Cuisine Spotlight – Pão de Queijo

“Brazilian cheese bread or ‘Pao de queijo’ is a delicious snack that is truly delightful to have whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or even at night.”

Brazilian cheese bread or ‘Pao de queijo’ is a delicious snack that is truly delightful to have whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or even at night. While often served as part of a traditional Brazilian breakfast (café da manha), you can have it as an appetizer, a snack, or even as a side dish with some meals depending on your preference. I do believe it is best served with come coffee or tea to wash down the bread. It really is a traditional Brazilian staple with interesting ingredients as well as a deep and culturally rich history to go with this practical dish. You should be aware though that it is hard to have just one of the cheese bread pieces and it is likely you will eat six or seven in one try.

While there are various forms of cheese bread, the Brazilian ‘pao de queijo’ is perhaps the most famous in the world and for which has the longest history. Originally from the state of Minas Gerais, ‘pao de queijo originates back to the early 18th century when many enslaved African people who worked in the local mines would make the bread as a staple food while migrating from the Northeast of Brazil to the Southeast such as the historical city of Ouro Preto in the modern-day state of Minas Gerais.

The mining cycle and lifestyle caused staple food production to increase such as for rice, beans, cornmeal, pork, but also cheese. In Minas Gerais, farmers and cooks would use starch or cassava as a substitute for wheat to bake as a wheat substitute for form the bread for the cheese. With cheese chips or pieces mixed into the cassava or starch, the cheese bread would be made for the farmers by the slaves or for themselves as miners as they mined for gold in the colonial era.

Wheat never took hold in terms of forming the bread needed especially since the climate was not suitable for Northeast Brazil, which was instead imported from Europe later on for the King and his royal adherents. Instead, cassava tuber was used as a substitute in making ‘pao de queijo’ as a staple food. The cheese would be grated and hardened inside the cassava flour and rise after being baked in the oven to become the popular cheese bread food it is today across Brazil.

Today, there are many different variations on ‘pao de queijo’ making it a fun dish to make depending upon your preference of starch, of cheese, and of temperature to bake it at. You can use both sweet or sour starch or cassava as is traditionally done. You also can choose from different types of cheeses as well from mozzarella to parmesan to cheese which is native to the state of Minas Gerais and has its own unique flavor. Adding egg to the recipe also adds flavor and needed color to the final product as well. Also, as an option, you can smear a bit of fat whether it is butter, margarine, lard, or vegetable oil on the cheese bread to make it more elastic and stretchable to eat pieces of at a time.

Some recipes can add meat inside with the cheese or potato as well although I confess that this kind of ‘pao de queijo’ is not that popular. I think it is important to keep in mind that the cheese can also be pre-boiled to add to its overall flour before baking too although it is not necessary. As for the cheese, it is good to use the traditional ‘Minas’ cheese if you’re in Brazil but if you don’t have it available, mozzarella or parmesan are good substitute options to have.

You cannot have ‘pao de queijo’ without having the texture down, so you need to have the cassava starch as part of the main ingredients. The balls need to be an inch or two (3-5 cm in diameter) and need to be in that form before you bake them. Unlike other cheese breads, you are using unleavened bread for this snack dish so the dough will expand due to small pockets of air that are left to grow during the baking process. Tapioca starch is also used for the ‘pao de queijo’ as well and it is quite common to add dipping sauces or additions like catupiry (Brazilian cream cheese), Guava sauce, dulce de leche (caramel sauce) as well to have as a dessert.

When you come to Brazil, you will find this popular snack almost everywhere including convenience stores, delicatessens, restaurants, snack bars, etc. The locals will encourage to at least have a few of them and sometimes up to eight or ten. It is the perfect snack to have with friends, with family, or over a coffee with a new acquaintance. A simple yet delicious staple food of Brazilian cuisine: You haven’t experienced all of Brazil until you have had a bite of ‘pao de queijo.’

Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

Cultural Spotlight – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

“A growing and popular martial art can be found in Brazil known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. While Jiu Jitsu or Judo originated in Japan and was meant more for fighting and hand to hand combat, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more focused on using the skills of grappling and then submission in order to become victorious.”

