reality of life there and compare it to the very limited experiences I’ve previously had traveling to this region. I couldn’t help but flash back to the memories of those gift packages from unknown families sent to the girls at the school.
The trip was to start off with a walking food tour in Rio de Janeiro. Because we had such a fabulous experience with this tour company in Istanbul, Culinary Backstreets Istanbul, we decided to spend the day with their cousin tour company, Culinary Backstreets Rio.
They offer walking and food tasting tours that veer away from the typically trodden tourist paths into the backstreets of areas where everyday life plays out naturally and away from the eyes of mass tour groups. The groups are kept small. We were a group of 5 and it was the perfect size to move discreetly through the tiny shops, botequims (pubs), and the areas of Rio de Janeiro that are now being rediscovered through revitalization.
We met our guide, Raffaele, for our 4 hour walking tour in downtown “Centro” Rio de Janeiro at the plaza right in front of the metro station called Carioca. Raffaele was easy going from the start, enthusiastic about the day, and throughout the tour never tired of answering our questions whether it be about politics, street life, or foods.
We were in the heart of Rio. Skyscrapers intermingled with monasteries, churches, and museums in this section of the city. Bustling with international energy during the work week, this area returns back to the cariocas, or locals, during the weekend hours.
Our first stop began at the esteemed Confeitaria Colombo, home of the high society crowd during the hey-day of the belle époque at the turn of the 20th century. After entering the doors to this classy tea house, the hustle and bustle of the streets of Rio were left outside. This was Rio’s preeminent café, the site of elaborate balls, afternoon teas for upper-class senhoras, and center of political intrigue and gossip.
It was effortless to forget we were in the heart of a South American city in the tropics and to instead imagine we were in the heart of café society in Portugal or France. Enormous jacaranda-framed mirrors from Belgium, stained glass from France, and tiles from Portugal are hung like jewels to highlight the art nouveau decor.
In prestigious Confeteiria Columbo it was easy to see how the presence of the Portuguese influenced the culture of Rio. A plate of popular sweets, called Pastel de Belem, were brought to the table. These are little rich custard pies made with eggs and cream wrapped in light pastry. They simply melt in the mouth. As the story goes, these pastries were made in a convent in a town called Belem, outside of Lisbon, Portugal. During the revolution of 1820’s in Portgual, all monasteries and convents were shut down but this recipe was secretly handed down by the nuns. Because of this, these delicious little pastry custards are very much a part of the Portuguese culture, even today. Settlers coming to Rio during the 1800’s wanted to show their classiness by indulging in these sweets and now they have been interwoven into the culture of Brazilian life.
After enjoying our introduction to downtown Brazilian society at this stunning belle époque tea house, Raffaele led us along the quiet Saturday streets. Little did we know that the serene and stately atmosphere of the pastry house was going to be juxtaposed with the bustling energy of the next stop. We were about to enter the labyrinth of street stalls at the daily flea market in downtown Rio known as the SAARA Market.
Amid the state of the art skyscrapers squeezed in between centuries old churches and shop fronts, the SAARA Market sprawls out over 11 streets and 600 shops, like a market right out of Istanbul. Everything one could imagine from toys, clothing, footwear, party goods, Carnivale costumes, electronics, home decoration and appliances can be found here. Children were clinging to their parents’ hands with eyes wide open there was so much glitz and blitz to be seen…and all for low prices, too.
All over the city, the smell of street food was wafting in the air and teasing the taste buds. As we exited the little food shop, Cajas Pedro, there was a food cart selling savory stuffed pastries called Esfirha. These were my favorite bites of everything we sampled on the culinary walk.
Esfirha have their roots in the Middle East. They are triangular shaped pastries stuffed with ground beef, onions, and spices. The combination of flavors was simple but so lovely. What I also enjoyed was the food stall was surrounded by locals leisurely enjoying their Esfirhas before moving on and going about their day.
Once we stumbled out of the hustle and bustle of this fabulous street market of cheap every day goods, Raffaele led us to a small food market that represented where a local might shop for daily food items. Large frozen filets of cod (or Bacalhau) were stacked high near the entryway. Raffaele explained to us that the much loved cod fish from Portugal is still a prized flavor today in Brazilian food. Even though there isn’t a population of cod fish off the coast of Brazil, it is still shipped in and is added to many dishes. A popular everyday pub fare is known as Bolinhaus de Bacalhau, little fried balls of cod fish typically enjoyed with a cold beer in the many bars all over Rio.
