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.

Cuisine Spotlight – Mondongo

Mondongo Soup is one of those polarizing foods that you encounter where you either love it or hate it. There’s no in between when it comes to Mondongo, which is what makes it a unique kind of food to cover in this month’s edition of cuisine spotlight. The main ingredient of diced or pieces of Tripe (the stomach entrails of a cow or pig) cause some folks to go nauseous while others salivate over the chance to get a big bowl of mondongo for their lunch or dinner.

However, Mondongo is more than what meets the eye and comes with a number of different ingredients that vary depending upon which country or part of Latin America you find yourself in. Part of what makes Mondongo an interesting food is that you can find it in more than one country and each place makes it a little bit differently than the other. I didn’t know Mondongo existed before I started living in Colombia and although I tried it once and enjoyed it, I’m not big on tripe in general while others love it very intensely. Even if you find yourself disgusted by the idea of eating cow’s stomach, perhaps you’ll reconsider after reading this article.

Mondongo is more than just beef or pork tribe. The main ingredients also include various vegetables cut up and chopped such as bell peppers, onions, carrots, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. Additional ingredients can include salt, pepper, coriander, garlic, oregano, and cilantro if you want to spice up the dish with some seasoning. You can also decide to add some corn and rice to the soup if you want to make it more heavy, and filling.

Usually, the tripe is soaked in citrus juice or sodium paste before it can begin cooking in a pot. If there are many types of spice or seasoning available in your local supermarket, you can make your Mondongo as bland or as zesty as you see fit. The great thing about a soup like Mondongo is that there is a lot of variety in making it and there’s no right or wrong way to make it. It would be quite a dish to make when you haven’t eaten all day and are ready to dig in after a long day at work.

Mondongo is a food dish most commonly found in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. When it comes to the specific countries in which you can try Mondongo, there are quite a few that have it available. That list of countries includes Brazil, Panama, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Venezuela, and in Colombia.

In Colombia, Mondongo is a traditional dish for Lunch and is made with a lot of cilantro and is known for having a lot of chicken or beef broth for the vegetables and tripe to soak in. Peas, Carrots, Onions, etc. are the most common vegetables for this type of Mondongo and corn is sometimes added to the mix. In addition to pork and beef tripe, chicken and turkey tripe is sometimes used in the Colombian version of Mondongo depending upon which region of the country you are in.

Mondongo is sometimes known as ‘mocoto’ in Brazil as the Portuguese translation of this popular soup dish. Mondongo is mainly consumed in the southern regions of the country but can also be found in the Northeast where it is known by the name of ‘dobradinha’ when it comes to Panama, Mondongo can be seasoned with pieces of chorizo or pigtails to create some added flavors. Pig knuckles, and feet can sometimes be added to Panamanian Mondongo as a substitute for pigtails or chorizo.

This type of Mondongo can also come with chickpeas; bay leafs, and is served with salads and/or plantains. There is also a tradition in Panama that some folks observe that when a new house is built for a family, they will gather together to celebrate the occasion and have a meal known as ‘mondongada’ that focuses on eating big servings of Mondongo.

In Puerto Rico, vegetables such as squash, pumpkin, eddo, cassava, capers, etc. can be added as well as the salted pork tail and feet that you can also find the Panamanian version of Mondongo. Lemon juice is the main ingredient that helps to distinguish the Puerto Rican version of Mondongo from other countries’ versions. For El Salvador, Their Mondongo is also called the ‘sopa de pata’ where chili powder, coriander leaves help to give it a spicy kick on top of the tripe, pieces of yucca, sweet corn, green beans, and plantains that make up the soup. Lastly, the Venezuelan version of Mondongo is often the only meal of the entire day due to the fact that it is very heavy compared to other kinds of Mondongo.

This kind of Mondongo is served with plenty of vegetables, different types of tripe, pigs’ feet, and seasoning but also comes with a serving of arepa on the side, which can be considered the national snack of Venezuela. The restaurants that sell Mondongo in Venezuela are known as ‘areperas’, which focus mainly on cooking Arepas, but the mondongo dish and the arepa go strictly together in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans make it a priority to eat Mondongo early in the morning before they go to work or later in the night before they go out to party and drink.

