Thursday, November 24, 2011

Berimbau: The best açaí I've never had

Hash de Bacalhau (front), caipirinha, feijão and arroz (middle), omelet (top).
I'm pretty sure I've found the best açaí in New York City. I'm only pretty sure, because I haven't tried it.

A Berimbau
 Joel "Pica Pau" Zimmer
Raízes do Brasil 
This past Saturday, my roommate and I enjoyed a boozey Brazilian brunch at Berimbau in the West Village. Named after a stringed percussion instrument you've probably seen and heard in capoeira circles, Berimbau, is a wonderful place to begin, or end, your weekend. I imagine it's a great dinner spot as well.

Berimbau menu has a mix of traditional Brazilian dishes as well as Brazilian inspired American dishes. I have a personal rule of sticking with traditional plates, like feijoada, a stew of black beens and mystery meats which has risen from its peasant origins to become the national dish or moqueca, a seafood stew made with palm oil and coconut milk. On this morning, however, I was craving breakfast, so I selected a scramble of eggs and bacalhau, salted cod fish that is a popular Portuguese import to Brazil. And to drink, a caipirinha, of course! I can never go to a Brazilian joint and not order cachaça, even if it's only a few minutes past noon. My lingering headache from the previous evening's activities quickly subsided after a few sips. Berimbau's caipirinhas are strong and not overly sweet, just the way I like them. 

Note that I haven't yet mentioned açaí, the Amazonian wonder-fruit. Although açaí was the first thing I ordered, well, second after the caipirinha, I was politely denied it. That's right. Our friendly waitress, Marietta, patiently explained that there was no acaí that Saturday. The batch that had been delivered was not fit to be served. Upon hearing this, I was at first disappointed, but after a moment of reflection, I realized this was a good sign. 

You see, there is so much horrible açaí in this country, polluting the supermarket shelves and juice bars menus nation wide. And the worst part is, American consumers don't even know it. They've never tasted the real thing, unadulterated by other fruit flavors and the preservatives often required for this "miracle fruit" to survive its long trip from the Amazon rainforest. Despite not knowing what they are paying for, women's-magazine-reading, weigh-wathcing, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz fans are willing to cough up cash for all sorts of food products and supplements claiming açai as an ingredient. Even when the açai "flavor" comes through, these consumers can't judge it as good or bad. It's just new or different to them, and companies take advantage of their ignorance.

For these reasons, I was highly impressed by Berimbau's honesty and commitment to quality. Bermibau isn't trying to fool anyone or take advantage of the US "miracle fruit" marketing schemes. I will surely return to Berimbau for açaí na tigela com granola, and am confident it will be the most authentic, delicious açaí I will have tasted outside of Brazil. 

In case you find yourself craving açaí before you can get to Berimbau, I leave you with a few tips on finding good acaí in New York City and outside of Brazil.
  • NO JUICE. I have never come across acaí juice in Brazil. In Belém, the capitol of Pará state and one of the largest exporter's of açaí, the amazonian berries are mashed, and the liquid pulp is served a bowl. Paranaenses will add manioc flour or toasted tapioca for crunch. When I lived in Belém, I ate açaí líquido every Sunday with my lunch of fried fish. In southern Brazil, acaí pulp is blended with ice and guaraná syrup to make thick smoothies or served in a bowl and topped with granola, bananas and strawberries for a healthy, post-gym power snack. 
  • NO POWDER. Before you order that smoothie from your local juice bar, ask about the acaí. If the answer is powder, just say no! Do you drink powdered milk? Yeah, I didn't think so. (Please ignore the fact that powered milk is widely consumed in Brazil). I also steer clear of flavored syrups as well. If the answer is frozen concentrate, however, you may proceed. It's the closest thing you'll get to the real deal.
  • EVEN IF IT'S TASTEY, IT MIGHT NOT TASTE LIKE AÇAI. I bet this cereal is actually quite good, but there's no way in green hell that it tastes like açaí. This product would never sell in Brazil, and the flavor combination would be considered quite strange. Though they can be bought in grocery stores everywhere, apples grow only in the southern most part of Brazil. In northern Brazil, a bowl of açaí a day keeps the doctor away. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brazil is calling you. Will you answer?

Embratur, Brazil's national tourism board, is running an aggressive marketing campaign in New York City just as a less than flattering cinematic portrayal of Rio de Janeiro is hitting theaters. 

The government-sponsored campaign made its debut on New York City subways cars back in April, but I first noticed it at the starting line of the New York City Marathon on November 6th. Flying high above the Verazzano Bridge was a plane with a yellow banner trailing behind it that read in green lettering: Brazil is calling you. Run in Rio in 2012. "Yes, that's my next marathon," I thought to myself even before the gun had gone off. "Maybe I'll be living in Brazil by then."

And over the next few days, I noticed more propaganda around Manhattan with the same message. My friend sent me this picture of one of Embratur's advertisements on the Upper West Side, and I saw another ad from the same campaign in SoHo. 

