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Pastel na Feira + Caldo de Cana

December 1, 2009

“Frying gives cooks numerous ways of concealing what appeared the day before and in a pinch facilitates sudden demands, for it takes little more time to fry a four-pound carp than to boil an egg.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

In our menu development class at the CIA, we had to design a restaurant concept. Alex went totally out of the box and did his project on a “Pastel Cart” – everyone was very confused and very intrigued by this concept. He talked about pastel so much during that project that pastel was one of the things I was looking forward to trying most here in Brazil, mainly because – like the pizza frita – I wanted to figure out what exactly it was.

Pastel is a typical Brazilian dish, consisting of crisp pastry with assorted fillings. In Brazil the Pastel is a salgado (salty snack) primarily sold on the street in markets (feiras) made out of a thin pastry envelope containing minced meat, catupiry and chicken, shrimp, cheese and herbs or another filling and then deep fried. Sweet pastéis also exist and may contain guava jelly and cheese or other fillings.

The dough’s secret is the addition of a little Cachaça (Brazilian sugarcane liquor – their “vodka”) that makes it very crispy. Pastel is a perfect example of fusion cuisine: turnovers (from the country’s European heritage) with a Japanese touch (Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan… and every pastel vendor is Japanese!).  Essentially, pastel is like a huge wonton rectangle filled with indigenous Brazilian ingredients (Catupiry cheese, heart of palm, etc). And ohh, it’s so good.

Heather's Pastel Experience
My First Pastel Experience

My first pastel experience went hand-in-hand with my first farmer’s market experience here, as I’m told that they are events which must happen together (you cannot go to a market without eating pastel; you cannot eat pastel outside of a market). We wanted to get to the market early to see the farmers setting up, so we stayed up until 6am and then walked to the market down the street. I was in awe – the market was the size of the whole Union Square neighborhood in New York City. Most American farmer’s markets are maybe a block long, with about two dozen vendors – there must have been four hundred vendors at this market, from fresh fish to meat to fruit and vegetables to flowers to all kinds of artisan crafts, clothing, and goodies – it was enormous, and very overwhelming at 6am!

Mercado Ceasa
The Mercado Ceasa – fruit section (about 1/5 of the whole market)

The pastel cart is the size of a 10ftx10ft pop-up tent, with a giant frying wok in the middle. Next to the wok is a drying rack, and on the back side of the booth all of the prepped, filled pastels are laid in plastic shelves according to their fillings. How they keep track of which fried pastel contains which filling is a total mystery to me, but somehow they got everyone’s orders correct. When the pastels are fried, the dough puffs up around the filling – they pinch it to vent the steam so you don’t burn your face  when you take the first bite :p The tables around the tent are filled with a dozen different sauces, and some of the vendors make homemade salsa to go with their pastels. My personal favorite was this translucent white garlic sauce – absolutely delicious with my chicken and catupiry pastel!

Next to almost every pastel cart is a cart selling caldo de cana – freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice.

Caldo de Cana cart
Caldo de Cana cart – fresh-squeezed sugarcane

I really believe that this is bottled happiness. It’s definitely very high up on the list of the most amazing juices I have ever tasted in my life, and I think it should be on everyone’s list of “Things to eat/drink before I die”.  Here, fresh sugarcane is squeezed and served with either lime or pineapple juice and ice. I tried both – the lime is infinitely better. In my opinion, the juice is so sweet and syrupy that the acid from the lime is a perfect complement, whereas the pineapple makes it almost sickeningly sweet. Sweet juice… salty pastel… good morning.

I was reading about caldo de cana and discovered that most of the northern part of the country calls it Garapa. It means “fermented drink” in West Africa, and was brought into Brazil and the rest of Latin America by slaves from Cabo Verde islands, then to the Madeira islands. In Brazilian Portuguese, garapa is also used figuratively as meaning a good thing- easy to get. Garapa doida (crazy garapa) is also the name given to cachaça in the Amazon region. Sugar cane juice is also one of the most widely consumed drinks in India.

Side note: I was very excited to see sugarcane here, because all the sugarcane we get in the US is covered with this disgusting layer of brown wax to preserve it because it travels thousands and thousands of miles and is nearly rotten by the time we get it… yeah.

When prepared in rural areas, raw sugar cane juice can be a health risk to drinkers, mostly because of the unhygienic conditions under which it’s prepared in these areas. Since it’s very sugary, it’s an ideal culture medium for all kinds of microorganisms, so it should not be stored outside a refrigerator. In fact, it’s almost always consumed as a freshly prepared drink. Pasteurization is required if the juice is to be bottled and sold as such, and a date of validity should be stamped on the container. Garapa has been recently involved in a widely publicized episode in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil  (about 10 hours south of us) , when at least 49 tourists were infected with Chagas disease by drinking garapa most likely produced at roadside stalls. The sugar cane used for it was probably contaminated with the feces of the insect vector, a Reduviid. Yuuuuuummmy! I’ll still take my chances though… it’s that good.

I asked around, and it turns out that pastel dough is pretty easy to make at home (although every vendor sells their dough here)…

Pastel dough:
2 cups of all purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoon of canola oil
1 tablespoon of Cachaça (you can substitute vodka if you can’t find cachaça)
1 tablespoon of white vinegar
About ½ cup warm water

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well like you would when making fresh pasta and add the oil, the Cachaça and vinegar, then the water, little by little until the dough is homogeneous and smooth, but not wet. Work the dough in a floured surface as you do with fresh pasta. Let it rest for a couple of hours – overnight is best. Roll out the dough so it’s a little thinner than a pie crust. Cut into a large square – about 6″ x6″. Put the filling in the center (fillings can be infinite – this is a great way to use up leftovers!), fold and press the dough together so it won’t open (same process as ravioli or dumplings). Deep-fry the pastel in very hot oil – vent it – serve hot – go into gastronomic bliss :p

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    February 1, 2010 2:13 am

    You know, I wasn’t the least bit hungry before I started reading all of this. Now I want to get up and MAKE all of this stuff!! lol Do you think a pastel would be good with breakfast items in it (eggs, cheese, bacon or sausage, etc.)?? Sounds like the perfect “to go” meal. 🙂
    It’s such a shame you aren’t enjoying the food down there ……. hahaha

    • February 1, 2010 10:22 pm

      They have a “special pastel” at all of the carts that’s like…. ground beef, tomatoes, cheese, onions, and a whole egg in it… they literally just crack the egg on top of the fillings and then close the dough and fry it… it comes out soft and slightly runny and is amazing with everything else… so YES! Breakfast pastels would work, although people here are appalled at the idea of eating bacon for breakfast :p

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