A part of Brazil’s history is very similar to the devastating period of time when people from Africa were enslaved and brought over to the U.S. to work the land under harsh conditions and denial of freedom. In our little group, we didn’t realize that hundreds of thousands more Africans were shipped in boats to Brazil than to the US during this slave trade period of history of the world. Because Portugal was a wealthy country, its explorers made the black slaves lower class workers and enslaved them in order to provide the labor to build up a powerful Portuguese trading presence in South America.
All of the problems that come when man tries to enslave man exists in Rio de Janeiro. As in the U.S., the country struggles to assimilate diverse cultures and past historical mistakes. Raffaele pointed out to us the man (above photo: bottom R) dressed in the white pajama-like garments with the long strand of beads hanging down his shirt.
He belongs to a religion that mainly exists in Brazil called Candomblé. The religion was brought to Brazil by the West Africans when they were enslaved in the 1800’s. For centuries they kept their religion secret as they were forced to accept Catholic beliefs. Today, however, their acceptance is more widespread. This man had his shopping list written out and was looking for his listed items at this speciality market for spices and ingredients to bring home for one of their Candomblé celebrations.
To me, on an intimate tour like what Culinary Backstreets Rio provides, it’s these stories that I find so revealing and fascinating about a culture and country. Tidbits of information like this is thrilling to hear and to witness only an arm’s length away.
The streets of Rio almost need no verbal explanation to explain the history, anguish, passion, happiness, and struggles of this remarkable city. Street art is everywhere. I mean everywhere. And, it is beautifully and stunningly presented in a colorful array of talent that is free for all to witness simply by walking up and down the streets.
I think my favorite aspect of Rio de Janeiro is the street art splayed so professionally all over the city’s walls. Rio is a melting pot of dozens of countries…Portugal, Africa, Asia, and European Jews who sought refuge in this city which anchors itself right off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in the protected Guanabara Bay. The entire city is like a huge open museum depicting the energy and history of this fabulous culture of diverse peoples.
Having seen so much already, it was time to get off our feet for awhile and spend some time relaxing and tasting more of the foods that Rio has to offer. We walked down Rua Acre until we came to a quiet little street. Nestled along Travessa do Liceu is a little Boteco (pub/bar) called Imaculada Bar e Galleria.
Imaculada has big shuttered doors that open artfully onto a quiet side street lined with potted flowers. Artists rotate their work to hang on the walls of this intimate little bar. There was a definite sense that this was a local hangout for the neighborhood. I loved it. Couples were snuggled up here and there enjoying the Saturday afternoon with a cool drink. Raffaele ordered a variety of pub foods for us to sample. We had the infamous Bolinho de Bacalhao Fresco, little fried codfish balls. They came out hot and flavorful with a side dish of minced olives and chili pepper sauces.
As we munched on the hot codfish balls and washed it down with cold glasses of beer, out came a platter of Linguica in Cachaça. Linguiça is a spicy garlic sausage that’s popular in most Portuguese-speaking countries. It’s a dish enjoyed at bars in Rio along with a chopp, an extra-cold beer served in small glasses so it doesn’t get warm too quickly.
It was the cocktails brought to the table that elicited oohs and aahs from our small group of Americans, British, and Italians. It was a beautiful luxurious emerald green drink, called a “Detox Capirinha”. Capirinha is a traditional drink of Rio de Janeiro made from sugar cane. Ours was blended with detoxing vegetables and fruits, along with the cane juice and offered a perfectly refreshing drink to escape from the heat of Rio’s streets.
Our final stop on the tour was to visit, what is known to visitors and locals alike, a favella. A word in english used to describe favellas is a slum. However, with its negative connotation, it is important to look at the history of how favellas came to be and not connote it with a word that is so derisive.
Rafaelle brought us to the heart of one of the favelas in the Centro area of Rio. Clearly, we were off the beaten track at this point, but he assured us that visiting a favela as a tourist is not about the vulgar thrill of oogling at groups of people living in poverty. He questioned whether we were comfortable visiting areas of the city known for their extreme poor conditions and explained that the people who live there want tourists to think of their colorful square adobe-like rambling communities as an important part of the tour trade and history of the city.
It was also our driver, Julio Merz, who provided much history of why visiting favelas has become a part of Rio’s tour offerings. In fact, hiring a driver like Julio is something highly recommended. Julio speaks very good english and knows every inch of the city of Rio. Not only did he whisk us from one place to the next, he provided volumes of information about the city along the way.
The foundations of favelas started when clusters of transplanted migrants within the country of Brazil settled in Rio in the late 1800’s after fleeing trouble in other parts of the country. They were looking for work in a time when Brazil was undergoing massive political change and many came to the larger cities. As more and more people fled hostilities elsewhere, much as residents of Syria are fleeing their country and creating temporary housing situations in Turkey and Greece today, their clusters of temporary communities became known as favelas.
