Freshly returned from Brazil, I’m acutely aware of the dearth of seafood, of 7 a.m. darkness, of the sensation of cold, and of stares and remarks indicating that I’m now darker, rather than lighter, than the majority of those around me.
I also return with a pile of new clothes reflecting my attraction to cultural and linguistic absurdity. Somewhere in the world there is a clothing factory—more likely several—whose designers speak no English, yet are nonetheless directed to manufacture clothing with English words on it.
I’ll bet that in these factories there are stacks of magazines, newspapers, coupon books and other compendia of English phraseology employed for inspiration by the designers, who select seemingly random words and phrases in hopes of somehow projecting the desired fashion statement.
The mostly polyester products that emerge from these factories adorn the bodies of the innocent (not just in Brazil, I might add; I’ve seen it in Asian countries as well) and proclaim things like, “Up Puberty,” “This product can be used,” “Authentic surfing extreme wave collection team,” and “Sweet retro comfortable fashion of America presented by girl.”
After an afternoon spent cruising the clothing stores of Salvador, my favorite Brazilian city, I found myself the owner of several bags of polyester absurdity directing readers to “Go straight down straight down straight DOWN skiing ideology,” “Head for these seafood values,” “Celebrate American Home Week,” and “Stock up on eggs for Passover and Easter.”
Now I’m back home with my bags of new clothes. Souvenirs, they must be, gifts for persons who have everything. And while my new clothes are an exercise in kitsch fashion statements, the impression they’ll make is negligible compared to the impression made upon me when I ate a mountain of Dona Magdalena’s delicious old clothes.
The preceding confession might sound worthy of embroidered immortalization upon polyester outerwear, but the old clothes of which I speak are no attempt at linguistic or fashion statement. They were, simply, the reason I visited Dona Magdalena’s house one hot afternoon. Dona Magdalena is the mother of Celso, my friend and capoeira teacher. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art developed by African slaves and disguised as acrobatic dance. By Celso’s estimate, his mother is the best cook in the world, and he wanted me to taste one of her signature dishes, Ropa Velha, which in Portuguese means “Old Clothes.”
Ropa Velha is a dish that’s traditionally made with leftover cooked meat, along with vegetables, shrimp and coconut milk. Dona Magdalena modifies this dish by adding bananas da terra—literally “bananas of the earth,” a close relative of plantains.
Other than plantains, the only ingredient that’s difficult for gringos to find is dende, or palm oil, which adds a distinct pungency to Afro-Brazilian cooking. Dona Magdalena uses dende—normally not an ingredient of Ropa Velha—only when she adds bananas, to balance their sweetness. If necessary, you can bypass the scarcity of these two ingredients by skipping them both. It won’t be Dona Magdalena’s Ropa Velha, but it will be Ropa Velha nonetheless.
Start by cooking chopped onions and mashed garlic in dende or olive oil until they start to brown. Then add cooked shrimp, heads and shells removed, along with your leftover meat that’s been shredded into little pieces, and cook.
If you don’t have any leftover meat, you can fake it by browning beef chunks in an oiled pan and then boiling the chunks in water with garlic, black pepper, tomato extract (just a few tablespoons, depending on the amount of meat) and salt. Boil until falling-apart tender—about an hour—then cool and shred.
After cooking the leftover meat and shrimp with the onions and garlic in the pan, add what’s called green marinade: a mixture of finely chopped tomato, cilantro and onions. Cook it together, then add tomato rounds, onion slices and slices of bell pepper. Stir it all together, then add your bananas da terra or plantains, cut lengthwise into long slices (if you do use these, they must be very ripe, black and yellow of peel and soft of flesh). Then add more dende and/or olive oil and full-fat coconut milk.
Coconut milk is widely available in canned form, and to quote my new polyester shirt, “This product can be used.” But this product is nonetheless inferior to homemade coconut milk, made as follows: Remove the meat from a real coconut, then remove the brown skin from the flesh with a knife—a painstaking and dangerous operation. Chop the cleaned coconut flesh into little pieces and blend with just a little water in the blender. Filter the mush through cheesecloth, squeezing out all the liquid. This is true coconut milk—the difference, in the context of old clothes, between dirty laundry and vintage threads.
After adding the coconut milk, cook until it simmers and serve with rice, a salad of tomato and onions, and the coldest beer you can find, while dressed in a new polyester shirt announcing something along the lines of “Celebrate old clothes with earth bananas.”