You cannot fully enjoy a culture until you dabble in or learn about its martial arts if that culture has them available. From Karate in Japan to Kung Fu in China, most martial arts are thought to be of Asian origin but that is not always the case. A growing and popular martial art can be found in Brazil known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. While Jiu Jitsu or Judo originated in Japan and was meant more for fighting and hand to hand combat, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more focused on using the skills of grappling and then submission in order to become victorious.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has become more popular in recent years especially due to the corresponding growth of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) sport, which focuses on mixed martial arts training including BJJ as part of a fighter’s overall repertoire. Jiu Jitsu originated as a martial art in Japan and was firstly used by Japanese samurai warriors as a means of self-defense especially if they were unarmed and without any other way to fight.

While Japanese Jiu-Jitsu has morphed into the modern Judo sport, which emphasizes throws, takedowns, and joint locks, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was founded as a martial art that is similar but focuses primarily on ground fighting including submission and stamina.

A student of the traditional form of Japanese Jiu Jitsu and a participant at the Kodokan, Mr. Mitsuo Maeda brought his training and his over twenty years of experience with him over the ocean to Brazil where he arrived in 1914 essentially founding the sport which became known as BJJ. Maeda had a lot of prowess in Judo actions like throws and takedowns, but his specialty was in ground fighting, which made it logical for him to want to help create a new form of the martial art.

History was made when Maeda met Gastao Gracie, a businessman, who encouraged his sons including Carlos and Helio to study Jiu Jitsu with Maeda as his students. Over time, the two brothers adapted the Judo style of jiu jitsu to their own liking including the ability to adapt the system of ground fighting known as ‘newaza’ to be more of its own kind of sport and that anybody of different size or strength could learn about. Instead of relying on pure strength like Judo, BJJ relies more on knowledge of the various moves you could make, anticipating your opponents’ actions, and using speed to gain an advantage over your opponent.

For many years, the Gracie family would create Brazilian jiu jitsu and establish this unique fighting style, which incorporated other elements of wrestling, judo, and jiu jitsu but is primarily focused on how to grapple and submit your opponent on the ground. Since the Gracie family were experts in the sport they help found, they rarely lost a match but ended up spreading the sport around Brazil and the rest of the Latin America throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Without their influence, their competitions, and their move creations, BJJ would not be as popular as it is today.

Rorion Gracie later came to the United States in the 1970s to spread the sport to America in the hopes that it could compete with boxing, karate, wrestling, and other forms of martial arts that had gained a hold in the popular culture. Rorian Gracie’s biggest move in terms of popularizing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and helping to mainstream the sport was making it part of the skillset needed for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Rorion co-founded the UFC along with Bob Meyrowitz and others which came about in November of 199

Rorion’s younger brother, Royce, was an instrumental part of showing how Brazilian Jiu Jitsu could be instrumental in helping a smaller or less big fighter win a match due to the leverage, technique, and thinking involved in making the right move at the right time. Royce Gracie is one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time and is in the UFC hall of time. His influence helped paved the way for the Brazilian form of Jiu Jitsu being integral to competing in mixed martial arts with its grappling, submission, and ground fighting techniques.

The Gracie’s have helped create many new BJJ fighters and MMA fighters in general. From Brazil to America to the rest of the world, BJJ is an extremely popular martial art whose origins in Rio de Janeiro by way of Japan have changed people’s lives for the better. Not only great for one’s sense of accomplishment, BJJ is great exercise and good for one’s mental health too. While not as physically punishing as boxing or wrestling, you have to be in great shape to win in a BJJ match and to do rolling (sparring, grappling) with another classmate in a class.

From podcast host Joe Rogan to TOOL musician Maynard James Keenan to the late, great Anthony Bourdain, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu counts millions of students from around the world who rank from white belt to black belt. GI or No GI, you don’t need to be a certain size or weight level to get started. You just simply need to be determined, practice at least a couple of times a week, and be willing to learn a lot in order to be successful in this particular martial art. Once I have the chance to do so, I would like to start training and getting involved in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and I hope that you at home will consider giving it a chance as well. Good luck.

Downtown Rio and Leblon

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Leblon Beach and Downtown; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Maracanã

“One of the most famous football stadiums in the world and which was featured in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.”

