Brazilian Food

Rio de Janeiro Travel Blog

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Brazil has fantastic food. Perhaps I feel this way because Argentina, where I was previously, offers a good but disappointingly limited array of meals. So, like a caravan out of the desert of steak and empanadas, this study abroad trip has found the oasis of Rios de Janeiro. Although only partaking in a little more spice than there neighbors to the south, Rio food has more food options, flavors, and methods of preparing and serving than most places in the world. From sushi joints, to churrascarias, to pizzerias, and, of course, food by the kilo establishments, Rio has something for everybody. So why have I, in such a short time, eaten at McDonald’s twice in my two weeks here when I did not eat there once in Argentina?
The great food hints at one of the key components of Brazilian identity, which is the enormous amount of cultural diversity within the country. Each type of food has its corresponding cultural foundation. The significant population of Japanese explains the great sushi, and the Italian influence can be seen in the pizzerias. The cultural melting pot that is Brazil has made its food the absolute best in the world, because it is a little bit of everything from everywhere. However, another key aspect that pertains to Brazilian identity has prohibited me from taking part in this culinary experience to the fullest extent.
Language is an important part of identity for any nation. In Latin America, this key component is often missing since the majority of the region speaks Spanish due to its colonial past. In two cases, however, language does play an important role in the development of national identity. For Paraguay, the onomatopoeic, indigenous, and unofficially official language is Guaraní. In Brazil, the great divide of the colonial powers deemed that Portuguese would be spoken in the world’s fifth largest nation.
Obviously, this sets Brazil apart as the only nation in Latin America that speaks the language. It is also only one of two in the world, and separated by an ocean from its birthplace in Iberia. One can imagine that this creates the kind of difference in communication that national identity often arises from. Unfortunately for me, however, it means I am totally and completely lost.
I can read a little in Portuguese, and I can say “hello” and “thank you”, but any attempt at communication beyond these points leaves me helpless. This has made me a little shy in terms of finding food, as I am a little timid to go out on a limb, as I might have in Argentina, because I can’t talk my way through anything. Hence, I have trusted what I know best, and I do know McDonald’s. They know a little Spanish there, I know, and I can always just point at what I want.
I have been a little braver recently in terms of food, with decent success, but the point is that whatever thoughts I might have had about blending in while in Buenos Aires has been totally destroyed in Rio as soon as I open my mouth. This is because Brazilian identity is distinct from the rest of Latin America because of its language, if for nothing else. In this sense my brain can’t wait to get back to BA so I can communicate, if only in a marginally effective manner. However, I think my stomach may remain here in Rio. I will resist being cheesy and saying my heart is in any particular location.

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Rio de Janeiro, more than any other place in the world perhaps, defines contrast. Juxtaposing the beautiful and the deformed, the wealthy and the destitute, felicity and despair, Rio offers as much social relief as its famed geography with dramatic changes that are just as violent. As the terrain of Rio heaves from the white beaches to the summit of the Pão de Açúcar, to the heights of Mt. Corcovado, income levels and ascetic touches seem to fluctuate as well, with the ever present trend of rising poverty with an increase in altitude. One only needs to experience this transition by walking a few blocks off the glitzy beaches of Ipanema or Copacabana to experience the worst and best of Latin American urban poverty.
Of course, I am referring to the presence of the hillside favelas in the city, at once a defining feature of the city, but a its largest social issue as well. These hillside squatters living in illegal homes (with plumbing, electricity, and cable nevertheless) at once bring danger and character to the city. Upon looking at white dots stacked on top of each other from Ipanema at night, one is overwhelmed with a sense of both awe at the stunning sight and sadness at the prospect of people living in such circumstances. It is a sickly beautiful picture of tranquil beach set against Third World Poverty.
For me, the most pressing issue in Rio is “what ought to be done with the favelas?” While most people from the favela are decent, hard-working people, the poverty and violence of many of these hillside squatter camps pose an ever-present danger in the city. They are in some aspects like a disease, ready to take over the city as the violence spills over the borders and the favelas grow themselves. In terms of violence, it has rivaled Colombia in the past, and nowhere in the world is such desperate poverty so close to decadent affluence as in Rio. Their highly visible location on the hillside provides a constant reminder of the need for relief of a different type.
While the violence and poverty are their most apparent aspect, the favelas are the cultural lifeblood of Rio. As I said before, they are mostly hard-working people, and the violence only involves the rug gangs for the most part. Furthermore, much of the flavor of Brazilian identity is derived from these slums. From samba to soccer, the favela influence can be seen on many of the key characteristics of Brazil. While sociologists may disagree on this point, it is hard to deny the positive cultural impact of the favela as well as its negative impact. In this way one has a precarious situation, how to leave the poverty and violence behind while maintaining the culture of the favela? If the favelas ceased to exist, would at least some part of the Brazilian culture perish as well?
Perhaps this is an overly academic question. If the were so lucky to have the option to do away with the poverty and violence, I am sure Brazilians would most certainly take it. It seems wrong to think that poverty sustains the culture, when the opposite may be true. The fact is it will be a long time before we know—the bottom line is that Rio is floundering, if not dying, economically. Its tourism industry is worse than it should be, and it’s main economic entity is entertainment. In such dire economic circumstances it is evident that Rio will continue to have favelas for the foreseeable future. They will continue to both threaten and sustain the city, an omnipresent force in la Cidade Maravilhosa.
As I rode in the taxi out along the Lagoa, the air was clear and Rio looked beautiful—seemingly a perfect ending to my stay in the city. Once I passed under Corcovado, however, the mountain in the middle of the city separating wealthy Ipanema from the rest of the city, I entered a cloud of smog that would rival Los Angeles. I never got a last look at Sugar Loaf of the imposing statue of Christ on Corcovado because of it. It seemed an appropriate metaphor at the time…the cloud of poverty engulfing the city on one side, while the wealthy in Ipanema breathed freely, and perhaps Christ was fighting on the mountain to keep the cloud at bay and prevent it from taking over any more of the city. As I arrived at the airport, however, it became apparent that this was incorrect. In Rio, there is no dividing line; poverty and wealth can be found everywhere and anywhere. Its social classes are as diverse and intermingled as its racial backgrounds, once again reflecting the unique and dramatic geographic relief of the city—the perfect metaphor for a city of such great contrast and diversity. Indeed, borders in Rio are as blurred as the outline of the city was from my cab window.

1,984 km (1,233 miles) traveled
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