As I write these words, it is Thursday, Feb. 27, and dusk is falling on the eve of Carnaval in Salvador da Bahia. Carnaval. The other “C” word. It’s been looming over the end of my stay here in Brazil like a guard dog chained to a gate. I have reason to believe that Carnaval in Bahia might be the world’s most extreme party, ever, and I have to survive it if I want to go home. And I do want to go home.
For the next six days, a massive loop through the city center will be closed off and a slow parade of customized 18-wheeler trucks, with built-in 12-foot-tall speakers, will carry electric bands through a raging sea of people, one after another, until Wednesday. As I write these words, I don’t really know what to expect. As you read these words, it will have just ended.
All I know is that on the eve of Carnaval, sitting outside of the bar “Quincas Wateryell” (the name of a character in a Jorge Amado novel), there is a guy jamming on a nylon string acoustic guitar, playing all of the hits, while children of all ages—from 9 to 90—are molexando to the beat (see last week’s installment on the 12 Brazilian verbs for shaking your ass).
That’s great, Chef Boy Ari. We are really glad to know that you are shaking your ass in twelve different flavors, while our asses are freezing here at home. But, what does this have to do with food?
Well, at this very weightless moment, I happen to be sipping a batida da maracuja, as per the recommendation of a loyal reader, who I will call Batida. In her e-mail, Batida reported that she lived in Brazil for five years, and my dispatches have filled her with saudade (sow-dodge-ee: longing for what you love and do not have) for Brazil, including the batidas do coco (see almost any previous Flash from Brazil). Batida also suggested that I try her personal favorite drink, batida da maracuja. She also reminded me that, in addition to pertaining to drinks mixed with cachaça and fruit juice, batida also means car crash.
It just so happens that maracuja juice (aka suco do maracuja) is my favorite. Although a little too acidic (with citrus bass tones) to drink unsweetened, with a little sugar or cane juice in a blender, suco de maracuja is the ideal thirst-quenching scenario.
There I was, eve of Carnaval, in the heart of Pelorinho (the old slave-processing neighborhood of Salvador—the name Pelorinho means “whipping post”), drinking my batida da maracuja as the evening breeze chased beads of sweat from my neck. The drink was good, very strong, but needed sugar—for both the maracuja and the cachaça. Also, there was no cream.
I had assumed that since a batida do coco contains both coconut milk and condensed milk, so too would a batida da maracuja contain cream. I complained to the waitress “How come there is no cream, like in a batida do coco?”
My interpretation of her response was that the acid in the maracuja would make the cream curdle. I accepted that, although in retrospect, I don’t think it would have made the coconut milk curdle. Anyway, I proceeded to order a batida do coco.
That’s when the moqueque do peixe (mo-kake do pay-shay) arrived at my table. Moqueque do peixe is yet another variation on the tried and true combination of coconut milk and fish. Like its curried Thai cousin, moqueque do peixe is characterized by a savory blend of fish, onions, hot pepper, lemon, cilantro and coconut milk. If you lose the curry, and add tomato and dende, you have moqueque.
Dende, known elsewhere as palm oil, is the world’s fattiest vegetable oil, narrowly beating out coconut oil (also from a palm tree) for the title. If you read the label of almost any candy bar, you will see both palm oil and coconut oil. Unlike coconut oil, dende has a thick, fleshy flavor that can be tough on wimpy stomachs. A West African staple brought over with the slaves to Brazil, the smell of boiling dende is the smell of afro-Bahia.
Unfortunately for Montanans who wish to try this dish, dende is virtually impossible to get in Montana. But the same dish, without dende, is called ensopado, and it is very good as well—I might even like it better than moqueque on some days. In Montana, we can get coconuts, and lord knows we’ve got fish. Only thing is, our fish are freshwater fish, and these recipes are for saltwater fish. When I get home, I will experiment with soaking fish in salt water and then making ensopado do peixe. When I am satisfied with the results, dear reader, you will be the first to know.
In the meantime, at this point, I must batten down the hatches and prepare to pular, molexar, balancar, suingar, rolar, mexar, lambar, and festejar. Vai rolar a festa (a party is going to roll like thunder), folks. Party on, Missoula.
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