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Maracana Stadium or Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cuisine Spotlight – Churrascaria

Churrascarias are one of the best places in the world except if you are a vegetarian. Even so, there is usually a nice salad bar to enjoy but that is not the main reason why you come to a churrascaria. The beauty of a churrascaria does not just lie in the meats available and how they are grilled to a tender and juicy conclusion, but it is also the fact that you can eat these meats to your heart’s content. As much as you want, you can choose how full you can get and how much you want.

While barbecue places are ubiquitous around the world, The Brazilian churrascaria is honestly a special option among the competition and is among the best in the world in terms of both the quality of the meats and the quantity of them. Other unique aspects of the churrascaria is the card or the coaster in green or in red which is used to signal to the waiters or servers if you would like more meat or if you are bowing out after loosening your belt due to fullness. The thing to keep in mind is that the green is similar to ‘go’ or ‘more meat, please’ and the red indicates that they should skip your table as you need to rest a bit or even take a nap because you are too full to continue.

While the ‘Fogo de Chao’ churrascaria or steakhouse is a very popular chain in the United States, Brazil, and around the world and whose name carries weight for being the most popular or the most expensive churrascaria depending on who you ask, there are more options out there than just this particular place. If you are going to really enjoy the churrascaria, you have to try out a few of them in where it all began: Brazil.

Why go to Brazil to experience churrascarias? Well, it’s not the only reason why you should go to Brazil of course but it is a major reason why to do so. I found the meats to be more varied, the churrascaria to be more laid back, and the servers seemed to serve you quicker at the beginning and then drop off so you can finish what’s on your place first. You have to be quick too because you may end up taking a bigger or a longer piece of meat if you are not quick enough to grab the meat with your fork.

I also found the salad bar to be included in the final fixed price with only drinks being extra, so I definitely think that since churrascarias are so prominent in the major cities of Brazil, you are likely to find a good one for a good price. Since there are many more churrascaria options in Brazil, you can try different ones to compare and contrast. You simply don’t have that option back in the U.S. since it’s more of a specialty place than something that is native to the local culture.

The ‘Rodizio’ style culture adds to the flavor of the local churrascarias as well where it’s an all-you-can-eat affair at a fixed price and for which differs by night and by time of day as well. The different meats are cooked on an open flame or from a rotisserie grill and they come to you with the skewer of meat when it is done. The meat options range from beef to pork to chicken and sometimes more exotic meats depending on where in Brazil the churrascaria is. The ‘Rodizio’ option in Brazil also extends to Japanese sushi restaurants and to Italian pizza places making an all-you-can-eat option not just limited to barbecued meats.

As if the salad bar was not enough for you, you will get a seemingly large amount of side dishes to choose from. The side dishes include sweet options like fried bananas or savory options including collard greens, black beans, rice, French fries, fried potatoes, etc. In churrascarias, there may even be a dessert bar with cakes and assorted sweets like ice cream if you still somehow are still hungry even after the salads and the meats have been digested. Rodizio-style churrascarias began in the middle of the 20th century and have only gained in popularity since then; spreading throughout Brazil and now in many different countries around the world.

The most popular cuts of meat are definitely the following: Filet mignon chunks wrapped in pieces of bacon, sirloin steak, rump cover (picanha in Portuguese), and roast beef. Those kinds of meat are bound to be the most popular and those servers skewering them are going to be quite busy, both day and night. Also, popular meats that are not beef include turkey chunks wrapped in bacon, beef short ribs, rack of lamb, pork ribs, ‘chorizo’ or Spicy pork sausage. Grilled dark meat chicken is also a reliable item but that is not the only part of the chicken to be served.

When you think of eating a chicken, you think of the thigh, the leg, the wing, and the breast. You do not think of its heart but in a churrascaria, the chicken heart guy who serves it knows he may be turned down a few times per night but it’s possible he will get some lucky customer to try it out. I have had the chicken hearts before and while they are small and chewy, I found it to be not that bad surprisingly. I just had to reminds myself before eating these chicken hearts that they would taste exactly like chicken.