Raffaele introduced us to a group of women at a little food stall in one of the favelas of Rio. These women make hearty dishes in order to welcome tourists, introduce their cultural dishes to them, and in return, earn a wage provided by a trade in the tourism and restaurant industry.
Our surroundings were basic but on all sides was the most artistic colorful parade of jumbled building structures over looking the city onto the water. Each square concrete house was painted a different pastel color. The dwellings climbed a steep hill right in the center of the city and overlooked the beautiful coastline of the bay. Children ran about playing and laughing as this was Saturday. Another group living in the favela were playing a serious game of checkers. The checker pieces were sourced from different color bottle caps. A father was looking over a group of young children who were carefully playing with what seemed to be a newly acquired parrot. They sat watching the bird and giggling as it cocked its head this way and that. Narrow windy lanes climbed up and down the favelas. There was a sense of strong family community, pride, and artistic expression everywhere.
The food brought out to us was absolutely delicious. Immediately, I recognized the dish as similar to typical shrimp etouffées of southern Louisiana in the US. Of course… it shouldn’t be surprising! The same group of African population that influenced the cuisine of Louisiana would have influenced, in similar ways, the cuisine of Brazil, too.
A generous plate, called Molho de Camarao, of fried white fish, hot from the frying pan behind us, was ladled with a creamy tomato based sauce studded with shrimp. The entire dish was served over white rice. I loved the look of pride and the huge smile on the woman’s face who served us. She gave Raffaele a huge hug, hoped we enjoyed her food, and was off to prepare more dishes.
What a day! What a journey and an experience I will certainly never forget. We wrapped up our tour feeling like we had known Raffaele forever. Our tummies were certainly full and our immersion into Brazilian food and culture was off to an excellent start. It didn’t seem like we had been moving around this Centro area of Rio for 4 hours but when we piled into Julio’s car, there was so much to process about what we had all seen and tasted.
During the tour, Raffaele told me about the Ipanema Street Market that is held on Tuesdays. I couldn’t wait to see what a street market was like in the city so on Tuesday, I headed out in the morning.
I was really beginning to get excited about returning to my kitchen to read, learn, and experiment with Brazilian dishes. I knew I wanted to make some sort of stuffed pastry, or Empanada.
The Ipanema Street Market is something that just cannot be missed. The bustle of market activity could be felt a few blocks away. Just as in Europe, the locals had their array of woven baskets or little trolleys on wheels to collect their fresh goods and easily transport them home. Everyone from the elderly to little babies in strollers were moving slowly and happily up and down the stalls having a wonderful time in the sunshine buying goods for the week and visiting with one another.
It was clear that market day was a day to see and be seen. Vendors were generously offering samples of Brazilian exotic fruits. Most of the fruit there I had never seen nor tasted before. The people loved the camera and were thrilled to be photographed. Smiling faces warmly welcomed me into their market excitedly trying to have me taste anything I rested my eyes on.
Honestly, I felt warmly accepted as a tourist throughout the city. Whereas foreigners are schooled to be extremely careful moving independently about the city and that there is crime around every street corner…I did not experience any of this. People seemed laid back, happy, and proud of their city. Shops were plentiful, restaurants were teeming with people, and the streets were clean and well kept.
The seafood area of the market was fantastic. I would have loved to take home some of the seafood and see what Brazilian dishes are made from them. Being right off of the Atlantic Ocean, seafood is a strong presence in the Brazilian cuisine.
I had the most fabulous experience at the end of the market corner where locals were milling about with all eyes fixed in the center of one of the stalls. Fresh Coxinhas were being assembled in the open for all to enjoy. The men working the stall loved the attention from the locals and there was certainly an interactive fun being had between the cooks and the locals. The smell was wonderful. The stuffing of these pastries was either chicken or beef. The atmosphere was carnival-like and one after another, each person was handed their steaming hot stuffed croquette-like pastry with savory fillings.
I knew I could not pass up these delicious looking Coxinhas. The aroma and energy of the place was too compelling. Settled in at one of the stools lining the stall, I motioned for one of the overstuffed pastries. Just looking around at the people there, I knew these were locals. They seemed to frequent this stall and knew just how to prepare their hand pies. Several bottles of sauces: a garlic-mayonnaise like sauce and a chili pepper ketchup-like sauce were confidently spread on the croquettes. No doubt these were going to be scrumptious bites. Just looking around at the happy faces of the locals dispelled any doubt.
