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.

Pelourinho

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Pelourinho; Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

‘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.

Oaxaca de Juarez

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico

Cherry Blossom Season

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CameraiPhone 8

Location: Washington, District of Columbia 

USS Constitution 220th Anniversary and Head of the Charles Regatta

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CameraiPhone 6

LocationBoston, Massachusetts; Cambridge, Massachusetts