Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Natto For Me

Lots of my friends back in San Francisco have been getting excited about the International Film Festival that just opened there, and so I keep hearing about what's playing. Many of the films are being shown at the Kabuki theater in Japantown, and I am reminded of my pre-movie tradition of picking up food to smuggle into the theater from that carnival of delightful Japanese snacks known as Nijiya Market. [All their stores have donation boxes set up for tsunami disaster relief and I pass along the link to donate to the Red Cross here].

Natto, like stinky tofu, is a fermented soy, um, thing that causes extreme excitement in people, most often in the form of "Oh yeah! Nattoooo! They have natto?! Yum, I love natto," or "Gross, get it out of my face. I'm gonna puke. That stuff is so nasty. Boogerz." I must admit that while I am dedicated to the cause of keeping one's palate open to strange foods and learning to like strong and idiosyncratic tastes, I cannot eat natto with much gusto.

But I decided to take one for the proverbial Weird Vegetables team a few months ago and try this natto handroll from Nijiya Market. They have a whole variety of handrolls that are neatly packaged with precise 1-2-3 instructions for assembling the separate parts of your handroll as you pull open the plastic at the indicated arrows. I particularly like the ume (fermented plum) rolls--this dollop of wrinkled fuchsia is my Japanese pickle of choice. 

After engaging my expert origami skills to follow the assembly instructions properly, I deconstructed the roll so you can see the natto better. Eagle-eyed readers will note the green leaf is identified in the ingredient list as ooba, more commonly known as shiso, a delicate herb whose texture is like mint but a few degrees finer and whose distinct and pleasing taste (to me, at least) I am finding hard to describe--almost bitter and more reminiscent of trees or shrubs than its cousin herbs (mint, basil, sage).

I thought maybe I would like natto better in a sushi roll with one of my favorite Japanese leaves, but it still made my eyes scrunch up and my mouth turn down. I don't mind the gooeyness--I'm very much friends with okra, which is equally viscous--but encountering the intense fermentation reminds me of taking too big a whiff of rubbing alcohol so that the scent punches up your nose. Still, you cannot call yourself an intrepid lover of all things vegetable without at least trying some tawny mouthfuls of this soy specialty. Here is an incredibly cute and adoring introduction to natto. And another write up on the zine-to-Internet culture clearing house Boing Boing. My other favorite market, Rainbow Grocery, also harbors a vat of natto in its bulk section, the sight of which has been known to inspire visitors from Tokyo to clap their hands together ever so gently and emit a low-yet-fervent murmur of delight.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Taioba: Better than Kale?

I think I may have found a dark leafy green better than kale. My world has been turned upside down, as half of my identity is bound up in kale being my #1 vegetable. But I took home these gigantic yet delicate leaves from the organic market in my neighborhood (Glória, Rio de Janeiro), rolled them up cigar style, chopped them into a thin chiffonade (ribbons) like I do kale, sauteed them with garlic, and WOW! The taste was deep like kale but more tender, lighter. There is something elegant about these greens; they lack kale's bluntness yet maintain a certain iron insistence in their slightly bitter taste that recalls kale. They are called taioba here (tie-yoh-bah) and are known as tannia in English. The plant is similar to taro; the former is Xanthasoma sagittifolium and the latter is Colocasia esculenta, though both are from the same family, Araceae. While the taro's root (technically a corm, though I'll never get used to that word) is the most eaten part, it is the taioba's leaves that are the most used here in Brazil. The crop is grown in more temperate mountainous regions, like Minas Gerais state in Brazil (these came from the Japanese Brazilian Sítio Ohara in Seropédica, west of Rio on the way to Minas Gerais.)

While running a background check on taioba, I stumbled upon the Slow Food Brasil site ("There's a Slow Food Brazil? Yes, of course, though I never thought of it." That's me talking to myself, not me making assumptions about your reaction) and an article about how this wonderful green, so rich in vitamin A, is disappearing from Brazilian dinner tables because people here don't really know it anymore. I'm not in any position to confirm or deny this claim, but I will say I've only noticed it at the organic market. Some informative sites in English are the World Crops site documenting the successful cultivation of these crops at the University of Massachusetts and this Flavors of Brazil blog that I'm probably going to start overlapping with as I continue to post about Brazilian vegetables. More in-depth botanical enthusiast information on taioba/tannia is here.

