Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Korean Surprise

I know, I know. I owe you one more entry from the Pantanal trip! I left you hanging!
(Just kidding, I know hardly anyone really cares.) I have to tell you about Monday night first.

Yes. So, on Monday night, Alexandre and I went to check out a new sushi restaurant for dinner (surprise surprise). It's close to home. They don't have the all-you-can-eat setup, so we were scouring the menu, trying to find something grilled (read: less expensive) to share.

We saw that a family at another table had a giant beef platter thing. It looked yummy, but we had no idea what it was in the menu. So Alexandre decided to find out.

"What are they eating?"  he asked the waiter, pointing to the dish.
The waiter smiled shyly. "Well, actually...it's Korean food. We have a Korean menu, too. But it's kind of hard, um, to translate...I mean, do you want to see it?"
"Yeah, of course!" Alexandre said.

I already had started on a beer, so I boasted, "I know how to read Korean!"
The waiter gave me a confused look.

"...Well, I don't know what many of the words mean. I just know the alphabet."

I don't think he believed me. He nodded politely and went to get the menu for us. It was, in fact, in Korean. Before the guy could explain the food to us, I excitedly started to try to read the words, like an annoying toddler who's learning how to read and who wants to try to sound EVERYTHING out. I did pretty well for not having studied Korean since I moved to Brazil.

"How do you know that?!" the guy asked. Some white girl in Brazil with an accent in Portuguese, reading in Korean?!

"Ah. I was -- well, I am, an English teacher. I had a lot of Korean students, so I studied Korean a little."

"OK, that's cool." I think the guy was pleased, but also surprised and a little shy.

He showed us which characters on the menu referred to the dish that the other table was eating. It was called bulgogi. He explained that it was a sort of grilled beef with onions and a soy-sauce-based marinade. Sounded good to me!

The waiter brought out the electric grill where the meat was cooked at our table. The waiter's mother, an older Korean woman, brought out all those traditional Korean side dishes (ban-chan) for us.

notice the pre-chilled beer mugs!

To be honest, the only side dish that I recognized was kim-chi, but there were some other really tasty ones, including bean sprouts with garlic (apparently kongamul, spicy spinach, and some kind of fried shoots (according to Wikipedia, I think it's gosari namul, which is in the center of the picture).

When the beef came out, the waiter and his mother taught us to fry it a little at a time, and then to push it down into the watery sauce around the edge of the pan so it could soak up some of the flavor. Though it was hard to be patient, the pieces that were cooked longer and soaked more were the best. I was tipsy and I insisted on telling the Korean mother all of the Korean words I knew, most of which are for ordering in a restaurant anyway. Poor lady.


I got Alexandre to ask the waiter about Korean barbecue, and if they sold it. I asked if he considered this meat to be a form of Korean barbecue. He said he did, but he agreed that the more traditional stuff is made on that special grill. He could tell that we were excited about it, so he brought out the grill to show it to Alexandre.

The best part of the meal, of course, was the realization that there is Korean food WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OF MY HOUSE. In Brazil.

Alexandre took some pictures of the menu in Korean. I'm going to show it to one of my Korean friends so she can tell me what we should order next time.

What a pleasant surprise! It's OK, you can be a little jealous.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The City of Bonito and the Search for the Motmot

Remember my posts about my gorgeous trip to the Pantanal ? Well, I never got around to telling you about the second half -- after our escape to the city of Aquidauana, we spent a few days in the famous tourist city of Bonito! As most of you probably know, the word bonito means "pretty" in Portuguese and Spanish, and the name just feels kind of ridiculously obvious for a city that is essentially one giant nature reserve.

I have kind of mixed feelings about Bonito, which I guess is the main reason I haven't rushed to post about it. There are a lot of options for ecotourism, which I normally love, but there were some downsides to our trip. First, we went during a super super busy tourist season, probably one of the busiest weeks of the year. It was also a week that kids are out of school, and Bonito is a popular family tourist destination. We went with CVC travel agency, but so did everyone else. That meant we got bussed around with 30 other tourists to every activity. We had to listen to people singing "Eu Quero Tchu, Eu Quero Cha" at all hours of the day, and, more importantly, every activity took way longer than it normally would because we got broken up into sub-groups and had to wait for our subgroup's turn to do the activity. Then, of course, we went in the winter, which is not the best time for the many swimming and snorkeling activities in the relatively cold rivers.