A loud crunching sound could be heard from the back of the food stall. A man was grabbing large stalks of shaggy woody branches. He clustered a handful together and then propelled them into a grinding machine. They shuttered and flapped about as they went through the machine. Then, looking down below, a stream of liquid poured out of a spigot into an awaiting bucket. The drink was pure sugar cane juice. The bucket was swept up and with a ceremonious flourish poured into cups and handed out to everyone around the stall.
I had never tasted pure cane juice before and on that hot day in Rio, after spending hours at the Botanical Gardens (more on that later) that morning and hours at this street market, it was a refreshing thirst-quenching taste that I will never forget. I went back to my hotel that day admiring the vendors at the market, remembering the exotic fruits, and enjoying the festive atmosphere.
The jovial mood, the relaxed nature of the people, the melting pot of faces and cultures all make this huge city a place that doesn’t feel overwhelming at all. As in the US, the past political and cultural struggles of this country is filled with chapters of painful history that take many decades to recognize and then change. Rio de Janeiro positively surpassed all of my expectations of the city.
People there are very active…whether enjoying life and sport on the beach, bike riding on the paths that line much of the city, shopping happily in the street markets, and generally living a good life in a country blessed with extraordinary beautiful mountainous lush surroundings. The painful treatment of communities living in the favelas is recognized as being misguided and it seems that a healthier approach is being taken not only to financially support and protect these areas but also to interweave them into the cultural story of the city. Rio is not just beach life, sun bathing, and nightime partying. The city abounds with cultural attractions, diverse sights and topography, and a sense of modernity coupled with an awareness the importance of celebrating its diversity.
A little video to help with folding the dough for the empanadas:
Mentions in this post:
Culinary Backstreets Rio – specialty tours that go “off the beaten track” of regular tourists hot spots
Julio Merz – personal driver and excellent tour guide. I would highly recommend Julio. He made it possible for me to travel all over the city in the safety (and air conditioning) of a car. firstname.lastname@example.org
Confeteiria Columbo – one of the original belle epoque tea & coffee house during the heyday of Portuguese rule
SAARA Street Market – low priced street market selling everything imaginable from costumes, to toiletries, decorations, items for the home…
Imaculada Bar e Galleria – wonderful tucked away bar in the Centro area of Rio
Sausage with Cachaça – garlic sausages cooked in cane juice with onions and pita
Esfirha – stuffed with meat and spices, savory pastries sold on street corners and in front of shops.
Candomblé Religion – religion of African slaves brought to Brazil
Tuesday Ipanema Fruit & Vegetable Street Market -fresh everything and not something to be missed
The Salt Cellar – my new favorite spot in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for varieties of infused sea salts like Merlot and Vanilla plus many more
- For the filling:
- 16 oz ground beef
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ⅓ cup finely chopped olives
- ½ onion, finely chopped
- 2 TBSP all-purpose flour
- 2 TBSP tomato paste
- about ½ cup to 1 cup beef broth
- salt, to taste
- For the dough:
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon warm water
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ⅓ cup canola oil, plus more to coat the pans
- 1 whisked egg to brush on the empanadas
- Add the raw ground beef and sautee until it is cooked through. Add the hearts of palm and tomato paste. Mix well. Sprinkle the flour on top and stir to incorporate it. Add the broth slowly in increments. Mix well after each addition. Use just enough liquid to get a pasty filling. Heat through and season with salt.
- For the dough:
- Proof the yeast by dissolving it in ¼ cup warm water with the sugar and letting it activate for about 15 minutes.
- Whisk together the flour and salt in a mixer bowl or medium bowl. Create a well in the center and add the oil and proofed yeast mixture. Using a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment or by hand, slowly work the wet ingredients into the dry, adding the 1 cup of water slowly.
- Knead by hand or with the dough hook in the mixer until the dough is very soft, smooth, and tacky/sticky to the touch (but it should not leave dough on your fingers when touched).
- In a clean bowl at least twice the size of the dough, lightly coat the sides of the bowl with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 90 minutes. I often turn my oven on for 20 minutes. Then I turn the oven off, let it cool for 5 minutes and then set the bowl of dough in the oven (with the door ajar) to rise nicely.
- When ready to assemble, preheat the oven to 375˚F
- To assemble the pies, roll out the dough. Using the lid of a pot as a cutter, cut out large rounds of dough. Spoon an ample amount of filling onto each piece of dough. Crimp the edges as shown in the video. I used a little water brushed on my dough (since it doesn't have butter) to help seal the crimps. Place each empanada on a greased baking sheet. Brush each one very well (in all the nooks and crannies) with the beaten egg. Bake in the oven for 18 - 20 minutes or until golden brown.