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Brazil’s History: Plate by Plate

When I took my trip to Iguaçu Falls earlier this year, I expected to see magnificent waterfalls, exotic wildlife, and endless lush forests. Who wouldn’t in this glorious part of Brazil that is considered one of the natural wonders of the world? What I didn’t expect to witness was a culinary tour of Brazil’s history, produced by the talented chef, Fabio Tavera.

“Why don’t we give value to simple things? We think, ‘oh this is from the south, the Amazon, it’s from immigrants’ – Casa do Chef is a response to all of this. We have great food here in Brazil and we need to break it down so people can understand. Understand what’s in our food, understand our people, understand our society.”

 

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Chef Fabio’s intro was merely a hint of what was to come. Having lived, worked, and traveled in Brazil over the past 15 years, I thought I knew a thing or two about Brazilian cuisine. All of that changed as Chef Fabio took the “stage” at his rustic and inviting culinary school called Casa do Chef. “After 16 years working in kitchens, now I am having the opportunity to present Brazilian food in a broader way, relating the historical and anthropological approaches, garnishing this experience with music, which is also my passion. Casa do Chef has been my dream for years.”

And I felt like I had just fallen into a epicurean dream! While my tastebuds were teased with the first dish from the Tupi, Chef Fabio walked us through the dish, dissecting this fish in a history lesson peppered with culinary facts. “The Tupi didn’t use salt at all; you won’t find it in Amazon cuisine. They used peppers and chiles as a preservation mode for meat and fish, and their curing technique is different. Their ritual of smoking is the fusion of the four elements – earth, water, air, and fire.”

 

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Watching Chef Fabio prepare the plates for our first course, I listened intently as he continued to describe the features of this prehistoric fish, pirarucu. “The pirarucu is the biggest scaled fresh water fish in the world. Because the fish scales are so huge, the only way to catch it is in the river during dry season when it gets stuck because of these strong scales. But that’s what makes the meat so good!”

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Dressing the fish with pineapple, roasted peanuts, and honey, Chef Fabio continued – his knowledge the perfect hybrid of TV favorites, History Channel and Food Network! “The Guarani Indians domesticated the pineapple and peanut, here in this area of South America. And when the Portuguese arrived, they noticed that the bees made honey from flowers. At this time in Europe, honey was of very poor quality, so this was one of the first Brazilian exports.”

Chef Fabio recommended starting with a bite of the jambu, an herb from Amazon forest, that has a strong aroma and gets the tongue numb, perfect to eat with this fish that’s been seasoned with fresh chiles – no spices or salt! Enjoying the balanced, smoky flavor, I marveled at how delicious this “sodium-free” dish was – and made a note to integrate some of these healthy techniques when I returned home. Chatting with Chef Fabio as he plated our next course, he shared that Japanese cuisine was one of his favorites because of the beautiful presentation and lightness of flavors. As you read on, you’ll see that same artful influence evident in all of Chef Fabio’s Instagram-worthy presentations.

When I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through his side-by-side comparison of moqueca, one of my favorites! Having been to Bahia, Brazil’s Northeast state known for its gorgeous beaches, I was already aware of the strong African influence in its culture, music, and food.

 

“This mixing of the trade routes with the Portuguese is really evident in what most people know today as moqueca baiana; the mango, lime, and coconut came from India. The cilantro from the Middle East, onions and garlic from the Orient. But what moqueca looked like 600 years ago is here on the left. Fish, urucum, oil from the native Brazilian coconut – babaçu, chili, and of course, no salt.”

Having sampled both, my tastebuds weren’t sure which way to go! I loved the caramelized, simple flavor of the native technique, but I also found the familiarity of the cilantro mingled with the coconut milk delicious. Luckily, I didn’t have to choose!

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Listening to Chef Fabio describe the fusion of foods from all over the world, I thought about the similarities between Brazilian and U.S. culinary history. Both countries had a strong Native Indian food culture that was often aligned with spiritual practices of the tribe. After the arrival of European settlers, much of that history was drastically changed, with many indigineous techniques lost. I felt really grateful to see Chef Fabio reviving some of those techniques here in his cooking school.

 

Next up on the Casa do Chef tasting menu – Carne de Sol, which Chef Fabio said was the perfect dish to highlight the Indian, Portuguese, and African influences. But as he explained, carne de sol is actually a misnomer! Finding out that I spoke Portuguese, Chef Fabio carried on in his native tongue, saying that it’s more of a “de lua, de noite, do vento” because of the aging process. And the description of his homemade clarified butter – well, I’m sure you can imagine how my stomach responded.

“Normally, manteiga de garrafa, or clarified butter, is done the French way – skimming the solids and the clarified butter remains. But this way – a heavy cream is reduced until it’s almost caramalized and solids remain, ending up more like a cheese.” My stomach screamed – “yes, please!”

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Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through the rest of this colonial dish. “We use the ancient method of soaking the abóbora, or pumpkin, in limestone for 10 minutes and then cook it in molasses. This is the African influence with the sugar cane grinders and the use of molasses.” The finishing touch? A hollandaise sauce, using that same delicious manteiga de garrafa…OMG!