Hopefully, you will get the chance to try out a great rodizio-style churrascaria in Brazil sometime. If you cannot make it to a churrascaria in Brazil which is likely considering world events right now, look up the ones closest to you via Google. It is a worth a drive or a train ride or even a special trip to have a day at the churrascaria. Created by the ‘gauchos’ or cowboys of southern Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, this popular South American style rotisserie place is famous for a reason and has been around for a few centuries now. What started with a few hungry cowboys roasting meats over an open flame to nourish themselves after a hard days’ labor has become a global phenomenon and has put Brazilian rodizio culture on the world map.

Cultural Spotlight – Capoeira

Capoeira is a very unique cultural aspect of Brazil and one that while it has its origins elsewhere has become very Brazilian in its customs, history, and usage. With different elements of dance mixed in with parts of martial arts, Capoeira is unlike any other form of movement in the Western Hemisphere. Not only is Capoeira based on dance and martial arts, it is also formed from a foundation of acrobatics and music to accompany the many movements. The amount of exercise involved in becoming a true Capoeira artist means that you will definitely break a sweat while getting physically fit if you intend to practice this unique art form on a daily basis.

Capoeira is known for having its origins in different parts of west Africa but was developed after the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century. After enslaved Africans were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese settlers, it became a way for the slaves to stay physically fit and strong if they ever decided to flee and run away from their slave masters. If they wanted to collaborate and rebel, they could use their capoeira skills to help defend themselves from possible attack or capture from the slave masters as well.

Capoeira uses the full body and so you can use both your arms, hands, legs, and feet to do a large number of movements. The movements are acrobatic, complex, and fluid and based often off of the music and rhythms that are being played for the dancers. Hands often stay on the ground as inverted kicks are flown in the air. The ginga is the focal point or main focus of any capoeira movement and is usually the beginning of any fluid kick or handstand to come.

The capoeiristas’ are those martial artists or dancers who perform the movements often with other capoeirista while being surrounded by a group of observers who are either playing music or encouraging the capoeiristas on to continue their rhythmic movements to match the other participant. The origin of the word ‘capoeira’ comes from the Tupi language words of ka’a (forest) and pau (round) referring to the low-lying vegetation areas where fugitive African slaves would hide from their masters when they would try to make an escape. Most of the African slaves who started capoeira in Brazil were originally from Angola.

After the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the new republic outlawed capoeira throughout the country. If you were caught practicing capoeira anywhere in public, practitioners would be thrown in jail, tortured, or even killed. This prohibition continued throughout most of the 20th century even if it was sometimes tolerated in universities and in private places during times of both democratic and military rule in Brazil. Still though, the Afro-Brazilian communities especially in the Northeast kept capoeira alive during these forbidden times and even renamed capoeira to be called ‘Luta Regional Baiana’ which means the regional fight of Bahia in order so that practitioners could practice their form of capoeira without outside interference.

In the recently enslaved communities of Quilombos who had liberated themselves to be free and self-reliant in parts of Brazil during the 18th and 19th centuries, capoeira became a way of defending themselves in case of war or conflict with Portuguese colonial troops or Brazilian soldiers. By using the martial art to dodge potential attacks and/or captures, the Quilombos were a formidable fighting force who used capoeira to defend their communities and their land at often great cost.

The key to capoeira from my own observations in Brazil is to never stop your movements and to always be thinking of how to dodge, kick, sweep, and even take down your opponent. The ginga movement of being fluid is both an attack and defense mechanism to make sure you are constantly ready to either take your opponent by surprise or to evade their own attack. Most attacks in capoeira are done with leg sweeps, swirling kicks, or knee strikes but can also involve the elbow or head. However, most forms of capoeira today are done as simulations and to train for a game or a competition rather than war or actual combat.

To the public who view capoeira in a non-violent lens, these presentations in the roda or circle are just for show and involve games of aerial acrobatics rather than being more about striking or deflecting physical attacks. The circle involves musical instruments specifically for the game between capoeiristas and there is singing, and dancing involved with everyone in the circle participating at some point. Capoeira instruments include the berimbau, which can be played from very slow to very fast depending upon the rhythms requested as well as other instruments such as pandeiros, atabaques, agogo, and the ganza. The row of musicians in the roda (circle) is called a ‘bateria’ and the touch of the berimbau instrument in particular fuels the speed, aggressiveness, or style of the capoeira game.

