By Rob Packer

The chocolate digestive

If Pandora was alive today and living in Britain, the chances are that her famous box of troubles would have a different shape: a roll about 20cm long and about 5 in circumference with a red plastic wrapper. This all sounds pretty harmless, but once opened, rest assured, it would be Hesiod all over again: everything all escapes in one go and impossible to shut—or put back in the cupboard to save until tomorrow. Every house in Britain has at least one of these Pandora’s rolls and it’s really no surprise: the things are delicious.

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Hot Cross Buns

By Rob Packer

Hot Cross Buns

Good Friday always reminds me of a morning almost ten years ago sitting in a friends’ kitchen in Berlin and discussing our plans for the Easter weekend. I was going to Munich, while they were staying in Berlin with an urge to go dancing. “Of course, we can’t go out tonight.” “Why?” I asked and was told that places in Germany are sometimes closed on Good Friday and dance floors are, in any case, normally roped off because “it’s the saddest day of the year”.

But in Britain too—a notoriously irreligious country—the palimpsest effect that religion has on culture is as strong. Yet it always seems slightly paradoxical that, Christmas apart, some of the festivals and seasonal foods that I consider most typically English are all Lenten. The season begins with pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Then halfway through comes Mothering Sunday (not to be confused with Mother’s Day outside the British Isles), which is supposed to be when people traditionally visited their “mother church” (and mother) and brings simnel cake, a fruit cake with a marzipan covering and little marzipan balls representing the apostles. At the end of Lent is Easter, simnel cake reappears and is joined by eggs and rabbits, probably holdovers from ancient Germanic traditions.

And throughout Lent and especially on Good Friday, we have a family tradition of eating hot cross buns on a Saturday morning. These are sweet buns with a glaze, currant and raisin dough and—most importantly—a cross on top. Growing up, I’d always been told that the official version that they symbolize the Crucifixion, but after taking a look at the Wikipedia article, the real story looks a fair bit more complex. This article from the 1912 New York Times, for example, threads a fuzzy genealogy back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, as well as to the putative Saxon goddess, Eostre, from whose name we get the English Easter and German Ostern. Another theory sees the cross as little more than a dividing line and links Eostre with the phases of the moon.

But while that might be true, it does sound a little farfetched and probably does overanalyse the delicious.

Brazilian Hand Rolls

By Rob Packer

It almost goes without saying that sushi will be available wherever you go. Standards might vary (wildly), the preferred variety might be different (in Colombia, it seems to be mostly futomaki, for example), you might not want to eat it; but there it will be. With its large Japanese population (see this blog), Brazil is no exception, even though I think this probably has more to do with global trends in places like Florianópolis. And there are two things about sushi-eating here that seem particularly Brazilian: the rodízio and the temakeria.

The rodízio de sushi, or all-you-can-eat, is something I doubt I’ll be doing again. It conflicted with a certain bias of mine towards the paramount importance of the freshness of the ingredients—as I’ve mentioned before, seeing the staff pack the nigiri in the fridge is something that no-one should see. Added to that, different prices depending on whether you eat maki, nigiri or sashimi just seems plain wrong.

On the other hand, the temakeria is a lot more to my liking: these places serve mainly or entirely hand rolls, or temaki. In Hong Kong or the UK (I’ve never been to Japan), for example, temaki always seemed hard-to-come-by and relatively expensive: in Brazil, it’s a key part of the menu and is normally decent value for money. People have told me that in pre-temakeria days, sushi was too expensive for most people; a Brazilian temaki is just about meal-sized (so is far bigger than any I’ve ever seen in other countries) and available for about the price of a burger.

It’s not all that authentic, it’s certainly not gourmet and borders on fast food, but it’s definitely tasty.


The everything temaki.

The tuna one.

Well, yes, it is a bit like fast food.

Temax Temakeria, Germano Wendhausen #190, Florianópolis

Food: We had two temaki. The Max Temax was a bit overloaded with too many types of sashimi, as it included pieces of salmon, tuna, prawn, kani and octopus; the Atum especial, on the other hand, was pieces of tuna with cream cheese and a touch of tabasco. Neither included much rice at all, so were low on authenticity, but the food is good overall and I’ve been told that other places aren’t nearly as good.

Price: Where the temakeria wins is on price: each temaki cost R$14 (US$8, £5).

Restinga Recanto: Lunch in Sambaqui

By Rob Packer 

I’ve written about Sambaqui before, but we decided to head back there to make the most of today’s public holiday without spending hours in the traffic jam heading to the east of the island.

We had lunch at Restinga Recanto, a restaurant decorated with traditional papier-mâché models used in the boi-de-mamão dance (a more humane version of bull-fighting, video here) and with one of the most spectacular views in Florianópolis.

Not a bad view for lunch.

The other side of the lunchtime view.

We started the meal with a pastel de siri (a fried crab empanada) and then had anchova à portuguesa with pirão de camarão and rice. If you take away the à portuguesapart (it meant ‘with a mustard sauce’ this time), this is one of the traditional lunches of Florianópolis.


