Street food in Liberdade

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.

The gyoza stall

Globe-trotting dorayaki with red bean paste and vanilla cream

Mochi (or moti as it's spelt in Portuguese) and yakimanju

Liberdade on a quieter day: the area is traditionally the Japanese area of São Paulo and therefore, the centre of the largest Japanese community outside Japan.

A Brazilian Volksfest

By Rob Packer

Oktoberfest in Blumenau

I’ve dedicated about a third of my life to the German language and lived in Germany for a year, but have never been to the country’s most famous festival, Oktoberfest in Munich (from Berlin we used to sneer at the strange ways of those Bavarians). This all means that I didn’t have much of a point of reference this weekend at the world’s second-largest Oktoberfest in Blumenau, Brazil. It was quite the disorienting experience.

Frohes Fest!

A Blumenau department store.

Brazil began encouraging migrants to settle its southern states in the second half of the 19th century, above all attracting Germans and Italians and there are dialects holding out here that are now extinct in Europe (here and herein Wikipedia). In Santa Catarina, German settlement was concentrated around Joinville and cutely named Blumenau, the valley of flowers. Today Germans and Italians make up most of Blumenau’s population, the city centre is a pastiche of Central European architecture, and it has proudly hosted the Americas’ largest “Germanic festival” since 1984—a highly successful tourism project after a serious flood.

Mitteleuropa in Brasilien.

I’ve already been to a (delicious) more-German-than-Germany restaurant in Curitiba, where I realized that my limit for non-stop Blasmusik (sometimes in Portuguese) is probably around the three-hour mark. Read more of this post

Still lost

By Rob Packer

Wally (or Waldo if you have the North American edition) is still lost somewhere in Buenos Aires:

Missing!

Buenos Aires Cultural Battles

By Rob Packer

Three blocks from Buenos Aires’ Retiro station, and round the corner from a couturier for polo, lies a beautiful colonial-style palace that immediately stands out from other buildings in the city that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris. Today the Palacio Noel houses the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco” with its collection of Spanish colonial art, seen from the context of a fin de siècle intellectual debate for Argentina’s culture.

Buenos Aires' neo-colonial Palacio Noel, now the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco”

The museum’s introduction paints a picture of a 19th-century Buenos Aires dominated by French-influenced eclecticism and immigration from Europe that was Europeanizing the city’s Spanish colonial cultural influences and by 1914 made up half of the capital’s population, forming a large part of the poorer classes. In the face of these changing circumstances, the creole elite “tried to put a brake on this subjugation”; the museum calls this Hispanicism the “first nationalist movement” and mentions a group of intellectuals around Ricardo Rojas, Rubén Darío and Manuel Ugarte, forming “a counterpoint to the imperialist advance of Europe and the United States”. I am unsure, however, how European immigrants could have been both poor and imperialists. Read more of this post

En hommage

By Rob Packer

As ballsy and shameless justifications go, José Sarney is a past master.

He was president of Brazil between 1985 and 1990, is currently the president of the Senate and has been implicated in corruption cases for “misappropriation of funds, tax evasion, and nepotism” (see this article from the UNHCR on a gagging order put on a Brazilian newspaper to curb reporting on a 2009 scandal). More recently, it was exposed in August that he’s been going to business meetings on his private island in Maranhão state by a helicopter bought for the Polícia Militar to fight crime and to help in medical emergencies. This kind of thing really does happen everywhere and it barely came as a surprise that the helicopter was needed in a medical emergency at the same time; it was his explanation that left me incredulous. In short, he was exercising his constitutional right to transport and security within Brazil.

This week, the ex-president has been at it again, telling the newspaper Zero Hora that privileges for Brazil’s elected representatives were created so that deputies are free and don’t have to live in misery. He then went on to say that he has a constitutional right to be transported by a state-owned, rather than private, helicopter—and that this “pays homage to democracy”. Clearly, Mr Sarney and I have different definitions of democracy.

Watching Brazil at close range, it’s difficult to keep track of the intricate details of corruption scandals (this helicopter scandal is both easy-to-understand and relatively minor, here is an example) and it’s very easy for scandal fatigue to set in. On the other hand, Dilma’s lack of tolerance for corruption does feel like a breath of fresh air and it does feel like things could, maybe, come to a head in the near future. It’ll be interesting to see how many people attend the Marches against Corruption across Brazil today (video and site here), although past experience has shown that it’s quite common for people not to show up.

Hopefully, Arnaldo Jabor was wrong when he said, “a Brazilian’s social consciousness is fear of the police”.

Navigating in Argentina

By Rob Packer

There are just twelve days to go until Argentina’s 2011 presidential elections and there is little doubt that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will be re-elected. She won Argentina’s primary in August with more than 50% of the vote—unlike in the US or France, Argentina’s first-ever primary was more like a dry run for the real election. The press has read the writing on the wall: today’s edition of Clarín, Argentina’s most-widely read daily and no friend of the Kirchners, seemed more concerned with who will be the Finance Minister when Cristina wins and Amado Boudou, the current minister becomes vice-president.

On the other hand, I have yet to find an Argentine with a nice word to say about their president and have been variously told about the lack of a credible opposition, a government more interested in settling old scores than keeping the country self-sufficient in meat, or authoritarian inclinations that many thought had died with her late husband and presidential predecessor.

If the press and the Argentines themselves (I haven’t watched much television) are ambivalent or indifferent to their president—elections are compulsory in Argentina—a look at any street or highway in the country might have you believe that the country is in election fever because there are posters everywhere. The vast majority of these are for Cristina, showing the president with her candidate for governor and for mayor if there’s space on the wall. All this has a surprise advantage: navigation.

For example, I was recently in Mendoza and wanted to go to Maipú, where some of that region’s vineyards are. I knew that the bus routes either went through the municipalities of Guaymallén or Godoy Cruz, so all I needed to do was to count the mayors: this really isn’t that hard as there are posters at least every block. When I arrived at the third one, I knew it was time to get off the bus.

Turn left at the third mayor.

Helado argentino

By Rob Packer

Ice cream in Argentina is one of the areas where the country’s Italian influence is strongest: in the parts of the country I know, it feels like there’s a heladería every couple of blocks selling sambayón (zabaglione), frutilla (strawberry), an obligatory plethora of dulce de leche flavours, and many more.

Dulce de leche is too sweet for me, so the best flavours are often the ones involving wine. In Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital, Ferruccio Soppelsa was recommended to me as the city’s best heladería for its wine-based flavours that use Argentina’s two most famous varietals: Malbec and Torrontés. The combination of strawberry and Torrontés in a sorbet fell slightly flat for me, probably because of its relatively delicate flavour. Their vanilla and malbec ice cream, on the other hand, was a dream. But my favourite has to be the Malbec and Fruits of the Forest flavour that two friends and I decided was the clear winner on a recent trip to a branch of Freddo in Buenos Aires.

Frutilla al Torrontés on top; vainilla al Malbec underneath.

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