How the humble “tapioca” brings out all my nostalgia for Brazil

The beach in Natal -- one of my favourite pictures. Yes, it's that beautiful for real.
The beach in Natal 

I miss Brazil. The nostalgia always hits at this time of year, around January and February, when it’s cold, slushy, and grey. I can’t help thinking about my beloved nordeste (northeast region), with summer at its scorching peak and the whole country preparing for Carnaval with an enthusiasm that North America simply cannot comprehend. The beaches would be full of people in the mornings, resting under a sea of umbrellas, eating fresh pineapple that’s carved up right in front of their chairs, drinking ice-cold cerveja, and dipping into the turquoise water of the tropical Atlantic. The streets of Recife Antigo would be echoing with the sound of loud maracatú drums in the evenings, surrounded by crowds of dancing people. In other words, it would be another world from my calm, organized life in small-town Ontario. 

My nostalgia — no, let me use the correct word, which is actually saudade, a word famous in Brazilian Portuguese that translates roughly as “longing” or “nostalgia with an element of sadness” — was intensified when my dear friend Patrício arrived from Brazil for a visit over the Christmas holidays. (Believe it or not, he specifically chose winter because he loves the cold so much.) Pato, as I call him for short and which means “duck” in Portuguese, knows that I love a traditional Northeastern food called tapioca. It’s a kind of folded crepe made of manioc root, which gives it a unique chewy texture. Tapiocas are a popular street food and can be filled with anything from sweetened condensed milk, coconut, bananas, and chocolate to salted meat, ham, and cheese. So, being the wonderful friend he is, Pato packed four kilos of tapioca flour in his suitcase and brought it to me, via two airplanes and several long bus rides. It arrived unbelievably intact and last week I ate fresh, hot tapiocas for the first time in five years. It was an emotional moment for me, not only smelling the familiar aroma of manioc cooking on the stovetop, but also to be standing in my kitchen with Pato beside me, after so many years of friendship and distance.

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Grating the solidified tapioca flour
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Catching up while preparing the tapioca flour — a big job when there’s 4kg to do!
Spreading the tapioca flour in its mold
Spreading the tapioca flour in its mold
Spreading sweetened condensed milk, sliced banana, and coconut on top
Spreading sweetened condensed milk, sliced banana, and coconut on top
I'd take bets that this is probably the only tapioca being eaten in all of Ontario right now... que delícia!
I’d take bets that this is probably the only tapioca being eaten in all of Ontario right now… que delícia!

If you’ve never had a tapioca, then you probably have never had anything like it. It was one of the first foods I tried in Brazil. The coordinator of the program I was working for took us on a multi-day trip into the interior of Pernambuco state, a semi-arid and desolate landscape with spectacular rock outcroppings and humble farms. In the town of Pesqueira, we stayed at Keith and Cristina’s house. Keith is an American man who had come to Brazil seven years earlier and never went home. He fell in love with the culture and a woman, and the rest is history. Anyways, while staying at their home, we were served tapiocas for breakfast. I’ll never forget its strange chewiness contrasted by the soft, salty cheese inside. I think I ate far more than my fair share and, from that day on, I was hooked, seeking out tapiocas whenever possible.

After an evening of stuffing ourselves, Pato has now returned to Brazil and I’ve been slowly plugging away at the mountain of tapioca flour in my fridge. There’s still probably a good 3.5 kg in there, so if anyone feels like a taste of the tropics, please drop by! This stuff won’t keep forever. In the meantime, I’ll savour every bite because of what it symbolizes — a world that I once loved with a passion reserved for few things in this world, a place that is now further away from me than ever before, but continues to surprise me in delightful ways, as in Pato’s special tapioca delivery. I guess I’ll be lugging at least 4 kilos of maple syrup down there when we go next!

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