13 October 2011

Specialty Foods and Products

Me and my shadow at the Casa Pedro, in the SAARA in Rio 
I used to know where to go for anything in New York. Someone was looking for an out-of-print book? "Have you tried the Strand at 12th and Broadway?" Bitter lemons? "Go to Kalustyan's on Lexington." The TKTS line is way too long in Times Square? "Why don't you try the TKTS booth in the World Trade Center Concourse? They open earlier and there's never a line there." I felt oh, so very competent, and sometimes even smug.

So it was somewhat infantilizing to find myself in my new country and not know where to find some seemingly essential food products. Particularly out here in the boondocks, about two-and-a- half hours outside of Rio. How was I going to prepare Moroccan couscous without couscous grains? Or saffron threads? Or cheesecloth? What is cole slaw without celery seeds? Biscuits without creme of tartar? Anything Thai without Thai curry paste? What's a Gimlet without Rose's Lime Juice? Lemon poppy seed cake, or everything bagels, without poppy seeds? Where was I going to find ghee, besan, garam masala, and all the other Indian spices I needed? The list kept growing. I became panicky. I felt incompetent. Truth is, I was hungry!

So it became a challenge — a matter of honor — to find what I felt I needed to keep my kitchen up and running the way I wanted it. Looking back now I realize that my success in finding various foodstuffs was directly linked to my acquisition of the Portuguese language: it was mostly a simple matter of asking friends and reading magazines and newspapers. That's how we finally found the SAARA, a neighborhood of mostly Arab and Jewish businesses, somewhat akin to New York's Lower East Side in its heyday. SAARA is both an acronym for Sociedade de Amigos das Adjacências da Rua da Alfândega (Society of Friends of Alfândega Street and Environs) and a clever play on words, since "Saara" means "Sahara" in Portuguese. The SAARA has EVERYTHING a person needs or wants, from specialty foods to fabrics, gardening tools to  jewelry, housewares to party decorations to perfumes. We stop there every time we're in Rio and, for better or worse, I've regained my feeling of competence. Smugness too.

Two more pictures from my Casa Pedro:

But with victory come certain small defeats. I still can't find cheesecloth, though the fault is all mine. I know they have it here, and I've even been told what they call it: it's cânhamo. But what kind of store carries it? I shall overcome this little setback, and I will triumph over celery seeds, too. At least when I ask for them people say they've heard of them. That's always a positive sign.

What we'll never find again: poppy seeds. We used to buy them at the SAARA's Casa Pedro, but they no longer sell it, they told me apologetically, since its sale in Brazil is now prohibited. Poppy seeds. Say it out loud here and the federal police may appear out of nowhere and slap handcuffs on you. Oh, how the world has changed! Remember when poppy seeds were nothing more than a little poison that a light dusting of snow could remedy?


  1. I think I know the feeling.

    Well, in a way. I'm not much of a cook.

    But here where I live in Porto Alegre, there's such a variety of restaurant types and service styles... when I went to live in the UK, I felt so lost. We could still go to markets and find some of what we used to have back in Brazil. But it was almost impossible to find the sort of places with the kind of atmosphere we were looking for.

    We got used to it after a while, and learned to appreciate the food options for what they were there in the UK. But sometimes we would go to this Brazilian place and we would drop some tears of nostalgia. Haha.

    1. The good news, Renan, is that by now (5 years after this post was written) I can find almost everything that I was looking for, and right here in Búzios, too! Real progress!