Staring at the pregnant Man/Woman on the tiled steps in Lapa made me understand the diversity of Rio and of the food to be found there. We were half way through our food tour and the brightly coloured steps, all the work of Escadaria Selaron, (the pregnant man/woman in the tiled self portrait) were mobbed with tourists and locals alike.
The guy strumming his weathered, scratched guitar good naturedly offered his leite de onça (cachaça with condensed milk) from a re-used water bottle. Students scrambled up the side plinths and posed for Selfies and children ran up and down the stairs, red faced and panting by a third of the way up. A constant samba beats an accompaniment to the rise and fall of the multilingual crowd, while the Carioca (Rio locals) simply used the steps to get from Lapa to Santa Theresa.
We’d begun in a very traditional bar in Lapa, a Boteco. This bastion of the sixties had changed very little since then, either inside or out, but it was to be our first introduction to the real city away from our indulgent hotel and an opportunity to see the edgy, street art and food heart of Rio
Four golden breadcrumbed balls of Bolinho De Bacalhau, with little flecks of green were served on a plate with a Choppé each (pronounced shoppie) a tall glass of very cold beer with the essential foamy head. Typical Boteco food, crispy coated Norwegian salt cod mixed with potato, coriander and a little onion. In the cool, dimly lit bar, served by white coat clad waiters, we were introduced to the others on the food tour and the plans for tasting the real Brazil.
We’d been told that graffiti was everywhere in Rio. Whilst that’s true, most of it is as far from the careless tags we see daubed here, as you can get. This is genuine street art, often with a political and social undercurrent but always bold, expressive and super-sized. A short walk from the Boteco led us past streets of amazing activist work, commentary on the Favelas, the World Cup and religion. Until we came to the ultimate in graffiti and those steps I mentioned.
We arrived at the market crossing the narrow street between candy coloured houses. Sturdy upturned wooden and plastic crates crossed with rough planks made up the stalls. The fish stacked high on a bright blue and white cloth, the seaside look belying the fishy stench. This is not a world of iced meat and fish, this is stack it and sell it. But the turn over was brisk with money changing hands as fast as the hawkers could move the goods.
Markets abroad are always treasure troves of colour and new produce to discover. Rio had so much to offer, swathes of brightly coloured chillies from the hot to the blindingly unbearable. Red, orange and brilliant green, laid out in perfect rows. Then, lines of purple striped garlic, the outer skin peeled to reveal fat cloves clustered around the central core. The stalls seemed to specialise. On one, varieties of frothy green lettuces, another bright tomatoes in every size and colour. Yet another, tiny bananas, oozing sap and sweetness. I was astonished that the grapefruit, large and yellow splodged with green, turned out to be passion fruit. Very much larger and more yielding than the ones we see in the UK, but so very sweet and tart.
After tasting some of the fruit we moved on to the Manioc pancake stand, tapioca to most of us, which is a staple in Rio for both savoury and sweet dishes. Dry tapioca is thrown into smoking iron pans over portable burners. As it heats up the tapioca melds together creating a white crepe, this is spread with a surprisingly prosaic choice of fillings, mine was cheese and tomato and then flipped in half and served. Delicious but with a distinctive nobbly texture.
The next stall held brightly coloured piles of ground spices peeping from plastic carrier bags wedged tightly together. Beige, sunshine yellow, bright red, jet black, ochre and dusky brown, like a palette of children’s powder paints. The aroma sweet and peppery. An old fashioned hand grinder, precariously clamped to an unsteady looking crate was ready to grind to order whole spices.
The noise from the crowd grew louder competing with the grind of a portable machine in the corner as the road took a sharp left turn. Awnings threw into deep shade the spitting vats that were being used to cook the empanadas. In the back of a van sugar cane was being forced into a whining, clanking machine to produce a semi opaque green tinged drink. Neat Sugar in a glass. With the addition of a squeeze of lime it was drinkable but not by the half pint glasses it was being served in.
Wafting up the street from the end of the market, was the distinctive sweet smell of boiling sugar. Laid out in front of large shallow toffee making pans were polythene bags of condensed milk balls covered in crispy toffee, like golden Maltesers. Grabbing a bag of these wonderful treats we made our way back to the main road and into the bright Rio sunshine.
Tom from Eat Rio is a consummate foodie with a great knowledge of Rio life, politics and the underbelly of conspiracy theories. We had a fab day with him and I would strongly recommend his tour. It was a lucky find on Google.
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