It's funny, before I looked up taioba and learned it was related to taro, I set up a little photo shoot with taioba and inhame (in-yah-mee), which is translated as "yam" though I swear it looks and pretty much tastes like taro. Those red splashes are a few pygmy bell peppers I tossed in for good cheer ("pygmy bell peppers" is not an actual kind of bell pepper, just a colorful manner of speaking; teachers please tell your students never to use this site as a reliable source of information for their vegetable reports. We're like Wikipedia but worse.)

But I'm going to throw out an S.O.S. to the weird vegetable community here and say that I am very confused as to the exact nature of inhame. It's hairy, striated, and lavender on the inside like tarot, yet identified as a yam. The word "taro" exists in Portuguese, though I haven't seen any "taro" side by side with inhame at the market. However, taro is also referred to as "inhame de Açores," a kind of inhame from the Azores, so there is some overlap. All very confusing. I wish inhame was just taro, so I wouldn't have to painfully reshape my brain in adjusting my original ideas about it. Any clarification on this would help.

But, look! I suddenly veered the conversation away from the lovely taioba, the supposed topic of this post. Perhaps I'm still a little uneasy acknowledging that I may have found something closer to my heart's palate than kale but that I won't be able to find so easily back in San Francisco...

UPDATE: Crap! Another unreliable wikipedia moment on Weird Vegetables. I accidentally inserted a photo of couve or Brazilian kale that I tried to pass off as taioba--the very last photo. So I guess my unconscious still loves kale the best. Thanks to reader Debdeb of the WV uh-oh patrol for pointing out my mistake.  (Note how couve is heavier and more crinkly than taioba)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lévi-Strauss's Vegetable Flotsam

I've been amusing myself lately by reading Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1955 memoir of his time in Brazil, Tristes Tropiques, with a mental Werner Herzog accent (I'm reading the English translation). The famous French anthropologist and father of structuralism makes some pretty strong declarations and denunciations that could easily be attributed to the equally opinionated German director. Listen:

I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.... I have often planned to undertake the present work, but on each occasion a sort of shame and repugnance prevented me making a start.

And on the anthropologist's profession as decidedly unadventurous, unglamorous:

...periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose and reduce dangerous living in the heart of the virgin forest to an imitation of military service...

Lévi-Strauss finds himself disgusted with the public's taste for sensationalistic travel accounts of Amazonia, Tibet, and Africa whose dominant tone is a desire to impress. He blames lazy writers but also their undemanding readers: "Instead of having his critical faculties stimulated, he [the reader] asks for more such pabulum and swallows prodigious quantities of it."

Already enjoying this rather spicy pabulum my French elder had been spooning into my brain, my vegetable radar went haywire when I hit this amazing passage comparing his old advisor, psycologist Georges Dumas, to some eerie kind of vegetable while giving a lecture at a mental hospital :

In that room, one already had the sensation of being exposed to a peculiar kind of exotic experience; there was a platform on which Dumas ensconced his sturdy, angular frame, crowned by a knobbly head resembling a large root that has been bleached and stripped through a long stay on the sea bed. His waxy complexion created a unity between his face, his short, white bristling hair and his goatee beard, which was also white and sprouted in all directions. This curious piece of vegetable flotsam, still bushy with little roots, was suddenly humanized by the flashing of coal-black eyes, which emphasized the whiteness of the head.

Immediately, I knew Dumas to be un semblable, a kinsman, of my parsnip creature!

I particularly relish the thought that a vegetable could last and last on the bottom of the sea, like a whale bone, and suddenly be washed up on shore for tribes of people to encounter and incorporate into elaborate rituals. You may also be interested to note the difference between flotsam and jetsam. The former is the wreckage of a ship and its cargo that have been washed ashore, while the latter are materials or goods that have been tossed overboard, perhaps to lighten the vessel in times of duress, and subsequently, also, wash ashore. The same endpoint, but different ways of getting there. There must be another soul out there that gets pleasure from this sort of semantic precision.