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And finally, Chef Fabio’s presentation of feijoada. This is one dish that most tourists have tried on their trips to Brazil, and is what most consider Brazil’s national dish. “This food we call ‘Brazilian’ is new, developed in the last 100 years – at most! Through recipes and ingredients, my idea is to demystify feijoada, and enhance some things that we never thought we could.”

Chef Fabio’s history lesson on feijoada was as much a surprise for my Brazilian colleagues as it was for me. “Meat was rare for everyone in those times. The invented story of feijoada being a ‘marginal dish’ with scraps and leftovers that was fed to the slaves is false. All parts of the slaughtered meats were preserved because there was no refrigeration as we have today. So everyone ate the same thing. This notion that the diet of a slave and the main lord was different is a bit of a myth, with the exception of sugar, which was very expensive.”

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After snapping some shots of this tantalizing plate, I finally enjoyed this Brazilian classic, with Chef Fabio’s special touch. “You know feijoada has a Portuguese influence too, but theirs is with white beans; ours with black beans. Here it’s not deconstructed, just presented differently for more texture. And since the concepts have changed in this invented dish, I invented mine”, he said with a sly wink. Savoring each bite, I thought about how American cuisine is also a melding of immigrant influences, and the bevy of restaurants that are in my Los Angeles neighborhood: Mexican, German, Korean, Armenian, Peruvian. A true melting pot!

Nibbling on the most picturesque sampler of Brazilian dessert classics, I looked up to hear Chef Fabio emerge from the kitchen, serenading us with a flute performance. A true Renaissance man! Historian, musician, and talented chef – how lucky I was to have had this enlightening epicurean adventure through Brazil.

To book your visit to Foz do Iguaçu and experience this once in a lifetime opportunity at Casa do Chef, contact me today!

 

 

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Wine Country: Take Two

My first visit to the wine country was for a weekend of corporate planning, goal setting, team building; a typical work retreat with my first job out of college. What I

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remember most from that trip was the team building – a bike ride through sun-soaked vineyards, with frequent stops for tasting the region’s top export. There’s nothing like a little wine to help timid office mates connect. As my fellow coworkers and I rode along, our adventure took an interesting turn when my boss realized that none of us were fit to ride back to the hotel. Sensing the frustration and fatigue of her troops, she called a few cabs to safely return us to the welcoming embrace of our blush-hued resort, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.

Since then, my occasional trips to the wine country have been just as memorable. My cousin’s wedding, a dinner at French Laundry with a friend who lost a bet, and most recently my visit to the Napa Valley Film Festival.

The film festival, now in its sixth year, is the brainchild of a dynamic duo, Marc and Brenda Lhormer. Beyond bringing their extensive experience in event planning to the festival, the Lhormers produced Bottle Shock, a film about the Judgement of Paris, a controversial wine competition that put Napa Valley on the map. When I spoke with Marc about how their movie production background informs the energy and focus of this festival, he replied, “we have tremendous empathy for the filmmakers who come through every year. We know what it’s like in the trenches and what they go through – we are supportive of the producers.”

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Dev Patel reflects on the movie Lion

And what is produced every year here in Napa Valley is not just a film festival. It is a feast for your senses. The calendar is filled with events and tastings featuring award-winning restaurants and vineyards from the region. “What makes Napa Valley Film Festival unique is that it’s epicurean, it’s sensual. You’re not just seeing great films – you’re eating and drinking the best stuff! We really weave that into the experience.” I’d definitekollarchocoly have to agree with Marc’s words. At the opening night party, we were treated to an epic feast hosted by Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. His delectable bites floated among wines from Quixote Winery, an array of sweets from Kollar Chocolates, and late-night nibbles, my favorite being the mozzarella bar: two words that should always be together.

One thing’s for sure when traveling through the wine country: you will have the opportunity to taste delicious wine and food at every turn. I was reminded of this when I returned to my hotel, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, only to be greeted by turn-down service that included champagne and truffles. Sinking into my jacuzzi bathtub, I thought back to the first time I visited this resort during the aforementioned team building weekend and how much had changed in my life since.

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Still digesting the powerful and heart wrenching scenes from the film festival premier of Lion, I sat back amidst the bubbles and thought about Saroo’s quest for his identity, his past, and a piece of his genetic history that would complete him. Amongst many memorable scenes, I replayed the scene where Saroo tears up the maps, the guide, and the outline in his frustration. Only after doing this does his quest open up to divine guidance – literally. Then I thought about my own quest and how I’ve tossed the map aside many times, only to be guided by a special energy leading me along.

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Fairmont Sonoma’s Master Suite

There’s not many things that will lead me out of bed early in the morning, but a short walk to the spa was well worth it. Fairmont’s Willow Stream Spa, which was recently awarded “Best Hot Springs” by Wellness Travel, is a sanctuary unto itself. I started my day with a restorative yoga session surrounded by large windows that looked out at wispy shoots of green bamboo. After realigning my spine, chakras, and perspective, I thought, why not more of this, and took in the water yoga class at the Watsu pool below.water-yoga

Luckily for my body, and my skin, the resort is one of the few luxury spas in the country with its own source of thermal mineral water, which is found in all of the pools at Fairmont Sonoma. As I slid into the warm water, our instructor shared some of the minerals that were present: manganese, potassium, zinc, calcium, and copper, just to name a few. Dipping my head back into the water for savasana pose, I was led to even further relaxation with the sounds of soft pipe music melting my muscles into the water. When wrapped up in a blissful state such as this, it’s hard to leave the oasis of Willow Stream Spa. But when your afternoon agenda includes a visit to an award-winning vineyard, it’s just the push you need.