One last annoying thing before I tell you about the good stuff: because the city is really dependent on tourism, the guides and agents are constantly trying to sell you stuff. You've already paid for your day trips and the included meal, but wait, there's more! Rent a towel for the swimming activity! Borrow an underwater camera -- only R$20 per printed picture! Do you want some cocktails while you wait for your turn to go on the trail?  You don't? Are you sure? This constant consumerism pressure was a stark contrast from the days out in the middle of the Pantanal, where there wasn't a single store and all of our activities were pre-paid and all-inclusive (except for alcohol). So if you ever go to Bonito, just be prepared for the friendly badgering.

All right, on to the happy things! Bianca and I took part in a lot of fun activities.

We went to a man-made river beach called Praia da Figueira. Our tour package included a morning shift of sorts at this beach.




On a warm day, this place must be super fun.

Look! You can eat (ok, drink) at a table in the water!
The river had toys in the water on the shore for kids to play in. Guests can also rent paddle boats and kayaks and things like that. Unfortunately, we went on a really cold morning, so our options were pretty limited. We'd also very regretfully decided against bringing our Kindles, because we didn't know what the place was like and we were worried they'd get wet. Curses! We had to kill like 5 hours with nothing to read, no internet, and with only chilly water to wade in.

We walked around the beach area and I took pictures of birds:

great kiskadee, aka bem-te-vi

jacana, aka jaçanã
(I kept my eye out for the elusive motmot, but with no luck)

We bought pellets to feed to the fish:


they were aggressive little suckers! They were also conditioned to the sound of feet on the little pier.


And when we ran out of ideas, we just ate some delicious fried chicken wings and drank caipirinhas and talked about life! (I really recommend the chicken wings from the little restaurant!)

Bianca post-fried chicken and caipirinhas
As you can see, Bianca is lying down under a giant fig tree, which gives the beach its name (figueira means "fig tree").

Bianca and I also went on a snorkeling adventure in a river called the Rio Formoso. We got to wear wet suits!



Before going into the water, we went on a little hike. We saw the nascente of the river, or the spring where the river starts: 

this concept still confuses me

We had a really nice tour guide. I asked him about the motmot, but he didn't know which bird it was. Sigh. While we were snorkeling, the guide followed us in a little boat. He held our glasses and cameras. He was very helpful and took pictures for us:





I pointed out a great white egret, so he snapped a picture for me:



At one point, Bianca and I were taking a break and floating above water (breathing through a snorkeling mask is actually pretty difficult and tiring, especially when you have a cold, which I did). Since neither of us had our glasses on, we got confused and a little scared when we saw some black blur moving around in the plants and we couldn't make it out. Luckily, it was nothing deadly, like an anaconda, but it was, instead, an otter!!!

AN OTTER, people!
The guide was so friendly as to snap a picture of that, too. All in all, snorkeling was fun and swimming with the fish was not gross or scary like I thought it would be.

On another day, we woke up at some ungodly hour for a vacation (I think it was like, 5:30am) to go visit a famous grotto in Bonito. It was a really interesting natural wonder!



You guys have to give some serious props to Bianca for being able to take those pictures. The water looks very, very blue because of the way the light reflects off of it, but because there is so little light, it's almost impossible to capture a picture that shows how blue the water is. But lucky for you, Bianca was patient enough to figure out how to do it!

The grotto is essentially a sort of natural quarry that reveals a lake and cave system deep below the surface of the earth. There are lots of interesting rock formations. It's cool! You should see it if you go to Bonito.

We also went rafting in a river that required drops down small waterfalls. It was exciting and relaxing at the same time. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures because I obviously couldn't bring my camera onto the raft, and there were no motmots, but I did manage to catch a glimpse of a lineated woodpecker (pica-pau-de-cabeça-vermelha) while we were waiting for our turn to go into the water:



Before  I knew it, it was our last day. The morning found us on another snorkeling adventure -- this time, on a river called the Rio Prata. This river is bigger and badder than the first one we went snorkeling in. We had to hike in our snorkeling boots for about two miles to get out to it.  It was our second-to-last activity of the trip. We had this tall hippie guide. It seemed like he knew everything there was to know about that region and the plants and animals in it. He even knew the names of the birds we saw in English, and he pointed them out to me to be polite (and probably to show off, just a little!). Though it was my last chance and I had pretty much lost hope, I asked this guide if there'd be any chance that we'd see a motmot.

"The motmot? Yeah, we've got a few of those around this river. If you listen closely, you'll definitely hear them during our walk. I'll point out the call to you."

Of course, I'd already memorized the motmot's call using the file on WikiAves. It sounds like a small, shy owl. It's call is also supposedly a reason behind its Portuguese name, udu. But I thanked him for his effort nonetheless. Could it be?! Would I actually be able to see a motmot?

About 15 minutes into our walk, after sighting a narrow-billed woodcreeper, some bare-faced curassows (click that link, they're so funny looking!), and a squirrel cukoo, the hippie guide stopped suddenly and put his hands out to signal to our group of 8 or so to stop walking. He pointed out into the brush to a fallen tree trunk a few feet away.