Similar to Carnaval and Feijoada, Capoeira is one of Brazil’s most famous and impressive exports to the rest of the world. Every year, thousands of tourists come from around the world including serious non-Brazilian practitioners travel to different parts of Brazil to practice its most famous martial art. The capoeira masters (mestres) often teach the Portuguese language in addition to the movements of capoeira so the foreign student can really immerse themselves in the cultural background and history of this traditional martial art. The capoeira demonstrations are perhaps more acrobatic than physical when in public but in private, you would have to guess that it is much more intense and much more serious in terms of displaying physical prowess than what is shown to the public.

After the 1970s, this unique part of Brazilian culture was on its way to not only being accepted by the people but being embraced and taught to the next generations. A powerful way of resolving conflict, promoting social cohesion, and learning about physical fitness, capoeira is great at bringing the community together in a positive way while showing how important it is to recognize and value past traditions. From the roots of West Africa to groups of escaped Afro-Brazilian slaves whose cultural practices were almost extinguished over the centuries due to subjugation, maltreatment, and neglect, capoeira like their rights to human freedom and basic dignity made a powerful comeback which is still being fought for and advanced to this day.

‘The Last Samurai’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) is an epic drama film that takes place in a unique period of Japan’s history and highlights the conflict between modernization and tradition, between cultures, and also between different styles of warfare. However, it is not just the conflicts that are highlighted in this film but also the cooperation and the understanding that can happen as well in certain aspects such as between cultures. While this film is not specifically based on a true story, it is based on a number of true events that took place in the latter half of the 19th century for Japan and highlights the role of Western influence in Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration or Reforms.

The main character, Nathan Algren (played brilliantly by Tom Cruise) is a Captain in the United States Army of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Nathan is a veteran of the American – Indian Wars and perhaps the Civil War as well. He is a bitter man who is suffering from trauma related to the atrocities committed against the Indian tribes during these brutal battles. When the film starts, we can see that Nathan is an alcoholic who is regretful over the orders that he had to follow and what happened to innocent Indian women and children whose lives were disregarded by his commanding officers.

However, for lack of purpose or money, or perhaps both, Nathan is recruited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, whom Nathan still resents for his role in the Indian massacres, to help train Japanese soldiers in the Western way of combat to put down the Samurai rebellion, which is ongoing in Japan. Algren is dealt a bad hand as he has to train peasants and not actual soldiers who are firing guns for the first time and would be better suited to the farms than to the battlefield.

In addition to that, he is expected to lead them soon into battle against the Samurai for which they do not have enough time to prepare. One of themes of this film is how good men are often corrupted by following misguided orders by their superiors and often end up harmed, captured, or killed for the negligence or ignorance of those with a higher rank. Nathan is a good soldier, but he cannot train peasants into soldiers in the time that is given to him especially when he is not familiar with the ways of the Samurai and how lethal they can be compared to his peasant conscripts.

In the battle between his soldiers and the Samurai, the Samurai end up killing most of them through surprise attacks and then an ambush in a refusal to fight the way of the ‘modern’ army that Nathan has assembled. One of Nathan’s fellow American army colleagues is killed in the battle while most of his army is decimated. Undeterred and with nothing to live for, Nathan fights the Samurai ferociously and is able to hold his own. Instead of killing him, the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, decides to capture Nathan instead and hold him as their prisoner. Unbeknownst to Nathan, Katsumoto sees something in Nathan and believes that he is a good warrior, who although tries to kill the Samurai, may be one of them due to his capacity to fight to the last breath.

At first, Nathan is not treated kindly by the Samurai given that he is a former enemy and that he also killed the husband of Katsumoto’s sister who resents Ethan’s presence in their village. Nathan also has his preconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Samurai and their culture. Over time though, Nathan starts to acclimate to his new life as a prisoner. He embraces the Japanese language and culture as well as earns the respect of the other Samurai by learning swordsmanship as well as how to train with others.