Tucked in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, Ceja Vineyards is a family run vineyard, where I instantly felt at home as I was greeted by Dalia Ceja, who shared a little of the vineyard’s history. “This land, which used to have horses, rams, and sheep roaming freely, is my childhood home. The house, which is surrounded by 15 acres of pinot noir, was built by my father in 1985. It is here where I first learned about the labors of wine-making.”

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Vista from Ceja Vineyards

Since then Dalia has gone on to earn her MBA in wine business, perfecting the knowledge that she learned in the fields with her father and siblings. Leading me through the front part of the property, which is surrounded by the fields growing their chardonnay grapes, we were joined by Amelia Ceja, founder of the vineyard and former California “Woman of the Year”, an honor she earned for breaking glass ceilings in a very competitive industry. Hearing Amelia, who is a living encyclopedia, share the history of this region is reason enough to visit the vineyard. “The indigenous Guapo Indians used to live on these lands, so when building our vineyard, we consulted with experts who understood the history and the topography of these lands. We are in the southernmost part of Napa Valley with the Napa River running throughout and creating this fluvial soil due to the River. If you’re a grape, this is Eden.”

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Amelia, who recently gave a guest lecture at Stanford’s Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, guided our tour toward the “capilla”, the small chapel that sits at the edge of the vines. As Dalia and Amelia highlighted the custom artwork and stained glass windows that adorned the walls of the capilla, it was clear that I had been led to a special place. “There is nothing like this in the wine country. We want to be inclusive of all religions, we want everyone to feel welcome here. There’s a sense of spiritual energy that’s welcoming. Nuestra casa es su casa”, said Dalia with a warm smile that can put anyone at ease.

cejachapelI could definitely feel the embrace of this place as I looked up at colorful glass images of Moses, Buddha, the Black Madonna, and of course the Virgen de Guadalupe. Walking around the back of the capilla, which has a private dining area perfect for an intimate tasting or team meeting, Amelia provided some more background on the decor. “A gift from the foundry, this bell at the top of the tower is a genuine El Camino Real bell like the ones you’ll see at the missions and along the side of the road. It’s the same technology that was used many years ago to design these historical bells.” Acknowledging the controversial history of the missions, Amelia gave me a short lesson about the land, talked about the art that they had commissioned for this space, and walked us around to their symbolic cemetery. “Nobody is buried here. But everything that should be dead is buried here: bigotry, discrimination, sexism.”

muraldetailcejaAs this regal mother and daughter duo wandered back to the tasting room, I stayed behind to take in the meditative energy of this space. What a beautiful homage to everything that had come before: the indigenous that had lived off of these lands centuries before, the farmers that had plowed and picked the fields of the wine country, and the contributions of Latino artists to the diverse fabric of California’s landscape. cejamag

Catching up with Dalia at the edge of the bocce ball courts that her father, Pedro built, I learned a bit more about the Ceja family. “Here we have Bacchus and Dionysus battling each other, with the color of the balls representing our pinot noir and chardonnay. We want people to have fun – it’s an experience here at Ceja!”

To continue my experience, I began my tasting of Ceja’s prized wines while the aroma of fresh chiles came wafting from the kitchen. Listening intently to Dalia describe the fermentation process, the climate differences between Napa, Sonoma, and Calistoga, and other nuances of the wine region, I decided that my favorite was their vintage Sauvignon Blanc. “This wine is grown at our Sonoma Coast adobe vineyard about 45 minutes west of this tasting room. We use French oak judiciously, and this one has some grapefruit and guava characteristics.” With each sip, I began to understand more of Dalia’s explanation and made a mental note to take home a bottle.

As I finished my tasting, Amelia graciously served me quesadillas with arugula and Spanish chorizo, piled high with her salsa made fresh from those chiles I had inhaled only a bit ago. This impromptu feast was paired with their award-winning Cabernet that was also served during the Napa Valley Film Fest Saturday gala. Savoring each bite of this sumptuous meal, Amelia and I chatted about everything from social media, to the challenges of being a Latino business owner, to our shared love of author Isabel Allende. Recounting the details of one of our favorite books, Daughter of Fortune, I thought about how fortunate I was to have been led here to sit with this inspiring businesswoman who has started a legacy for her family and the region of Napa Valley.

Processed with VSCO with m5 presetThere was nothing more comforting than wrapping up a day of delicious wines and home cooked food than falling back onto the cozy couch in my suite, warmed by a crackling fire. Easing into its embrace, I looked at the calendar for the film festival and began to plan the next day. How to choose among so many enticing options? I thought back to my interview with Marc when he discussed how they chose films for their festival. “We like to show films that people would really relate to; we’re representative of the audience. The films are less edgy and more positive, with upbeat, amazing documentaries.” Scanning the list, I decided to see Crossing Rachmaninoff, a feature documentary that beautifully blended the story line of pianist Flavio Villani’s personal and professional quests.

