My first trip to Brazil was to Rio de Janeiro at a time when you received combat pay traveling there. Rio was considered the murder capital of the world and for the first time in my life, I considered ordering a car service from the hotel to pick me up. That was supposed to ensure that nothing bad would happen when you are most vulnerable (at the arrival airport, over tired, disoriented, but with all your luggage, documents, and cash). Since I arrived early in the morning, on a weekend day, I easily found my driver and got to the hotel (at the Southern end of Ipanema beach within a good half hour).
The driver was a young student and we ended up spending the rest of the day driving around Rio sightseeing. While the hotel was very nice, across the beach road, the favelas started. Walking from the hotel to the famous Ipanema beach along the favelas, and then along the beach, gave one a quintessential Rio experience within a 30-minute span. Giving in to the crime reports, my beach walking equipment was limited to swimming trunks, t-shirt, flip flops, no jewelry or watch, and the equivalent to 10 dollars in cash. It was amazing to walk along the beach seeing the beautiful sights and people of Rio, all the while being seriously scared of crime (imagined or real). While I experienced these mixed emotions, I got introduced to Caiprinihas, and my world was never the same again. A combination of cachaça, lime, sugar, and ice, overlooking the beach and the ocean is one of the best experiences ever.
And then the food…. My first real experience of South American beef began at Marius, a famous Brazilian churrascaria, right on Copacabana. It was a bit socially uncomfortable since I met with our two competing software resellers, naively trying to make peace between them. So, the three of us were sitting at a table for 6 with them across from me and as far apart from each other as possible. The wait staff was awesome and just piled appetizers and side dishes on the table to make it as “un-awkward” as possible. And then magic happened – Meat on skewers arrived. All different cuts of beef, chicken hearts, lamb chops, pork loin, sausages, scallops, and shrimp. One better than the other. Grilled to perfection, cut to order, and elegantly slapped on your plate. Add farofa (dry manioc kernels – somewhat similarly looking to couscous), chimichurri, plantains, potatoes, salad, and lots of other small dishes and you have the perfect carnivore meal. Even the palpable hostility of our Brazilian dealers did not intrude on this heavenly experience. Well, maybe the bottomless caipirinhas helped.
Every time, I visited Rio, I went back to Marius for that amazing indulgence (albeit without the two "dealers"). After the pounds of meat intake, taking a leisurely stroll along Copacabana topped off each evening beautifully (by that time, Rio has become safe enough to walk along the beach before midnight). A few years later, I stayed for a long weekend (in Sao Paulo) and was finally introduced to “the Saturday” meal of many everyday Brazilians, Feijoada.
Of all places, I experienced it at a restaurant for airport workers, near the domestic terminal of Sao Paulo’s Campo de Marte or Congonhas airports – my memory is a bit fuzzy here... Regardless, I remember distinctively that there were 6 different pots of the black bean stew, all with different types of meat. Since this was an all you can eat buffet, I tried all six. Legend has it that feijoada was made by slaves on sugar cane plantations with the meat scraps left over by the masters. Let’s believe this legend because it adds to the allure of the stew. Besides salted and smoked pork, each of the six pots had a different kind of “special meat scrap” to distinguish it. The pots contained pigs feet, pigs tails, pig ears, pork belly, carne-seca (jerk beef), and pork spareribs. Like so many of the world’s best dishes, it takes a lot of time to make (largely to soften the “cheap” ingredients) and plenty of love (and of course some spices). After that amazing introduction to this incredible dish, it became a must on each trip to Brazil. It feels like coming home.