Year for the Planet Week 29: What I Ate in the Amazon

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is when I deal with my food choices.

I’m back in the city and in the connected world, so hurray for Week 29 of Year for the Planet, the food edition. I’m four posts late, and this essay is about all the things I ate in the Amazon rainforest for my residency with Lab Verde.

First off, Brazilian food is a whole new world for me. While it shares a similar tropical climate with the Philippines, where I grew up, the food is quite unique. The fruits and vegetables are different, and they have a unique set of root crops that I was thrilled to sample, as these were a great alternative to rice and wheat, though they have those as well.

Here are some of the things I loved and ate for the first time:

1. Farofa
This is the magic dust you sprinkle on food to make it crunchy and flavorful. It’s a wonderful way to add texture to your dishes. It’s made with manioc flour and comes in different flavors.

2. Cupuaçu
This is the fruit that will always remind me of Brazil. The original fruit looks unappetizing and unfriendly, with its hard shell. The juice and ice cream versions are sour, reminiscent of pineapple. To make it less acidic and more edible, some genius turned it into a dessert by adding condensed milk, sugar, and sometimes, coconut. I remember the first time I had it in a boat, and our photographer, Gui, passed by with a bowl of this bright white blob and I demanded to know what it was. I was skeptical of it at first, but ever since that magical first bite, I had multiple servings every meal. Southeast Asia might have a similar climate, but we do not get this outside of South America. Oh, the injustice.

3. Feijoada
It’s a dish made primarily of beans, so I didn’t need meat, and despite the wonderful-smelling chicken and beef that the residency sometimes provided, I just didn’t feel the need for them despite the daily hikes in the forest. Feijoada is a common dish in Brazil, and so I would find it in Rio later in my travels as well.

4. Fish and fried bananas
I initially balked at the idea of pairing fish with a fruit, and then I remembered that in Southeast Asia we mix mangoes with a lot of things, so I cheerfully dug in. The salty and sweet flavors are like a party in your mouth—then again, most meals were like that to us in the Amazon. The fish in the Amazon are not your garden variety salmon or, please, cream dory, these are huge fish like tambaqui, which could feed me for a couple of weeks.

5. Tapioca
Let’s hear it for gluten-free tapioca! While I do not have celiac disease, I do like abstaining from wheat when I can, because it makes me feel less bloated afterwards. In Asia, we have boba or tapioca balls in drinks, but in Brazil tapioca is like a crepe that you can put fillings in and eat like a sandwich. The tapioca flour congeals when you heat it, so you don’t need oil to fry it with. The catch is that it’s difficult to stop eating them, and the varieties you can get are quite abundant. You can get cheese, bananas, dulce de leche, and other fillings in them, too.

6. Pirão
What is it with Brazil’s seemingly strange but wonderful pairings? It’s a type of stew made with flour, fish… and flowers. It’s eaten as a side dish, but as someone who has never tasted it before, this was the one thing that I remembered from this particular meal.

7. Pão de queijo
I could eat this cheesy bread all day! Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, this was my first and last snacks as I transited through six of Brazil’s airports.

 

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