He also finds he has an affection for Katsumoto’s sister and ends up befriending her son as well. While it is not easy, he gains an appreciation for the Samurai and their way of life. He even begins to resent the modernity and the loss of the tradition that is being imposed on them by the imperial Japanese government. In this way, ‘The Last Samurai’ does an excellent job what it means to ‘go native.’

When you live in another country for long enough, you start to really embrace certain aspects of the culture and also if you take a liking to the language, you may realize you may want to stay there now that you’re acclimated rather than return to a home culture or country whose flaws become so visible to see when you were blind before to them. This movie does a great job of showing ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and how powerful it can be over time especially if you have a romantic interest in a woman or a man after a long enough period of time.

Algren is also no longer haunted by the nightmares of what he experienced during the Indian wars and has also forgone alcohol as he has found other ways to sustain himself while living with the Samurai. Perhaps most importantly, he develops a friendship with the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, who explains to Nathan their worldview and while preserving their 1000-year heritage is so important to them all. Nathan agrees with them and starts to see how important the ways of the Samurai are to Japanese culture and customs themselves.

The biggest turning point in the film is when Nathan begins to fight alongside the Samurai against attacks by both Ninjas, which one of the coolest scenes I have ever watched still. It is an amazing scene when you have Samurai battling with Ninjas and it is a very powerful point in the movie to show Nathan help save Katsumoto’s life. The Samurai are so dedicated to their way of life that they will die or commit ‘seppuku’ (suicide) to preserve their honor.

Without giving away the rest of the film, we can see that the Japanese emperor is being betrayed by big business interests and Western nations in the rapid attempt to modernize. While Japan was right in that it needed to catch up in areas of commerce and warfare, it is also important to remember the ways of the Samurai and to remember their customs as well. It is not right to destroy an important part of their culture and erase it from the history books.

That is what the Samurai leader, Katsumoto, and also Nathan wanted to preserve even if they knew that they were fighting a losing battle. A culture’s customs must be remembered, and its history remembered by all even if the country is to go in a new direction. ‘The Last Samurai’ makes it clear that even if there are no more Samurai, their memory must be retained in the national consciousness and it is important for Japan to not be belittled or bullied around by other powers. Receiving western advice, arms, and goods was a paramount need at that time but not at the sake of destroying a part of Japan that made it a special nation to begin with.

‘The Last Samurai’ is a powerful film because it reminds us all how customs and traditions form the backbone of a country’s culture and its’ history. While nations shift and change, the traditions and customs should never be forgotten by its people. That is the main message of the film and why the Samurai fought and died to preserve their place in Japanese society rather than be changed into something they are not. Becoming ‘Western’ because they had to be was an insult to them and something, they were against in an effort to remain as ‘Samurai’ in whatever capacity they could in order to serve the emperor.

It is a powerful film and also shows the redemption of Nathan Algren who went from a drunken soldier without purpose to a powerful Samurai commander who was able to integrate himself as best as he could into a foreign culture and even earn the love of a woman whose husband’s life he had ended. ‘The Last Samurai’ has many themes to it and each one of them are powerful. Remembering traditions, seeking vengeance, earning one’s redemption are all themes to the film and make it stand out still today as one of the best films of the 2000’s and maybe of this young century still. I hope you will check it out soon and please always remember the Samurai.

Cultural Spotlight – Carnaval

No one country does the festivities of ‘carnaval’ quite like Brazil. A festival that is just more than ‘Fat Tuesday’, it has become more than a month of celebrations beginning in early February and ending in early March even after ‘Ash Wednesday’ has passed by. The word ‘carnaval’ or ‘carnival’ comes from the Latin word ‘carnelevare’, which means to remove or to raise meat signifying how Roman Catholics would give up meat or poultry during the 40-day period of Lent before the Easter holiday. Because of the significance of Lent and not just for giving up meat but for other earthly pleasures as well, ‘Carnaval’ is a chance to enjoy some of those pleasures before the time of Lent and to revel in both culinary and cultural traditions.

Nowhere are these cultural traditions more proudly represented than in Brazil where the whole country has some form of celebration or observation of the Carnaval holiday. From the state of Pernambuco in the North to Bahia in the Northeast all the way down the Brazilian coastline to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, each year there is an informal competition to see which city can put on the best Carnaval and whose parades are the biggest.