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Watching Flavio’s gifted hands dance across the keys, I was grateful that he decided to hone his gift and forgo his “safe” career as an IT professional. Thinking back to the film, Lion, I realized there were a lot of similarities between Saroo and Flavio. As they tossed aside the map that had been laid out before them, their true destiny began to open up. And witnessing Flavio’s destiny to become a world-class musician unfold on screen brought joyful tears to my eyes. Tears that seemed to ebb and flow to the melody of Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece concerto.

Leaving the screening, I headed over to Bar Terra, a gastronomic gem tucked behind St. Helena’s Cameo Cinema. Knowing that it was quite difficult to get a reservation, I lucked out and found space at the bar, eagebisteeyar to chat about all things film, food, and wine with the other patrons. Not hungry enough for their full tasting menu, I opted for the most perfect bowl of polenta soup, another masterful dish created by Michelin Star Chef, Hiro Sone. Making sure to save room for dessert, I originally had my eye on the goat cheese cake, but went with the apple and almond bisteeya, a recommendation from my bartender, Stephen. Always take a dessert recommendation from a man who makes his own grenadine. Each bite of the light and flaky bisteeya melted in my mouth, with soft flavors of cinnamon and wild flower honey easing it along.

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One of my favorite past times is visiting museums and art galleries, so when the Fairmont concierge recommended that I visit Imagery Estate Winery, a winery that also has a gallery on-site, I knew I had to pay a visit. Once inside, my wine guide and impromptu docent, Lilly, led me through their space. “What’s unique about Imagery is our labels, with each piece being commissioned to incorporate the Parthenon logo in a creative interpretation by each artist.” Originals of past labels hang beside Imagery’s top-sellers and wines reserved for club members, encouraging visitors to not only broaden their palate for wine, but their appreciation for art. Upon leaving, I passed a piece called Lion, a watercolor by Laura Ball that will be used for a future wine label. I told Lilly about how I now knew why I was led to this winery; Lion was a feature film at the festival, and my dad was a Leo, two reminders to always trust my path.

Stopping back by the Fairmont for a quick bite before heading back to the festival, I indulged in a juicy hamburger at 38º North. This wasn’t just any hamburger; it needed no fixings or extras. Using Mindful Meats, a local company that produces 100% organic, non-GMO, grass-fed beef, this delectable burger is layered with smoked fiscalini cheddar, caramelized onions, bacon, and pimentón aioli. Mouthwatering to say the least!

The great thing about 3bisque8º North is that it is led by Chef de Cuisine, Andrew Cain, who also orchestrates the menu at Santé, Fairmont’s Michelin-rated restaurant and one of Elite Traveler’s top 100 restaurants in the world . Chef Cain’s inspiration for the menu comes from “the change of season, what is available at the farm, a conversation with another chef, or a memory.” And memorable it was. Having already tried their lobster bisque and charcuterie after the hotel’s nightly wine tasting, I made a note to come back and try Chef Cain’s favorite: “a Venison entrée that comes from a 55,000 acre ranch in Wyoming that raises the animals in a natural free range environment. We are serving it with petit vegetables grown locally, as well as a sauce prepared with wild huckleberries harvested from the coast.”

My last film of the festival was Pisco Punch, a lively documentary that traced piscothe history of one of Peru’s most spirited exports. The film weaves anecdotes from Peruvian distillery owners, mixology tips from renowned bartenders, and haunting images from Peru’s troubled past. Now experiencing a revival, Peru is luring travelers to its diverse culture with a dynamic food scene, and of course pisco. Watching the artfully prepared cocktails and cuisine flash by on screen, I instinctively felt that Peru may have to be my next destination.

At the wrap party, I compared my favorite films, and of course favorite eats, with other festival goers’ top picks. During the party, I bumped into pianist Flavio Villani, excitedly telling him that I had gone back a second time to see his film after hearing that he was going to perform live for the film festival audience. We chatted about some of our other favorite classical pieces, his family recipes highlighted in the film, and the challenges of being an artist. Looking around the party at my fellow artists, and the filmmakers who had conquered insurmountable situations to create their films, I was reminded of the words from Flavio’s brother featured in the film: “Having faith in yourself is the biggest obstacle that you have to overcome.”

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rio de janeiro mural

Road to Rio

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One doesn’t normally think of using a cookbook for a travel guide, but there’s always an exception. My recent purchase, Rio De Janeiro: The Cookbook, was a welcome addition to my already bursting cookbook collection. I picked up this gem at my favorite neighborhood bookstore, and after flipping through the pages, I was delighted to find that the recipes came with “dicas”, or tips, on everything from where to find a feijoada feast for a weekend brunch to a recipe for creamy coconut cake to a list of local farmers’ markets. Using Chef Leticia’s cookbook as a guide, I quickly charted a map that included some of her recommendations.

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Reading more about Chef Leticia in her book, I knew that we’d become instant friends. We both loved travel, indulged in languages and word games as children, and of course shared a love for Rio. When we spoke, Leticia credited her “carioca” heritage as a large influence on her culinary development. “Going to the farmers’ markets here in Rio and talking to the street vendors where they taught you about the different fruits and vegetables had a huge influence on me.”

