Before leaving we were intrigued by what we would and wouldn’t find as we went from country to country. Claire and I love food, from the odd Michelin star treat to a hungover Burger King, so we were both excited about the new foods we would discover and how we would adapt from place to place.
The other major factor in our food journey was always going to be what the hell would we feed Amber. It’s safe to say Amber is a typical toddler (it’s taken me quite some time to accept and understand that) in that her preferences seem to change on a daily basis. Just when you think you can always fall back on some bread and cream cheese suddenly both are off the menu and you’re scrabbling around the fridge searching for something she will like. New foods, even new brands of old foods, are treated like extra terrestrial objects – probed, poked and if you’re lucky they may touch the lips before somewhat inevitably being rejected.
So take that fussy toddler and drop her into Brazil with two hyper-sensitive parents and you have a recipe for a rather emotional start to our trip, at least when it came to meal times.
It’s safe to say our budget is pretty tight. In the 3 weeks we have been here we’ve eaten out a grand total of twice. Clearly evening meals will always be tricky due to bedtime routine but on the daily allowance we give ourselves any meals not homemade are considered a rare luxury.
Our first meal out was a slightly failed early evening dinner at one of the many bars that line Copacabana beach. Just after ordering Amber asked for her bunny. In the UK Bunny did not typically travel outside home however as per Claire’s poem we’ve subsequently realised how powerful that little toy is to Amber’s overall emotional state – no doubt it’s a familiar comfort at a time when so much around her is changing.
It was clear as soon as she asked for her little friend that I would need to make a mad dash through Rio back to our apartment to retrieve it. Luckily we were only around 15 mins walk (or as it turned out around 7 mins run) from home. A run that was briefly delayed when in my haste to cross a road my phone fell out of my pocket half way across. I then had to watch horrified from the pavement as a couple of minutes of constant traffic sped by miraculously missing my phone every time before I was able to retrieve it.
Eventually Bunny was successfully reunited with Amber but our meal out had become a bit of a sideshow so after a reasonable plate of chicken and chips the 4 of us retreated home.
Our second meal out was less dramatic and much more enjoyable in every single way. On our penultimate day in Rio we treated ourselves to a meal at Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian chain of meat grill restaurants. The format is simple. If there is a menu we weren’t offered it. We sat at our table and almost immediately waiters brought out massive cuts of meat skewered on huge spikes which they sliced on to our plate. You eat as much as you can (at least that’s the theory – after an intense hour of meat eating the waiters started to avoid our table – maybe they were rightfully concerned our arteries couldn’t take any more).
The different cuts of meat were genuinely mind blowing. Beautiful and succulent and varied – over that hour we had chicken hearts, chicken legs, pork belly, lamb rump, fillet steak, shoulder steak, sirloin steak, sausage, spicy sausage as well as sides including two types of chips, pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese balls) and bread. It was quite simply wow. Amber had her lunch in the taxi en route but even joined in with a few triple cooked chips before playing quietly at the table while her parents shaved a few years off their life expectancy. If you see this restaurant (it also has branches in the US) then go.
Eating in has not been quite as mind blowing but we feel like we are starting to head in the right direction by establishing some good practice and structure into what and how we eat as a family. As part of that we’re trying to buy from local markets and eat local produce as well as explore different foods that aren’t typically available in the UK.
One immediate challenge we have had to face up to is the sheer amount of salt and sugar added to nearly everything you buy in Brazil. You want a tin of peas? How about a tin of salt with a couple of peas in. You want Weetabix? Forget it, either pay £6 for a box of imported Frosties (a box that Amber amusingly roars at every time we pass it in a supermarket) or buy a bag of Nestle baby cereal full of sugar. I’m quite sure that it’s possible to feed your baby the perfect diet in Brazil but the reality of a fussy eater, a new country where you don’t speak the language and limited cooking skills / equipment means we have to accept it isn’t always possible. However from what we can see Amber is a happy, healthy, growing baby so we do our best, all the while trying (and often failing) to incorporate new and nutritious foods into her diet.
On arrival in Rio we adopted a slightly scattergun approach at meal times by offering Amber a variety of different foods conveyor belt style in the hope that one would stick. This had worked well in the UK however in Brazil things were different – we had less choice, different tastes and for a start no hummus (and no easy way of making it from scratch – only this week did we find tahini). In times of peak fussiness in the UK hummus was an old friend – nutritious, cheap and healthy. The same could be said for cream cheese, bread, cheddar, etc. What were our fall back options now?
The other problem was that we found ourselves preparing 4 meals every day – lunch and dinner for Amber then lunch and dinner for us. I enjoy cooking but I didn’t want to come back to the UK a year down the line feeling like I’d spent the entire time in the kitchen.
To solve these 2 problems we made 2 big changes.
- Amber would eat what we ate (or vice versa) at dinner time
- We would offer Amber a plate of food with around 3 different foods and she could choose what she wanted. If she didn’t eat we just cleared the plate and moved on
So far this has worked out pretty well. Amber has had a reasonably balanced diet and we’ve since found / re-found great staples such as broccoli, frozen peas and wholemeal bread. There’s no doubt we are a work in progress as we continue to discover different food, try new recipes and make meal times fun but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.
Overall the food on offer in Brazilian supermarkets isn’t wildly different to the UK. And there’s clearly some momentum behind healthier eating as most shops have a section dedicated to organic, low salt / sugar and gluten free foods. Prices are not dissimilar to the UK however imported goods are as expected incredibly expensive. I saw this first when noticing that a small bottle of Tabasco was around £4.50. Luckily I could sustain my chilli addiction with the local alternative Bravo. Nappies are also very expensive – can you potty train a 16 month old?! Imported cheese another example – around £6 for a small block of Gouda / Emmenthal. As with the hot sauce in both these cases we have pretty much adapted to the local alternatives.
Although we continue to sustain ourselves on lunches of ham and cheese sandwiches we have managed to broaden our horizons a little when it comes to dinner, while all the time keeping things simple and cheap where possible. We’ve had home made beer burgers, tuna fish cakes, chickpea burgers, pasta, sausage and mash and polenta chips – not exactly gourmet but it’s all about balance between something we want to eat, something Amber wants to eat and something simple / cheap.
Lastly a word on alcohol. We’ve managed to work our way through most of the local beers – Skol, Brahma (which I think you can find in the UK), Antartica, Polar, Kaiser – all pretty good if somewhat generic lagers. We also managed to sample a local craft lager in Porto Alegre called Dado after the bar / restaurant that sold it. This was a highlight – crisp and refreshing and served to us in a 970ml bottle in an ice bucket – la de da. Wine is generally out of budget although a minor breakthrough achieved last Sunday when again in Porto Alegre we got ourselves a great bottle of Chilean red wine which went perfectly with Strictly Come Dancing on iPlayer. We really are living aren’t we.