Each city is different regarding how they celebrate Carnaval in Brazil but there are some similarities such as having huge street parades where crowds can dance and march to the bands and drum groups assembled as they go through the city. There are a huge variety of costumes, music styles represented but the most common one would have to be ‘Samba.’ In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian culture is heavily apart of Carnaval celebrations from the music being played to the design of the costumes. There are a number of variations of samba represented and they are all represented in the popular ‘samba schools.’

These small groups of performers sometimes prepare for the whole year before carnaval begins and are competing against each other in the ‘Sambadrome’, which are huge parade grounds and spectator events where these groups are being judged based on a number of factors against other schools. The biggest Sambadromes are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador along with Sao Paulo and these competitions take places over a period of four nights at the height of the carnaval celebrations. Not only are these groups being judged on their music style and quality but also their coordination, their rhythm, the theme of their performance, and the costumes, which can be quite elaborate and also quite expensive.

While there are different types of samba music involved, there are also lesser known music styles that are represented in Brazilian carnaval. They include ‘Frevo’, which is originally from Recife and Olinda in the state of Pernambuco and ‘Axe’, which is originally from Salvador in the Bahia state which combines different popular Afro-Caribbean music genres together such as calypso, marcha, and reggae. All of these popular music types mentioned have their roots in African cultures and diaspora influences.

In the 19th century, it was quite difficult for Afro-Brazilians to dance, sing, or even parade through the streets of Brazilian cities during Carnaval to express their cultural heritage but today, these forms of song and dance are the heart of the Carnaval celebrations. To put it simply, you cannot have carnaval without samba or costumes or drumlines. In a way, Carnaval is not just a celebration of indulgence and pleasure but of expressing your culture and your heritage. I found Brazilian carnaval to be also about celebrating the diversity and unity of the country itself and how that can bring people together despite past historical injustices.

In order to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, one does not have to go to a Sambadrome or to march in a formal parade or even wear an elaborate costume. You do have to sing, dance, and even drink or eat a little more than you normally would. The easiest way to celebrate especially as a foreign visitor is to check out some of the ‘blocos’ or block parties. They take place each and every day during Carnaval in different neighborhoods at different times. Each ‘bloco’ has different themes ranging from a celebration of ‘The Beatles’ to ‘R&B and hip hop.’ The blocos can also have ‘electric trios’ which are large trucks with huge sound systems where musicians on top of them sing famous samba or forro tunes to the crowd who often sing along with them as they cruise down an informal parade route.

These ‘electric trio’ trucks or floats can also include drum line groups or instrumental bands who walk down the parade route with these musicians. Each bloco has supporters who have specific shirts or costumes on to represent the theme of the block party as well. The trio truck or float is another symbol of Carnaval in Brazil similar to the block parties themselves, which can last from early in the morning until late at night.

While there is endless debate about where to go to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, my hunch is that you won’t be disappointed if you go to either Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, or Recife. The great thing about Brazilian carnaval is each city is likely to have a different feel to it as well as different types of music as well as different kinds of blocos represented. Rio de Janeiro’s carnaval is the largest in the world but you may want to go with the carnaval in Salvador to see unique forms of samba and other music styles represented. If you want a somewhat more subdued carnaval experience, going to Sao Paulo may be what you’re looking for.

Carnaval in Brazil is not just about coastal cities as there are celebrations that are lower key and smaller in the state of Minas Gerais, located in the interior as well as in smaller cities such as Manaus, Porto Alegre, and Florianopolis. This month-long celebration has something for everyone and while I have celebrated carnaval before a few years ago in Colombia, I have never seen such a unifying event that brings a whole country together as it does in Brazil. If you are expecting to see a lot of tourist sites and enjoy some museums here, you may want to wait until after Carnaval to do just that. Instead, bring your best costume, study up on your Samba moves, and get ready to buy those tickets way in advance if you want to see the Sambadrome in all of its glory when you visit.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil is a really unique experience and opportunity that I would recommend to everybody who enjoys dancing, singing, listening to good music, and experience one of the most joyous celebrations in the world.