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Inspired by her local surroundings, other culinary creatives in Brasil like Chef Claude Troisgros, and publications like Gula and Food & Wine, Leticia created a cookbook that guides its readers through a tasty tour of Rio’s diverse neighborhoods. When I asked Leticia about her opinion of Rio cuisine, she said it highlights the influence of Portuguese culture in the diaspora of African, Indian, and European history that is Brazil. “You can see it in people’s faces, in the botequins, the architecture, and of course in the food.”

And so my food tour commenced in downtown Rio, known as Centro to locals. I headed to Confeitaria Colombo, a Rio institution and landmark. Confeitaria Colombo is a marvelous mixture of café, bakery, restaurant, and bar, with an emphasis on the bakery part. Upon entering this downtown destination, I quickly understood why this place was on Haute Living’s list of “Top 10 Most Beautiful Cafes in the World.” With stiff competition from mostly European listings, Confeitaria Colombo rightfully deserves its place on the list with its gilded interiors.

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Over a bountiful Brazilian breakfast of cakes, cookies, cheese, and of course, coffee, I spoke with head Chef Thiago about the historic guestlist of Confeitaria Colombo, dating back to the time when Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil. This historic café received presidents from all over the globe and Thiago mentioned a recent visit by the Royal family and the Queen of England as his personal highlight. Tartelettes

As I marveled at the decor, Chef Thiago told the story of the cafe’s founders. “The story started with two Portuguese men – pioneers that had their mind set on creating the best pastry shop in Brazil. They brought with them the best tiles from Europe, mirrors from Belgium, and of course, pastry chefs from France.”

Surrounded by so many delicious desserts must be daunting for anyone’s diet, so I had to ask Chef Thiago what was his favorite. With a gleam in his eye, he instantly said “pastel de nata”, a traditional Portuguese dessert that has a light custard in delicate crusted cups. Having never sampled this sweet, I made a note to try it on my next visit. He went on to share how he looks forward to Christmas here at the café, when droves of families line up to take home these scrumptious sweets to share with their families.

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Eager to walk off my hearty breakfast, I made my way to the National Library. Situated in the heart of Centro, with the Theatro Municipal and the National Museum of Fine Arts as its neighbors, this Library is a national treasure. Established by Dom João Pedro, who sits at the base of the stairwell, the library held more than 60,000 books at its inception, a rare case for any library, since most build their collections over time. In fact, as my guide Max pointed out, it was in the Peace Treaty of 1825 that the Portuguese Royal family sold the vast literary collection to Brazil, giving this historic site its rightful place as UNESCO’s 8th biggest national library in the world, now with over 20 million pieces.

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As the collection grew over the years, the Library relocated to many homes throughout Rio before finally settling on its current location in 1910. Max, a human library himself, reflected on the library’s historic importance. “It’s a building that reminds us cariocas of a period of great change here in the city center because in the beginning of the 20th century Rio was the capital of Brazil and the main goal of the mayor was to make Rio similar to a European city. He used as his inspiration the Belle Epoque in Paris and French architecture. Examples of this are the Municipal Theater, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and other buildings along Rio Branco Avenue.”

The magnificent interior of the Library is a testament to this European influence, with structural details like Neoclassical arcs at the entrance, Corinthian columns, a stairwell imported from Germany, and French glass ceilings. Behind these architectural displays are housed a phenomenal rare books collection, whose importance goes beyond Brazil. The original printed edition of Luís de Camões’ Os Lusíadas, sits in the collection, much to the disdain of many Portuguese, Max noted with a grin. “This masterpiece is as important to the Portuguese language as Shakespeare to English, Cervantes to Spanish, or Goethe to German.”

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Also housed here are original legal documents like the Lei Áurea, which abolished slavery in Brazil and was ushered into proclamation by Princess Isabel in the late 1800s, a multitude of dictionaries, including those of indigenous Brazilian languages, like Tupi-Guarani, and Yorubá, the African language that Max mentioned is very present in Brazilian Portuguehouaissse.

Wandering through the halls of the library and an exhibit of Antônio Houaiss’ contributions to the Portuguese language, I thought about the fascinating fusion of cultures that is ever-present here in Brazil. While Rio is definitely an epicenter for Brazilian culture, this large country has a vast landscape that cannot be covered in one trip. Luckily, my visa is good for a few more years.

When mentioning to Max that I had just come from the famous café, he pointed out that the same jacaranda wood that was used to make the desks and interiors of the Library was used on the mirrors of the Confeitaria Colombo. He also said, in a secretive tone that the Library houses some of the rare recipes from Portugal, which he whispered “us Brazilians are always trying to replicate in our bakeries.” When I mentioned Chef Thiago’s favorite, pastel de nata, Max gave me some mortileslibrarye insight. “There is a patent on the name of that dessert. If it is made there in Belem, in that region, it’s called ‘pastel de Belem’. Anywhere else, it’s ‘pastel de nata’. Kind of like French champagne.” He gave a knowing smile and led me through the halls tiled with mosaics from Morocco, while we chatted about the library decor, philosophy, and Brazilian politics. We eventually agreed that no matter where you are from in the world, we are definitely living in a climate of change, and hopefully for the better.

