When we arrive at the compact, down-to-earth Copacabana eatery, Tasco de Lido, the other three couples in our cooking class are already chatting away cheerfully as they sip drinks. Bob Marley is blasting on the stereo and the restaurant’s vivacious owner and cooking school instructor Chef Simone Theisen is singing along as she preps for today’s class. Cooking in Rio is going to be a little different to cooking in other cities it seems…
“The best way to understand a culture is to go into the kitchen,” Simone says to the group as the class gets underway, “People are what they eat.”
Today, Simone tells us, we’re going to learn about Brazilians at the same time as we learn how to cook simple home-cooked Brazilian food. Brazilian cuisine, she tells us, is a combination of Portuguese, indigenous Brazilian, and African cuisine. Simone promises she’s going to share some tips and assures us that we’re going to have some fun. Let the fun begin…
We start with fried manioc, which Simone says is like cassava or yakka and is an essential part of Brazil’s food heritage, and we’re going to fry it. We gather around the tiny kitchen that doubles as a bar, and Simone assigns a couple of people the task of chopping the manioc (which has already been boiled) into small pieces, so it can be fried.
Simone puts some vegetable oil onto the heat and instructs the group how to tell when it’s reached the desirable temperature of 400 degrees — a match thrown into the oil will spontaneously spark! Once it does, the manioc is ready to go in and should be fried until it’s crisp.
Simone demonstrates how to put the manioc into the pan and scoop around the edges to turn the manioc over inwards (not out!) to prevent the oil from splashing over the edge. She asks a couple of members of our group to do the rest, filling two pans with manioc. When the manioc is done, we taste it and it’s delicious — like chunky (sweet) fried potato chips.
BATIDA DE CÔCO (COCONUT SHOTS)
“Do you drink?” Simone asks the group. Heads nod eagerly. Simone says she loves to have a drink while she’s cooking, especially while she’s preparing the mise en place, and she encourages all cooks to do the same, so she teaches us how to make coconut shots, a local favourite.
½ coconut milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cream
Simone combines the ingredients, pours them into each glass and sprinkles coconut on top of each. They’re potent and they’re delicious!
Simone shows the group how to make a pepper sauce using Cumari peppers, which she has pickling in vinegar in enormous jars on the bar. The peppers come in red, green and yellow (strangely, the strongest) and she shows us how to combine them with vinegar, salt, lemon, and olive oil, to be served in a dish to be used as a dipping sauce.
“Food is the most important thing in human life,” Simone says, as she begins to teach us how to make the farofa. “And sex!” a participant adds. “Yes!! And sex!!” Simone agrees. “I never cook if I’m angry, as that emotion transfers to the food,” Simone reveals.
For the Farofa, Simone tells us, we’re working with fish, garlic (one clove per person!), two onions, and bananas (to be added at the end). The base of the dish is the onions, she says, as she assigns a couple of people the task of chopping them. “If you cry when you chop onions, swallow some water,” Simone suggests, as she puts two pans of oil on the stove while a couple of our cooks chop the onions.
“The onions must smell sweet,” Simone says. “In Brazil, if you’re cooking and your neighbours don’t know it, then there’s something wrong. This is the reason Brazilians cook — we want everyone to know! In the old days, people who had money had food. It didn’t matter if you were black, white or brown, because in Brazil we’re very mixed. But we always had lots of food at our parties — too much! — because it’s important to show off!”
When the onions start to brown, Simone adds garlic. When they “really start to brown” she adds manioc powder (about 100 grams for two people, triple for a dinner part of 8 such as ourselves). If they’re still too wet, she advises to add more, as the finished dish should be dry. Next, we peel the bananas, chop them into small pieces, throw them in, add salt, and fold (never mash!) the ingredients together. Tasty!
“Brazilian men love their Mum’s food so it the girlfriend doesn’t cook better than the Mum, then he won’t marry her,” Simone confides. “When she goes to the parents house and they cook and the Mum says “why don’t you cook the rice?” it’s a test!”
First, we wash the rice. Next we put the garlic in oil in a pot. When it starts to smell fragrant we add the rice to the garlic and oil for around 5-10 minutes. Water goes in next — 1 cup of water for each cup of rice. We add salt to taste then put the lid on, leaving it off a little, to simmer.
“Are you ready for caipirinhas?” Simone asks the group. Yes! “Traditionally, Brazilians have one or two caiparinhas as an aperitif,” she tells our thirsty group. “In Brazil, we only use limes, Cachaça, and white sugar to make caiparinhas. With Cachaça we only use citrus fruits. If you want to use strawberries, then forget about the Cachaça and use vodka instead.”
1 regular sized lime for 1 person
2 teaspoons sugar
1 part Cachaça
Simone distributes the ingredients among the glasses, hands out pestles to a couple of participants, and instructs them to muddle. They start muddling. “I want lots of juice!” she says. Simone fills each glass with ice and then Cachaça. “If you’re not used to pouring liquor then just count to five as you pour!” she suggests. Simone puts a glass on top of each glass and shakes each one before adding a straw. It’s messy, but it works. Yum! They’re perfect.
SEAFOOD MOQUECA RECIPE
4 red & yellow capsicums (peppers)
½ cup coconut milk
½ cup water
black pepper & sea salt
fish fillets (we use Whiting but you can use any white fish, just not black skinned fish, which Simone claims has too much iodine)
juice of two lemons
Simone instructs a couple of the guys to slice the capsicums and onions finely and throw them into a wok-like fry pan, creating some space in the centre for a generous amount of palm oil. Mix it all up, she advises, so that it sizzles, and keep stir-frying until the oil has disappeared. Once it sizzles, Simone tells us to lower the temperature and pour in the coconut milk and water, sprinkle in some salt to taste, add the fish fillets and shrimps, cover them with the vegetables that have already been cooking, and add a big pile of cilantro/coriander before covering it all with a lid. “You’ll know when it’s ready!” Simone tells the group.
“I enjoy cooking,” Simone says, as we all sip our second caipirinhas while we wait for our lunch to finish cooking. “It’s a way to show off an important part of my culture. I’m proud of being Brazilian, coming from a mixed culture. In Brazil we feel ‘mixed’, not black or white, and people only begin to understand this when they eat our food because our food is mixed.”
When the moqueca is ready, Simone dishes it up with the rice and farofa (the pepper sauce is served as a condiment on the table) and we all pull up a seat and eat. It’s simple, hearty, home-cooked food, nothing more, nothing less. And like Simone, and most of the Cariocas we’ve met, it’s a reflection of their character — warm, inviting and making you feel instantly at ease.
Simone’s is a cooking class that may not be big on rules or formality, but it’s big on fun. And that’s a great insight into the Carioca culture right there!
Cook in Rio
Tasco de Lido
Rua Donald Carvalho 154, Copacabana