"There they are," he whispered. "The motmots!"



It was a motmot couple, foraging on and around the fallen tree.

"OHMYGOD IT'S A MOTMOT!" I squealed as loudly as I could while still trying to whisper so as not to scare them away. The other people in our group all turned back to look at me dully, confused, because they were boring and lame and the motmots and I were just too awesome for them. How did they NOT appreciate what they were looking at?!?

"BIANCABIANCA LOOK THEY'RE MOTMOTS OHMYGOD WE'RE FINALLY SEEING MOTMOTS LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY ARE OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD MY LIFE IS COMPLETE!" All of that came out in whisper-squeals.

Bianca cheered quietly. "Yay, yay! The motmot!" She couldn't help but feel excited. I'd been talking up the damn bird since we started planning our vacation.

The motmot really was as beautiful as I thought it would be. I love its contrast of bright, shocking colors and its one-of-a-kind tail with its shy, quiet, unassuming ways. It's one of the most strikingly gorgeous creatures in the world and it doesn't even know it!

To my overwhelming dismay, those motmot pictures are not mine. We were on our way to a river, remember? That means I didn't have my camera with me. I could've kicked myself for not paying the R$30 to rent the tour agency's underwater camera! What a foolish error in judgement to deny it! Seeing a motmot is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

We did eventually continue on to our second snorkeling activity. We snorkeled, we swam, it was pretty, blahblahblah. What you can take away from that day was that I saw a motmot. Actually, I saw two motmots, and I can die happy.  :)

There is one more amazing activity that we did at the end of our Bonito trip, but you'll have to wait for the next entry for that.

Motmot!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Buying Unprocessed Ingredients in Brazil

So you may have read in my last post that I'm trying to participate in the October Unprocessed Food Challenge from eatingrules.com. I wrote that one of the leeways that I'm going to give to myself is eating processed white flour and refined sugar. But I saw a commercial on TV for a health food store in town, and my last student of the afternoon canceled today, so I decided to go on a little adventure to try to find it!

A relatively long bus ride and 2km of walking later, I arrived at the health food store, which was in a rich neighborhood in town. Wow, what a beautiful neighborhood it was! Tree-lined streets, cobblestone alleys, cute markets and boutiques....it was another world!

Unfortunately, the health food store was nothing to sneeze at. It was about the size of my living room and they only seem to define "healthy" as "gluten-free" and "overpriced".  They were also big on pills and weight loss supplements...scary! They didn't even sell unrefined sugar or whole wheat flour. They did, however, have a small loaf of spinach bread for R$14.00. I think you get the idea.

Anyway, I left the store disappointed. I was trekking toward the bus stop when I came upon a hortifruti! I'm not sure if this word is the proper name of the store, like "Wal-Mart," or if it's a general word, like "supermarket". But a hortifruti is a type of market that I believe my grandma would call a "greengrocer." I've popped into ones in Rio and close to the in-laws' house, but I've never lived close to one or really explored them.

What a great place! It totally made up for everything that the crappy "health food store" lacked. This hortifruti was a little small, but it was well-organized: the vast majority of the store is its produce section. Then there's a butcher, a dairy section with milk and yogurt, a small section with cheeses, a grains section that sells beans, rice, and flour, and an area with honey, nuts, oils, and dried fruits. That's it! Hardly anything is extra processed. Almost nothing in extra packaging.

I had some time to explore and read the ingredients. I was able to find this brand of whole wheat flour:



It's called Natu's. According to the hortifruti, the wheat was grown less than an hour away!

I also found flaxseeds from the same brand. I'm going to use the flour and the flaxseeds for this delicious homemade bread recipe. I already made the recipe with regular white flour, but this time I'd like to get a little more creative.

This hortifruti also had this brand of sugar:



According to the package, it's "the least processed sugar [in their line of sugars, I imagine]." I think that's the best I'm gonna get.

I bought some peanuts to make this peanut butter recipe (it's different from my and Lindsey's recipe because it doesn't have oil or sugar). Mine did NOT come out as creamy as the picture on that site, but my food processor was starting to overheat and I didn't want to break it! It's still yummy though, with only peanuts and honey.

One disappointing thing is that I still can't find yogurt without unprocessed ingredients. The yogurt at the hortifruti was largely the same brands at the regular supermarket. I think that's ironic, since there are so many cows around here, and since Brazil is the world's largest exporter of beef. I have a feeling I'd need to buy pure, fresh yogurt directly from a farmer. I'm not really interested in making it myself, since the recipe is apparently a multiple-day process, so this might be a product that I'll just buy with a bit of extra ingredients. I found one brand that has only natural ingredients and then something called "estabilizante pectina", which I guess can be "pectin stabilizer" in English but I have a feeling there's a more common word. I bought that brand because at least it didn't have any artificial colors or "aromatizantes".