Walking up Avenida Presidente Antonio Vargas, I stopped in the Palácio Tiradentes. A royal looking piece of architecture with its sprawling entrance, I entered not knowing anything about the place. As my guide led me through the halls, I learned that this building was originally the site of the first Republic of Brazil, back during Rio’s time as the country’s capital. Along the walls, the mosaic tiles, and in the etchings of the chairs and pillars are coffee leaves. These details, as my guide shared, were a homage to Brazil’s early ruling class, many of whom were coffee farmers.

Upon entering the main hall where current state laws are reviewed, I was immediately struck by the immense murals around the perimeter and along the ceiling. Showing different scenes from Brazil’s beginnings, my guide highlighted Pedro Álvarez Cabral, the Portuguese bandeirantes, and the French Marianne waving the flag of liberty. She poignantly pointed out that these images were a “romantic vision of Brazil’s history. It looks very peaceful, but in fact it was not.” Of course this made me think of romanticized versions of America’s pilgrims and their settling along the eastern seaboard, giving way to our Thanksgiving holiday. I guess, as Oscar Wilde wrote, sometimes art doesn’t always imitate life.

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Back in Zona Sul, I was eagerly looking forward to my visit at design marvel, Fasano Hotel in Ipanema. Meeting with the hotel’s communications and marketing department for the ideally situated Rio location of this iconic hotel, I learned more about the history of designer Philippe Starck’s first project here in Brazil. Sitting poolside, which is where all meetings should take place if they offer this stunning view, they shared with me some of the unique features of Fasano. “The experience here is an extension of Rogério Fasano himself; a mirror of his personality. It’s evident in the smallest of details, with an understated luxury.”

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And it truly is. From the moment you step into the lobby, you are greeted with an aura of discreet, yet superior hospitality. Designing the hotel with sustainability in mind, the repurposed pequiá wood from the Amazon is used throughout the hotel. You’ll see it in the lobby, the bedside tables, and even at the front desk, which is formed from a large log of this rare wood. The simplicity of natural materials like dark pequiá, marble, native plants, and red brick are all weaved together to provide guests with a visually appealing and comforting vibe, a true escape from Rio’s raucous scene.

With a family history well-versed in gastronomy, the Fasano experience wouldn’t be complete without a tribute to a luxurious dining experience. “It’s important for us to take food seriously, but with a ‘slow food’ manner,” the staff mused. “The restaurant, Fasano al Mare, which is a misnomer in a way, highlights an Italian Mediterranean cuisine, replete with housemade pasta dishes that contain local ingredients.” One bite of the Tortelli Di Vitelo, their signature dish, is a testament to this superb dining philosophy. Delicate folds of fresh pasta envelop tender cuts of veal, tempting your taste buds to savor every morsel of these pillows drizzled with Parmesan fondue. Chef Paolo Lavezzini’s menu draws on his expertise from award-winning restaurants in Florence, subtly influencing every element of this gastronomic gem.

Tortelli de Vitelo 01 - Divulgação Fasano

While the mirrored ears, a Starck design hallmark, listened in on our conversation, I heard an anecdote about the hotel’s owner. “Rogério loves cinema and had been studying film in London; he dreamed of being a director and one of his idols was Francis Ford Coppola. After receiving a call to come back to Brazil and manage the family business, Rogério left his film career behind.” But with a stroke of serendipitous luck, Rogério would one day meet his idol when Coppola paid a visit to this famed hotel. “He was a little nervous about asking the celebrated director for an autograph, but he did and now it sits on our Hall of Fame wall just outside of the Baretto-Londra bar!” An homage to London, Rogério’s favorite city, the pub-style bar hosts both DJs and classic rock bands, with décor characteristic of British music icons. The signature Union Jack flag hangs in the background, but the colors provide a nod to Fasano’s Italian heritage.

StarckEars

Luckily for travelers who appreciate the Fasano philosophy, the hotel is expanding throughout Latin America. With Brazilian locations as close as Angra dos Reis and Belo Horizonte opening in the next year, and projects planned for Miami and the reopening of  Uruguay’s property, travelers seeking out this “understated luxury” won’t have to look further than one of Fasano’s meticulously planned hotel experiences.

Suite

If you need souvenirs, or even a gift for yourself, just down the way is Ipanema’s shopping district, which is full of Brazilian brands: Osklen, Francesca Romana, Melissa, and of course the ubiquitous Havaianas. Depending on your budget, and how much space you have in your carry-on, you’ll be sure to find a way to support the Brazilian economy with a visit to these boutiques – gift list in hand.

Maybe you keep up on travel trends like “voluntourism”, work for a company that sponsors volunteer vacations abroad, or just have a desire to help others in need. Doing community service while traveling is an alternate lens to learn about the countries we visit. Eager to participate in Stanford’s “Beyond the Farm”, my alma mater’s annual day of community service event, I joined a Mais Caminhos event early one Saturday morning. Mais Caminhos, the community outreach arm of the language center Caminhos, organized a group of volunteers from all over the globe, many of whom are studying Portuguese at the center, to head up the street to a local school, Solar Meninos de Luz.

