Weird Vegetables is going Carmen Sandiego on your asses as Erin and I embark on our summer search for eye-popping produce. Erin will be traipsing up and down the East Coast, itself a strange and daunting endeavor for a native Californian, while I'm down in Brazil spreading the gospel of "legumes estranhos" to newfound converts.
Today, I went to the Tuesday farmers' market on Praça General Osório in Rio de Janeiro after my yoga class (which was like no other kind of yoga I've ever done and involved Bollywood-type dancing and heavy nasal breathing meant to induce snot rockets--I kid you not, the instructor handed me some Kleenex to hold in front of my nose before we got started. But that's all for another blog...). The market rotates between squares on different days, but I remembered this one from when I used to live in Ipanema.
My favorite thing about Brazilian farmers' markets, at least the ones in the Zona Sul region of Rio (basically, the neighborhoods by the beaches, like Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon), is their mix of chaos and OCD produce layout. You can have all sorts of rinds flying through the air, old ladies running you over with their rolling carts, lime-and-garlic vendors tugging at your elbow, and just as you're about to lose it, a pristine pyramid of fruits and vegetables reminds you that there nevertheless remains an underlying force of order in the universe. A lot of produce here is sold in fixed portions called "lotes" and pre-grouped or pre-chopped in little plastic baggies. [July 23 oops! André, a very knowledgeable editor in São Paulo, kindly informed me that the whole "lote" deal is a Rio thing. Just so you know.]
Today's curiosities are "maxixe" and "jiló." Both plants are thought to originate in Africa and to have been introduced into Brazil at the time of the slave trade. Maxixe (mah-SHE-she) is the prickly one that looks like a projectile of choice for teenage boys. It's actually just like a cucumber on the inside and can be eaten raw. I ate the spikes too since the ones I got weren't overly mature. It is also known as the "West Indian gherkin" and "bur cucumber," but I think the Portuguese name wins the prize for "Best Name to Repeat Over and Over Again in a Sing-Song Voice." That's okra, hanging out in the upper right-hand corner of the bottom left-hand photo (hello, old friend!).
What looks like a small, green eggplant is the jiló (gzee-LAW), also known by the less appetizing name of "garden egg." It's kind of like an eggplant, 'cept different, and the rounder ones, like these, are bitter. They are harvested while still unripe because the mature crops become even more bitter (and turn orange). You can sautée them with garlic and other veggies for an interesting mix of bitter and salty.