The Friday after I ran the marathon was the New York premiere of the Brazilian film, "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," the sequel to a 2007 film bearing the same name. Both films portray Rio de Janeiro's special forces military police unit, BOPE, that runs anti-narcotic SWAT operations in the city's favelas, which have increasingly fallen under the rule of rival drug-trafficking gangs. While the first movie focuses on the day to day operations of BOPE and the stress it induces in the personal lives of its troops, the second film takes a step back and maps Rio's endemic violence to its corrupt municipal and State agencies and legislative bodies.

I saw the first "Elite Squad" in a theater in Brazil, holding one hand over my mouth and the other over my heart for the duration of the film. It was just that hard to watch. Still, I was anticipating the sequel's New York premiere, especially because the movie's director, José Padilha, would be hosting a question and answer session afterwards. 

"Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" is brilliant. By time the lights came up, I was filled with a potent mix of emotions that included disbelief, indignation, betrayal, and hopelessness. I had read articles from major Rio papers reporting on the actual violence and corruption which inspired much of the movie, but watching these events on the big screen contextualized them and made them real for me. I found myself questioning my dream of moving to Brazil. And from their questions, it seemed that other members of the audience were struggling with similar thoughts and emotions. 

From left to right: José Padilha, random adoring fan,
and yours truly, photo-bomber extraordinaire
Padilha stepped up to the front of the theater and fielded questions about the making of the film, its reception in Brazil, and his crew's working relationship, or lack there of, with the city of Rio and the ruling drug gangs. Padilha described a shoot for the first film during which he was summoned by the head trafficker of the favela only to be given tips on how to make a fighting scene more true to life. That story got a laugh, albeit a nervous one, from the audience.

One fellow's question to Padilha was particularly memorable. A young man introduced himself as Rio native, a Carioca, and proceeded to ask if Padilha had contemplated the impact his films would have on tourism. This man was obviously concerned about Rio's image abroad. 

I couldn't believe my ears. Did this man really think that Padilha should not have brought into plain public view the endemic corruption of Rio politics and the active efforts by those involved to exinguish the few working to govern honestly and ethically just to ensure a few hundred more tourists visit Rio each year? The gall. 

While the movie might dissuade a minority of prospective visitors, I seriously doubt it has had or will have a noticeable impact on Rio's tourism revenues. People would be foolish to change their World Cup and Olympic Games travel plans because of this film. 

I will admit, though, that spending two weeks enjoying beaches, visiting museums, and tasting local cuisine is much different than taking up residence in the same place and defaulting to local authorities to ensure the smooth and safe day to day operations of your city. Still, my own second thoughts about making that transition stem less from fear for my personal safety and more from a personal protest against injustice and corrupt government. 

Embratur's Brazil and Padilha's Brazil stand in stark opposition to one another. I fully understand neither portrayal is comprehensive, nor are they mutually exclusive, but the contrast leaves me with a funny feeling. 

Brazil is calling. It's been calling me for a number of years now. And at the moment, I'm not sure to what extent I want to answer. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

42 Kilometers: Brazil and the NYC Marathon

This past Sunday, November 6th, I ran the New York City Marathon. During my training, I learned that each runner has his or her own way of staying motivated and powering through to the finish line. Some people need to listen to a custom playlist on their iPod, others need to know they have friends and family looking out for them at every mile. 

I don't use headphones when I run, nor did I map out where everyone I know was stationed along the course. As usual, what kept me going was Brazil. My first experience in Brazil in 2007 was a major motivation for my running the marathon. But seeing and hearing signs of Brazil on race day made the 26.2 miles (or 42 kilometers) fast and fun.

I came up behind these runners along the course. Using my Portuguese, I complimented their shirts and wished them good luck as I passed them and pulled ahead. 

I was able to get the above shots on the move, but as I descended from the Queensboro bridge, I ran into wall of screaming green and yellow. The only time I stopped during my 4 hour run was to take a picture of this enthusiastic spectator who was part of that crowd. Her spirit kept me going for the remaining 12 miles. 

Even when I didn't see signs of Brazil, I could hear them. During the last leg of the race in Central Park, I heard someone shout "Brazil!" Regrettably, I wasn't wearing any yellow, green or blue, so there must have been a prideful Brazilian on my heels who provoked the salute. Either way, I couldn't help but throw my fist in the air and smile even bigger than I already was. The onlooker might as well have shouted my name. Becca, Brazil, I respond to both. 

My handful of Brazilian experiences spread out over New York's five boroughs are by no means an accurate representation of the extent of Brazil's presence in Sunday's race. @ElizondoGabriel, commented on Twitter: "My flight from NY to Sao Paulo today was more than half full of people coming home after running the NYC Marathon over the weekend." He told me even more runners from another New York flight that landed in São Paulo at the same time joined him and his fellow passengers in line at immigration. How could he tell? All were proudly sporting their medals. I forgot to ask if their limps or stiff walks were another give away.