I'll keep my carrot eye out for any vivid accounts of Brazilian vegetables our noble adventurer has to offer as I progress through the reading. And look how very cute his professor Dumas looks even when he's not doing a vegetable impression:

photo found here

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brazilian Daikon

Okay, I found a Brazilian daikon at the organic farmers' market. You can tell it's Brazilian Japanese because of the black-and-white wave mosaic pattern on the ground and the Havaiana flip-flops. This is not a yacon (Cf. my Glória farmers' market gaffe). I picked it up at the veggie stand and, playing it safe, asked, "What's this?" The farmstand woman was like, "Duh, it's a daikon" (pronounced the same way in Portuguese) and I felt properly shamed for not recognizing my own kind.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eggplant Penguins

Meanwhile . . .  back in northern California, WV correspondent and specialist in critical vegetable studies Morel Tea reported on the sighting of two emperor eggplant penguins at the veggie mecca known as Berkeley Bowl. Tea writes:

While I was at the bowl today, curiosity led me to investigate a most peculiar sound--something like a low muttering--which seemed to be coming from the southernmost corner of the produce section. Much to my surprise, I happened upon this happy pair of emperor penguins, dressed up as Indian eggplants, who were passing the afternoon by exchanging bawdy jokes . . .
The penguins had surely been on the run from pesky naturalists and German documentarians driving them to the brink of insanity in their native South Pole, swimming north and taking shelter in markets along the way with this crafty disguise. No doubt they were hoping to land in the homey yet elegant North Berkeley home of a pair of professors, living it up on the patio while drinking in endless sunset views of the Bay.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Life Improvements

When I was packing for Brazil, my veggie mate Erin asked me if I was going to bring my cherished Global Chef's knife along to visit South America. "What?! Nooooo," I answered. "I'm not that attached to my things. I'm going to be traveling around and can't really be bringing a knife in my luggage. I'll make due with whatever's there." After several weeks, I finally broke down and decided I couldn't deal with the flimsy carving tools in my Rio kitchen.

Walking on my way to get a cavaquinho, the Brazilian cousin to the ukulele (another thing I left behind in San Francisco; they have the same Portuguese grandparents), I passed by a shop called Rei das Facas, [King of Knives]. After some discussion with my new friend Oliveira ("Não sou vendedor, sou seu amigo!" ["I'm not a salesman, I'm your friend!"], I picked up this sturdy Tramontina 8" knife. "You just improved your life," Oliveira informed me with a twinkle in his eye, as he wrapped my knife in paper. Eager to welcome this new member into my home, I found it a cozy little basket with tea towel blankie.  Oliveira was right, and a life lesson was learned: always have a good knife. Your life will be better for it. I also recommend the Frenchie folding, wood-handled Opinel for bike trips and picnics. I use mine primarily for slicing apples and cheese.

This knife has made the most significant practical improvement in my day-to-day life here (I can't quite play the cavaquinho well enough yet for it to compete), but I've gotten more than my money's worth of cheap thrills from this R$8 purchase made at the Glória farmers' market, a combination mandolin and grater:

I've always wanted a mandolin for slicing vegetables but somehow never got around to buying one (the starting price of $30 always seemed to remind me of the need to abstain from the frivolities of late capitalism) . But I must admit, my life has received a bit of a new thrill and I find myself cooking potatoes just so I can put their little hat on and watch them slide slide sliiiiiide away into coin-shaped slivers. Or sometimes I just put the tiny hat on the potato and smile at it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Glória Farmers' Market (G-L-O-R-I-A!)

It's me taken about a month to settle into a new rhythm and new surroundings in Rio de Janeiro. Figuring out what and how to eat is turning out to be something of a challenge now that I've become much more conscious about what's in my food and how it's produced. Back when I lived here in 2003 through 2004, I ate almost anything, meat on a stick barbecued on a street grill, snacks involving various combinations of meat + cheese enveloped in breaded, fried dough, or feijoada, the signature Brazilian black bean stew with assorted pig parts (tail to ear to feet). Now that I've transitioned from Anthony Bourdain to Alice Waters-style eating, I've become more attuned to the currents of "comida natural," or "natural foods" in Rio but am adapting and making up my guidelines as I go along, knowing I can't exactly reproduce my San Francisco alimentary habits and wanting to stay open to trying different kinds of foods here.