Regardless if you’re eating Mondongo in Colombia or Puerto Rico, it is a hearty, fulfilling soup dish that has a ton of variety to it. You can mix and match different ingredients together and decide what kind of sides you would like to serve with your Mondongo. Wherever in the world you eat this dish, you should do so on an empty stomach due to how heavy it is. You won’t need to have any breakfast, lunch, or dinner if your only meal of the day happens to be a big bowl of Mondongo. Enjoy responsibly or you may risk a stomachache. Buen provecho!

 

 

Cuisine Spotlight – Sancocho

Many cultures around the world have their own unique take on stews and soups that are both hearty and comes with a number of different ingredients. This is also the case in many Latin American countries where the stew itself is called ‘sancocho’ and is closely related to the Spanish stew known as ‘cocido.’ Along with the Spanish influence, Sancocho takes most of its’ ingredients from local foods that are popular and add flavor to the dish. Sancocho is also considered to be the national dish in a few of the Latin American countries where it is made and eaten.

Among the countries where Sancocho is a popular food dish includes the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Venezuela, etc. so you could say that it’s a staple and has become popular in many households and restaurants. Sancocho is believed to have originated from the Canary Islands where it is a dish that heavily is made of a whole-cooked fish with broth and potatoes.

The dish was brought over to Latin America when the Canarians and their descendants immigrated to parts of the new world centuries ago. As is the case with many different foods, the immigrants who move to a different part of the world often bring their favorite dishes with them. While fish was a main ingredient in the ‘original’ sancocho, there are many different types of meats and vegetables that make up variations on the popular dish depending upon which country you’re in. Sancocho is especially common to be served during lunchtime as it is quite filling and can hold a person over until dinner comes around. It’s common for Sancocho to be served in a huge pot for a family gathering or birthday party where the dish can be expanded to served dozens of people total.

In Colombia, specifically, sancocho is an extremely popular dish with a wide range of ingredients that can range from chicken to ox tail. Other meats that can be apart of sancocho include hen, pork ribs, cow ribs, fish, etc. For example, sancocho with fish is really popular on the Atlantic coast of Colombia while pork and beef is more commonly found in the interior of the country. In addition to mean, sancocho can also include large portions of plantains, yucca, potatoes, and various vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, cilantro, scallions, mazorca (corn on the cob), etc.

There is simply no limit as to what can be put into sancocho and each country puts a different spin on the popular dish. In the Dominican Republic, for example, there is Sancocho de siete carnes, which is a dish made up of a mixture of different meats including chicken, beef, pork, etc. Sancocho de gallina, which is made up of free-range chicken is quite popular in Panama and is also the national dish of the country. Puerto Rico has the distinction of even adding smoked ham, pork feet with chick feats, which is known as sancocho de patitas and is quite unique in terms of its’ culinary characteristics.

The beautiful thing about sancocho is that there are so many different regional and national varieties to this dish are that the possibilities of mixing and matching different ingredients or toppings is simply endless. Any nation that has been touched by Spanish influence or colonization has adapted their own version of sancocho including even in the Philippines, which has a huge amount of meats and vegetables to offer in its own national take on the dish. Keeping to the Spanish heritage of the dish, they call it cocido as it is known in Spain.

If you decide to come to Latin America and find yourself at someone’s family gathering, hanging out with a few friends, or enjoying a birthday party, it’s likely that you’ll get a good serving of sancocho. In addition, the sancocho you get depending upon the country or the region in which the dish is being served to you will most likely be different and have some variation to it. The beauty of a popular dish like sancocho is its’ history, its’ adaptability, as well as the chance to gather with a group of people and dig in to this delicious food together.

 

Cuisine Spotlight – Cazuela

This second post in the new ‘Cuisine Spotlight’ series will focus on another favorite dish of mine here in Colombia, which is known simply as ‘Cazuela.’ Despite the unassuming name, this popular South American dish is quite diverse in what it can offer you when it comes to mealtime. Depending upon what you’re craving, a good cazuela can be made up of seafood, beef, chicken, etc. as its main base food. ‘Cazuela’ is a Spanish word, which roughly translates into ‘Casserole’ in English.

