By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Like all food cultures, Brazilian cuisine is at its best when its cooked with love and served at home. For those looking for an insight into Brazilian food and culture, what it’s about, how it developed and most importantly, how it’s done, Cook in Rio’s cooking classes provide an afternoon of tasty Brazilian flavor.
Since September of last year, Carioca restaurateur Simone de Almeida has led the Cook in Rio classes. “It started with teaching Brazilian cooking to friends from other countries who visited and grew from there,” says Simone. “Cuisine is a way for people to get together and if you want to know about a culture go to the kitchen. Different cultures have different approaches to cooking and from that you can better understand the thinking.”
Cook in Rio’s classes are held in Simone’s Portuguese tapas bar restaurant Tasco Do Lido on Rua Ronald de Carvalho in Copacabana. The cozy colorful space with a mural ceiling and open kitchen bar has a instantly warm and welcoming atmosphere making it a great venue for a lesson in Brazilian home-cooking.
Simone starts with the first vital step of a good cooking endeavor: the cook’s drink. Although there’s a generally relaxed attitude to measures when it comes to Caipirinhas (what else?), Simone gives guidelines of one lime per person and two dessert spoons of sugar muddled with ice and a generous dose of quality cachaça and makes sure all the students get involved in the making.
Sipping on classic Caipirinhas, Simone goes on to get the class making rice, banana farofa and deep fried aipim chips. While everyone makes the side dishes together, Simone explains a little of the history of the national cuisine. “Brazilian food is essentially a big melting pot mix of Portuguese, African and Indian flavors. It has its roots in slave food because it was them who cooked for the rich Portuguese colonials and influenced the cuisine with African flavors and techniques.”
Lively and animated, Simone is typically Carioca in her assertive friendly manner and is skilled at ensuring everyone is at ease and involved. In contrast to other cooking classes where each participant has a station and cooks individually according to a series of strict demonstrated steps, Cook in Rio classes are an informal communal effort.
The main dish of this particular class was the Bahian fish stew moqueca, although other class menus include feijoada. As the sliced green peppers and onion fry in the nutty African palm oil, Simone answers questions and continues to dispense tips and insights into Brazilian food.
Advice such as always buy the cheap palm oil (“look for the ugly bottles”) because the small producers are the best, and be polite with the chili sauce and leave it for people to add themselves (“Bahians like their food spicy but Cariocas don’t”).
Everyone sits down together to eat the deliciously rich coconut fish stew washed down with a pineapple Caipirinha. With gentle teasing and a light social ambiance, the home-cooking is matched by a relaxed homely atmosphere.
Conversation turns to cooking classes and Sam Rivello, a traveling computer software consultant from California explains that he loves to take a class in every country he visits: “It’s a cool way to learn about a culture. I don’t care so much about remembering exactly how to do the cooking but it’s having the opportunity to ask questions about the culture, food and language,” he says. “It’s social as much as it is fun and educational”.