At the end of the day, I felt thankful that the health food store kind of sucked, because if it had been even decent, I probably wouldn't have gone into the hortifruti. And in this experience, I think I learned something important about the spirit of this unprocessed challenge: healthy eating doesn't have to be expensive, or complicated, or full of 5-dollar words and complex rules and ingredients. It doesn't have to be a status thing, either, with your food coming from the fanciest store in the fanciest neighborhood. Healthy food is simple food, with fresh ingredients that have as few steps as possible between their natural state and the store.

I don't plan to keep up such a strict diet after this October Unprocessed Challenge finishes. It's expensive to maintain at this level of detail, and it's limiting (and worrying about and researching all this is really time consuming!). I guess I'm just using it to be more aware of what I'm eating, and I'm hoping I find some new brands and learn some new recipes along the way.

Monday, October 1, 2012

October Unprocessed

There's a food challenge going on this month. Have you heard about it? It's called the October Unprocessed Challenge. It was started by a man named Andrew, who has a blog called Eating Rules. The idea is that, for one month, you don't eat (or you try really, really hard not to eat) processed foods. The definition of processed foods is anything that you can't grow yourself or make in your own kitchen, or anything that would require artificial ingredients or an industrialized process to produce. That doesn't mean YOU need to physically grow and prepare all of your own unprocessed foods (you can buy it!) it just means that you COULD make it at home, if you had all the time in the world. :)

So blog friend Tiffany and I are participating in the challenge! We're going to try to go the whole month without eating processed foods.

Andrew and his people at Eating Rules wrote up a guide for participating in the challenge. An important idea is that you can apply your own rules when necessary. The ultimate goal is just to make you feel better and healthier, and to help you be more aware of what you're putting into your body. For example, it's really hard to buy unprocessed, unbleached, whole wheat flour here in Brazil. I've seen some health food / organic brands, but they are crazy expensive! The same goes for any unrefined, non-surcrose-based sugars (though it seems that Brazilian brown sugar, açucar mascavo, is relatively healthy). So in my own personal rules, I'm allowing myself to use regular flour and regular sugar, though I will try to avoid recipes with a lot of sugar and I will use honey or açucar mascavo when possible.

Another rule I've made for myself is that I'll eat whatever people serve me if I'm a guest at their house this month. I am absolutely not going to start drama during lunch with the in-laws over whether or not the beans have Knorr chicken bullion cubes.

Another rule is that I'm allowing myself to eat what's already in my kitchen. There are a couple of packages of popcorn, some whole grain tortillas, and about half a bottle of cooking oil that I'm going to use up. I also used a can of tomatoes last night because I'd already bought everything else for a recipe that called for it.

But other than that, I think it will be relatively easy for me to participate in this challenge! It helps that yummy processed snack-y food like Pringles and ice cream are painfully overpriced. It also helps that even street food snacks are largely homemade from basic ingredients (though there is often a lot of oil used). I think the hardest thing will be resisting candy and desserts. But my main reason for participating is to teach myself to cut down on sugar, because I eat a LOT of sweets!
These are little chocolate bars with condensed milk inside. THEY'RE AMAZING


Tiffany will be posting lots of unprocessed recipes on her blog, as will the Eating Rules people. Here are some other sites with all or mostly all unprocessed recipes:

http://www.acouplecooks.com
http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/
http://thestonesoup.com/

(Does anybody know of any similar sites in Portuguese, or from Brazilians?)

I'm also going to post recipes onto my cooking blog (remember my poor little cooking blog? Jim and I have sort of abandoned it). Of course, the pictures will not be even close to traditional food blogs in quality, but at least they'll give you an idea of what you're making. For example, yesterday, I made some bread from scratch. Alexandre and I made a fish and stew recipe together last night using a Brazilian fish called pescada, which the internet translates as either weakfish or seatrout. Then I made a Martha Stewart vegetable soup recipe that I froze for later in the week. It tastes like Weight Watchers incarnate, but at least it's healthy and unprocessed, right? I think it will be yummy with the bread.

Anyhoo, I plan to put all those recipes up on my cooking blog this week.

Are any of you interested in participating with us? Rachel? Kristin? I think I'd feel the most successful if I could get my friend Nancy to do it. I'm not going to even bother asking you, Danette (my sister), because I think you'd go into processed food withdrawal. ;P

Anyway, I hope you guys like the idea! I'll keep you informed on my progress.

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