October 30, 2011 1 Comment
By Rob Packer
It is far from a secret that non-native food is adapted to local palates and produce, and that the resultant fusions range from the excellent to the inedible. After two years of eating mostly Asian food in Hong Kong, it was a difficult culinary withdrawal as I arrived in Latin America. I’ve never got over a distressing lunch experience in a Chinese restaurant in Venezuela and I’ve looked on in dismay at closing time at a high-end all-you-can-eat sushi buffet in Brazil as the staff packed the nigiri away in the fridge. In short, experience has taught me to be wary.
This isn’t to say that all is bad news: in Mexico City I lived a couple of blocks from a great Japanese restaurant and a glut of excellent Korean ones; the Chinese food in Lima is legendary (I’ve yet to go check); temaki in Brazil is tasty and abundant; even the mochi adapted for Brazilian supermarkets is both far sweeter than anything I ever tasted in Asia and pretty good. And today I can add the street food at the Feira da Liberdade, a weekly market on São Paulo’s Praça da Liberdade, the traditional focus of the largest Japanese community outside Japan.
Of the things I tried, the okonomiyaki—a savoury vegetable-filled pancake that’s often hard to find outside Asia—was probably the weakest as it was missing the toppings. On the other hand, the (enormous) gyoza was deliciously meaty and garlicky, and the red bean paste filling of the dorayaki was—authentically—not too sweet. And as I was researching for this blog, I found out that this dish has almost crossed the world twice in two parallel and reciprocal journeys: the pancake part of the dorayaki is made of castella, which is a Japanese adaptation of cakes Portuguese traders brought to Nagasaki in the 16th century; before later being brought by Japanese migrants to what was once a Portuguese colony.