More boi-de-mamão

Restinga Recanto, Rod. Rafael Rocha Pires, #2759, Sambaqui, Florianópolis

Food: Your views on anchovy are very dependent on what you think of oily fish (I like it, my lunch companion is fast going off it). On the other hand, the mustard sauce was just strange: it’s not that it was unpleasant; I just doubt I’ll order it again. The pirão, a mixture of mandioc paste and fish stock that’s much than it sounds, was good.

Service: Service is never great in Florianópolis, the place was very busy and we were in a corner, so waiters’ indifference to my arm-waving is at least partly excused.

Price: That view doesn’t come for free: R$39 (US$22, £14) for the anchovy with sides and it came to R$67 (US$38, £24) between two for the whole meal, which is pretty much the going rate.

Anchova à portuguesa: a traditional dish, but what's with the mustard sauce?

Pirão de camarão: a mixture of mandioc flour and fish stock, with some prawns thrown in.

Pastel de siri: a fried crab empanada.

Inside the pastel.

Some fried yucca to start.

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.

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.

Abacaxi, Pineapple, Piña

By Rob Packer

The Brazilian pineapple, the abacaxi, is really just like any other apart from its shape. Rather than being the squat, roundish variety I’ve seen almost everywhere else, the abacaxilooks like it’s been stretched into a cone shape and its crown compacted.

Pineapple crown.

Abacaxi, like a stretched pineapple.

The pineapple goes a long way in Brazil and there are lots of ways of eating or drinking it, whether as a juice with mint or as pineapple tea, similar to Colombia’s guarapo, made by boiling the parts you don’t eat (the skin and maybe the core) and as far as I’ve seen, drunk hot—unlike guarapo.

Suco de acabaxi com hortelã. Pineapple juice with mint.

Maybe roasted the best way of eating pineapple though, like I’ve seen at churrascarias (Brazilian steakhouses). The roasting process (either wrapped in aluminium foil or roasted with its skin, which is then cut off) caramelizes the sugars and takes away the acidity.

The only thing that’s missing is the chopped, raw, ripe piña with chile and lime that I used to eat in Mexico.

Pineapple skin

Carambola, Star Fruit, Carambolo

By Rob Packer

I must have been six or seven, the first time I saw a star fruit (carambola in Brazilian Portuguese, carambolo in Colombian Spanish). I had just (re) discovered the fruit salad and wanted to make one with the most interesting fruit I could find in the slimly-stocked fruit section of late 1980’s British supermarkets. The star fruit, a fruit whose name I could only understand once we started to make the fruit salad, seemed the perfect addition, but it disappointed and I still remember my mum’s verdict: it tastes like cucumber.

Star fruit - Carambola - Carambolo

It was 15 years before I tried it again in Colombia last year, a carambolo this time. Unlike the star fruit that made it to the UK, this one had a definite taste: it was sour like a lemon, the kind of fruit that tastes best with salt and lime. The carambola in Brazil still has the citrusy tartness of the Colombian version but without the acidity.

Years later, though, I can still see what my mum meant: it seems more of a vegetable. You might be able to make a juice out of it—like I did this morning—but it doesn’t really work on its own except as a shape-based novelty. For me, its tart, vegetal flavour works better added to (savoury and fruit) salads.

Suco de carambola: stick it in the blender with some water and sugar.

Anything’s possible if you have guascas: Ajiaco in Brazil

By Rob Packer

Ajiaco, one of the most famous dishes of Colombian cuisine, is a soup of three types of potato, chicken, maize, avocado and—most importantly—guascas, a herb that gives ajiaco its flavour. I didn’t make it, but there’s been a packet of guascas from Colombia in the apartment for a few weeks, so why not make an ajiaco for Saturday lunch? The results were good, although it was missing two things: capers (due to laziness) and papa criolla, a small, delicious, yellow potato that’s hard to find outside the Andes.

Today's ajiaco with avocado.


Fruit in Brazil

By Rob Packer

Your first trip to the juice shop in Brazil is an intimidating experience: firstly, the range is so large—30 to 40 options seem to be the norm—that trying something you already know seems like a waste. Secondly, you have no idea what anything is, which makes your first problem worse.

A stall in São Paulo's Mercado Público, where you can find every fruit you've ever dreamt again (except durian)

If you learn Portuguese from a Spanish-speaking background, you quickly learn that lots of words are similar and lots of words are very different: fruit names are the latter. You reason, for example, that guanábana and Guanabara, the bay where Rio sits, look pretty similar, so you guanábana must be the Portuguese word, rather than the pregnant-looking graviola. And this is before you get to cajá, caju, guaraná, acerola, or pitanga, some of the many that barely seem to exist outside of Brazil.

As one of the world’s megadiverse countries, Brazil, like Colombia or Mexico, has an incredible range of fruit going from European staples like apples to açaí: it would take years to get to know all the fruit of Brazil, so I’m not going to try; what I will try, though, is to use a few blogs to scratch the surface of the fruit available in the country.

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