Similar to a casserole, a cazuela dish is a mix and match of different kinds of foods with tasty results. Usually, cazuela is considered to be a soup made up of different vegetables and meats mixed together. You can’t have cazuela without some flavored cooking stock put in there to form the soup-like appearance. Depending upon which South American country you’re visiting or living in, there will be a different spin on what cazuela looks, smells, and tastes like.

In Chile, cazuela comes with a piece of meat, which can either be turkey, pork, chicken, or beef. Specifically, a leg of chicken or some beef ribs will be the meat in the cazuela dish. Underneath the meat would be a piece of pumpkin and individual pieces of potato with a base of white rice doused in the flavored cooking stock. For the vegetables, it varies depending upon the cook’s preference but there’s usually celery, carrots, green beans, cabbage, etc. that are sliced and diced up to be soaked in the cooking stock and added to the rice and meat. In the summer time, some Chileans will add some sweet corn to the vegetable mix. The Chilean version of cazuela is known as being very similar to the ‘Olla podrida’, which is a colonial dish from Spain that has gained in popularity in Chile and other South American nations.

Cazuela is also quite popular in Peru, the southern neighbor of Colombia. Cazuela is often prepared in the Amazonas region of Peru and is made in different ways depending on which area of the department you’re in. For the meat, there are often more creative choices like hen and sheep that are added to cabbage, rice, carrots, and the broth juice. Usually, this kind of cazuela is cooked over a flame in a sauce pot as its mixed together and served to a large group of people.

Beyond just being a soup or a casserole, Cazuela can also be made into a traditional kind of pie as it is in Puerto Rico. During Christmas season, the Cazuela pie is made up of sweet potato, pumpkin, and coconut milk. It’s quite a popular desert that is easy to make and is popular for its’ sweet flavor and light texture.

Multiple countries in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia have embraced the ‘Cazuela de Mariscos’, which is made up of a number of different kinds of seafood. The Colombian version is easy to make and is known for being a thick kind of soup and also is rumored to be an ‘aphrodisiac.’ The seafood that comes in the soup includes calamari squid, prawns, clams, shrimp, and small pieces of fish.

The kind of ingredients you want to add are olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, coconut milk, white wine, some seasoning, heavy cream and minced garlic. To top it off, you need some vegetables including carrots, celery, red pepper, tomatoes, and bouillons. You got to mix up everything together, serve it in a clay pot or bowl, and enjoy the delicious broth and food. Sometimes, you can find that there are cazuelas for shrimp or prawns separately which can come with rice and a heavy broth mixed together with the seafood.

The type of cazuela that I have become most familiar with over the past couple of months is the ‘cazuela antioquena.’ You can find it throughout the department of Antioquia and most commonly in the city of Medellin. I find it to be unique compared to other kinds of cazuelas given the emphasis on ingredients that are known well to Paisas making it a local favorite.

You start with a base of Antioquian brown beans mixed in with some white rice. On top of that is the meat, which are usually ‘chicharron’ or fried pork belly and some cooked chorizo. Instead of more common vegetables like celery and carrot, this favorite dish of Antioquia comes with pieces of avocado and some cut-up sweet plantains. To add some flavor, the Colombian creole sauce known as ‘Hogao’ is mixed among the meat, plantains, avocado, rice, and beans.

Like many other local dishes here, a small arepa is added to the mix, and placed at the top of the ‘cazuela antioquena’ to be eaten with the rice, beans, chorizo and whatever else would go along well with the arepa. Second only to the ‘Bandeja Paisa’, the ‘cazuela antioquena’ is likely to be a fulfilling dish for lunch that can satisfy your cravings for some local cuisine.

It’s likely that you’ll run into some kind of ‘cazuela’ if you’re traveling or living in South America. The various kinds of cazuela unique to a certain country or region makes it an exciting dish due to its diversity. Whether it’s meat, seafood, vegetables, rice, and beans in the cazuela, it’s important to bring a big appetite to the table because it’s likely to fill you up and leave you satisfied.