Solar Meninos de Luz was founded in 1991 to bring educational, health, and cultural programs to the favela neighborhoods that sit behind Ipanema, and has grown over the years, now supporting over 5,000 families. When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by Brama, a spirited soul who manages the Paulo Coelho Library. After sharing some of the history of the school, the library, and its famous donor, Brama gave us a tour of the classrooms, all lined with artwork and projects from its students. With a challenging charter before us, we began to clean and dust over 20,000 books that lined the shelves of this great community resource.

Beyond just providing an opportunity to do a bit of good for the local citizens, the Mais Caminhos event was a way for us foreigners to share travel tales and resources, as well as animated anecdotes from our struggles with learning a foreign language here in Brazil. While diligently dusting off copies of classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and volumes by Brazilian authors Clarice Lispector, and Paulo Coelho himself, I thought back on my own experience of living here and learning a foreign language as an adult. Life changing, it is one of my proudest accomplishments, and I’m always encouraging others to do the same. Meeting other language enthusiasts while making a positive change in this neighborhood was definitely a highlight of this trip.

CaminhosgrouppictureComuna

Later that evening, I headed to nearby Botafogo, which has a lively mix of bars, bookstores, and oddly enough – hamburger joints. On my last visit, I ended up at Hell’s Burguer, which is always a good option. But after reading Veja’s Comer & Beber list of top hamburger spots, I had to try the famed Comuna. This first place winner has a small menu, and rightfully so, since the burgers are a meal in themselves. There’s no need for fries. Just make sure and indulge in one of their handcrafted milkshakes after you’ve had enough time to digest your food.

Botafogo is also a great neighborhood if you like to barhop. Start with the stretch of bars that are easily accessible from the metro. One of my favorites, The Boua, has a bountiful selection of beers on tap, and an accompanying menu of traditional Brazilian appetizers, but with a twist. The mandioca, linguica, and of course, batata frita, or French fries are all large enough to share. My favorite is a mixture of octopus, sausage, and potatoes, all melted together with gouda cheese in a bread bowl; something that instantly transported me to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Also in the area is Bar Bukowski, a lively weekend-only spot where you can get a hefty dose of classic rock and sing along to your favorite Stones’ songs with the locals. For a more mellow vibe, there’s the WineHouse if you want to sip on your favorite bottle of Chilean cabernet coupled with crispy bruschetta and other small bites to pair with your glass. Their cellar has a diverse, yet appealing selection of wines from Italy, France, and some hard to find Brazilian wines, which you can sample during their weekday happy hour.

bayofbotafogo

For some of us, happy hour is a time to get outside and enjoy those last hours of sunshine. If this is you, then a walk, or a bike ride, along Botafogo Bay should be on your list. Depending on how far you want to go, you can weave your way towards Flamengo, or head in the other direction towards the Yacht Club, down to Urca, and end up at Praia Vermelha. Nestled in this cove where throngs of tourists make their way up to the top of picturesque Pão de Açucar is a small beach where you can sit and see the sky light up with colorful streaks as the sun sets behind you.

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My next, and final, dining destination was to Zaza’s Bistro, a colorful restaurant that makes their eating experience a full sensory adventure. With its quirky decor, Zaza’s envelops you in a tropical version of a Tim Burton movie set, all while waiting for your highly anticipated meal. The Gilson Martins placemats, gilded metal flowers, and inspiring quotes painted on the walls are all Instagram-worthy, and enough distraction while you wait for each course.

What’s unique about Zaza’s, and makes it hard to get a same-day reservation, is the attention to detail with each plate. The menu sources local, organic ingredients, often changing their menu from week to week, and infuses international flavors into traditional Brazilian dishes.

I started with an inventive appetizer of smoked octopus samosas served with a sweet chili marmalade, and paired these tasty starters with their “Soft Flora” drink, a delicate blend of mango, mint, coconut water, and tonic – the perfect refresher for a warm evening. But Zaza’s drink menu is worth a second glance; they artfully blend Brazilian fruits and their house favorite, Absolut vodka, to provide the perfect accompaniment to each of your courses. And definitely save room for dessert. If you can’t choose just one from the luscious list, opt for the chef’s degustation menu where you’ll be able to sample each of their delicious offerings.

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As I sat there enjoying each morsel, I thought back to my conversation with Chef Leticia and eagerly anticipated returning home to try some of her recipes. “Open your mind to new cuisines. I would love for people everywhere to integrate Brazilian cuisine into the mainstream. Shop local and eat global – that’s what I’m trying to show in my book.” Looking forward to planning my next dinner party menu, I recalled her advice about throwing a successful one: “Plan and do as much ahead of time as possible – that way you have more time to spend with friends!”

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As American As Mole

“I am an American discovering America”. These words by Marsden Hartley never rang truer than during my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This enchanting artists’ colony has been on my travel bucket list for some time. I had no idea the rich history, both culturally and culinary, that awaited me in this southwestern town.

A lover of all things epicurean, I enrolled in a cooking class at the suggestion of my hotel concierge. Santa Fe School of Cooking hosts a wide array of hands-on courses and tasting menus, which made it hard to choose, but I ultimately decided on “Mole & More”. Mole, a dish with endless ingredients and prep time that would deter most home chefs, has always intimidated a seasoned cook like myself. Little did I know that our instructor, Chef Michelle Chavez, would guide us through the process with ease, providing helpful tips and tricks along the way.

Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class
Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class

Michelle, equal parts historian, teacher, and foodie, began our four-hour session with an introduction that rivaled my AP US History class. During her talk, I learned more about this region of America than in my four years of high school history classes. “Every group of people who came through Santa Fe, be it on the Camino Real or the Santa Fe Trail, left an indelible impression on our food and culture. To remove one from our history would change our ways drastically”, shared Michelle as she pointed out the bountiful culinary traditions of those who had come before. “Corn, beans and squash, collectively known as The Three Sisters, were gifts of the native population, as well as the wine grapes, pigs, sheep, wheat and other cultivars brought by the Spanish.” She shared stories of the Pueblo, Zuni, and Oaxaca heritages, highlighting the often overlooked contributions of these Native Americans to this plentiful cuisine and culture.

Prepped ingredients ready for
Prepped ingredients ready for Michelle’s mastery

While Michelle mixed fresh beans, roasted fragrant chiles, and simmered Abuelita chocolate, she offered suggestions on everything from making bone broth to cookie-crumb crust. Scribbling down every word on my recipe sheets, I was eager to try these suggestions back home. With Food Network-style presentation, Michelle wove around the room with each course neatly timed. Each dish exceeded my palette’s expectations, and had a precise mixture of sweet and savory, all while offering that signature New Mexican spice.

As class came to a close, I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle and thank her for an unforgettable experience. After telling her about my spotty knowledge of American history, she recommended that I read Blood & Thunder by Kit Carson. Eager for a deeper insight to the history of New Mexico and the southwest, I added the book to my wish list. Not wanting the class to end, I asked Michelle for a photo and barraged her with other questions. Obliging, she mentioned that she was working on a book and that her travel bucket list location was “to the spice markets of Northern Africa and India; basically anywhere that has a strong food culture with great biodiversity.”

Weaving my way up through the center of town, I thought about my impromptu history lesson and what this area must have looked like centuries ago. I imagined towering rows of corn, fields of colorful squash, and an earthy expanse set against the stark blue sky and hovering mountains.

Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art
Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art

Stepping into the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I now understood why so many artists had been drawn to this magical place. The Will Shuster murals that lined the courtyard offered a glimpse into what life was like on this land long ago.

Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster
Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster

Once inside the museum walls, I walked through the exhibit enjoying a multitude of interpretations on early American life. From Diego Romero’s Romanticism-inspired piece Olympia to Fritz Scholder’s larger than life Pop-Art Super Indian, I was overwhelmed by the wash of hues and textures that this “Summer of Color” inspired exhibit displayed. One piece drew me closer, and I stepped towards it in a cautious manner. The Scout, by Warren E. Rollins, made me wonder what was going through this man’s head.  Capturing the uneasy feeling of a stranger approaching, “Do I retreat? What do they want? Where are they from?” Rollins’ work left me pensive, yet uncomfortable.

Detail of Rollins'
Detail of Rollins’ “The Scout”

Moving on to Taos Pueblo-Moonlight, the neighboring oil painting by E. Irving Couse, I longed to step into the picture. A familiar, yet somber mood came over me as I studied the family around the fire: an elder passing on generational wisdom to an eager child.

Leaving the museum, I crossed through the square and absorbed the fresh breeze on this crisp, spring evening. Inspired by the varied artistic expressions, I took some photographs of passersby and local architecture. While seeking out my next stop, a local vendor in the square recommended that I take a walk up to San Miguel Mission.

San Miguel, the oldest church in the United States, has a simple façade washed in the burnt almond color that is ubiquitous in Santa Fe. With each creaking footstep, I made my way along the pews, admiring the quaint and homely church.

San Miguel interior
San Miguel interior

Approaching the altar, I dropped in some coins and lit a candle for my nephew. As I knelt down at the wooden altar, I looked into the foundation of the church. Squinting to make out the placard below, I could see the ruins of an Indian home dated 1300. My eyes welled up with heavy tears, overcome with the emotion and burden from the day’s lessons. I silently wept for all those who had lost their homes and habitats in that early round of colonization.  Walking slowly out of the small church, I wondered what it would be like to be displaced and lose my house and heritage in the process.

Foundation of San Miguel altar
Foundation of San Miguel altar

Once home, I was eager to try my hand at the menu that Michelle had so synchronistically prepared during my trip. Lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where many of these ingredients can be found, I reviewed my notes and assembled a shopping list for my recreation of “Mole & More”. Noting a few holes in my ingredient list, I called the school and ordered a few things to complete my menu.

Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking
Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking

I created a new acronym, WWMD, as I repeatedly asked myself through the lengthy preparation, “What would Michelle do?” With a few tweaks and twists, I prepared a spicy and sumptuous feast for a few friends. My delectable dishes were devoured in what seemed like minutes. Sharing stories of everything from summer romances to systemic racism, my guests and I enjoyed a fragrant and fulfilling meal. Pleased with my performance, I recounted stories and insights from my trip to Santa Fe and vowed to return to the southwestern town before year-end.

Santa Fe, New Mexico airport
Santa Fe, New Mexico airport