Food is a core component of culture. Many cultural aspects are structured around food. In some instances the evening meal can encompass entire traditions, such as the Thanksgiving dinner. During my first two weeks in Brazil, I found it almost impossible to avoid consuming foods that I had never encountered before; in most cases these foods didn’t have names in English. This is something I find more daunting than learning Portuguese.
I think Americans take for granted the fact that all of their food shares the same texture. Regardless of whether the food is whole or in pieces, cooked or raw, moist or dry, it all does the same thing in your mouth: it turns to an easy-to-swallow mush. Now imagine eating a fruit with an identical appearance to a melon, and finding that after twenty seconds of vigorous chewing it has broken down into dozens of miniscule, dry pieces of fibre. This fruit–called chuchu–is native to Mexico and is included in everything from omelets to lasagne, despite it having no taste. The only reason brasilieros eat the fruit is because it contains minerals that are good for your immune system. Last Tuesday, chuchu found its way into my largest meal of the day: lunch.
Brazilians concept of meals differs from that of Americans. In the United States, meals are worked into the schedule of the day, are evenly spaced apart, and share the same duration. Breakfast usually requires an early wakeup or a quick snack on the commute to work. Lunch is usually fit into that mid-day break where the working schedule slows. Dinner occurs after all other events have taken place and marks the end of the day.
In Brazil, the events of the day are scheduled around the meals, and therefore they are different for every family. In my family, breakfasts are small, usually consisting of some bread with ghee or some fresh fruits and juice. Despite its size, breakfast is never missed in my household. Lunch is the principal meal of the day, taking precedent over all other commitments and activities of the day. It is a pause where my entire family can sit down, enjoy a large home-cooked meal, and discuss what has happened during the day and what is to come. Some days, if we have guests or are not otherwise occupied, we will have a short meal devoted to coffee, cake, and some small activity or discussion topic. Dinner only occurs if everybody can eat together and is the only time where we eat outside of our house.
On the few occasions I ate at restaurants, I felt awkward. Restaurants, such as the sushi place that also served as a pizza bar, were less formal and occupied by many who weren’t eating. Small street vendors staged impromptu seating arrangements outside of their establishments so that I could sit and enjoy a lukewarm kibi as I watched the bus I waited the past hour for pass by. A convenience store owner charged me a “tourist tax” of five reals just to buy a two real pack of gum. The coffee shop I stopped at didn’t know what a to-go cup was, despite me showing them a google image of one.
This awkwardness stemmed from the fact that my previous conceptions of meals and sustenance did not apply in Florianopolis. Snacks are not snacks, meal schedules don’t exist, there is no unilateral price for name brand foods, and anything and everything can be used for cooking.
My culinary jaunts in Brazil are far from over, which scares me as much as it excites me. I just hope that, like my first bite of chuchu, they don’t turn into dozens of unenjoyable pieces.