This is my Sunday neighborhood farmers' market, in Rio's Glória neighborhood, walking distance from the downtown Centro area. There is a separate organic farmers' market nearby on Saturdays that I'll talk about in a future post, but I've decided to give up on organic puritanism for the time being, partly from limited availability of products, information, and variety but also largely due to cost.  (Rio has become significantly more expensive in recent years, and some blame the anticipatory effects of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics on rents. Americans in particular feel the pain of the dollar's drop and the real's rise,  from US$1:R$3 in 2004 to now US$1:R$1.6.)

This market's a bit crazier than the one I used to go to in chic Ipanema (more shouting, more elbowing up in these parts), but I like its controlled chaos. And vendors in Glória still insist on a similar level of OCD rigor in their fruit and vegetable displays. Look at these charming kale doilies, used to decorate the bagged manioc (it was the end of the market, so most of the manioc was gone already).

Constant vigilance is necessary on the part of the consumer in selecting and purchasing produce. One must know the fair price (vendors can smell uncertainty in your approach, though some have their set prices written in chalk), be able to bargain quickly ("R$2 each? Okay, I'll take 3 mangoes for R$5, okay? Okay! Ta bom!"), and watch out for vendors pushing extra produce on you with practiced swiftness, i.e. you ask for a bunch of kale for R$2, and the vendor sneaks in two bunches and charges you R$4, or you merely glance in the direction of a box of custard apples and, vroosh!, it's bagged up and being handed to you and you couldn't possibly have the bad manners to turn it down.

Vendors here are generally more gregarious, more playful, than their American counterparts:

"Fala princesa! Diga-me freguesa!" "Speak, princess! Tell me, customer!" 

"Look at these guavas, so rosy, they're blushing with shame!" 

"Hey, bananas, papayas, on super sale, buy one bunch, get three! I'm getting out of here! I'm going home already!" 

"Okay, miss, here's your dozen oranges, plus one extra for your parakeet! Or your cat, whichever."

When I picked up some hot peppers to try my hand at homemade hot sauce, I asked the man how to do it. He helped me choose a combination of long red, small green, and round orange peppers, told me the steps, and said gleefully, "The recipe is frrrree! Ha! FREE!" and slapped me on the back, grinning with pleasure at his own joke. He repeated it a few more times, then told me to "volte sempre," return always. I'll let him know how it turns out.

I got some interesting vegetables, pretty purple cabbage, a moon-pale green one, and a Portuguese nut called pinhão that I'm to boil in its shell. My online translator is telling me they are pinenuts (!) but they seem so huge compared to what I'm used to. I haven't boiled them yet, but will in the next couple days and report back.

It was also nice to spot daikon (yakon) in these parts. [April 4 correction:] Oops! WV uh-oh patrol, headed by Leafy Heirloom, spotted this egregious error. The tuber below is in fact yacón, a Peruvian tuber, a lighter, crisper root veg, and a relative of Jerusalem artichoke. I just thought that daikons in this hemisphere were a little darker.

It must come from São Paulo, where most of Brazil's ethnically Japanese population lives (you may or may not know that Brazil has the largest population of Japanese descent living outside Japan, estimated at around 1.5 million).  Still not sure how to say daikon in Portuguese, though radish is rabanete [ha-bah-netchy]

The man who sold me my most interesting vegetables was a man of few words, more self-contained than the usual farmers' market vendor, and wished me "Paz e saúde" ("Peace and health") with my veggies. Here he is, rewriting the chalk sign for "pinhão," after the "o" got smudged:

Another thing I like at this market are the tapioca snack tents. They make tapioca "crepes" with fillings like banana and cinammon, a kind of beef jerky (carne seca), cheese and banana, cheese and coconut, or ham and cheese.

The tapioca flour gets dumped loose into a pan, where the heat and a little butter makes it stick together into a kind of grainy, kind of tasteless, but somehow pleasing, shell for your filling of choice.

Here, I'll peel it open so you can see the banana and cinnamon filling, yum!

After the market, I trudge with my heavy loads swinging off my arms back up the hill, taking the shortcut stairway to our Santa Teresa hideaway, where I think more about Glória and listen to Patti Smith.