Ever feel like you’ve been through some sort of time warp, doomed to a Bill Murray-like existence living the same day over and over again? That is what this interminable trip is starting to feel like, despite the loveliness of the setting and friendliness of the people.
There is plenty of both in Gramado, a Southern Brazilian town famous for its German and Italian communities, Swiss-style buildings and ludicrous number of fondue restaurants for a town of 30,000, a minute fraction of whom are actually Swiss. We are here for Marcelo and Renata’s wedding, joining 298 others in a heavy-duty bash (in case this is news to you, Brazilians like to party) incorporating an all-you-can-drink caipirinha bar, 40 bottles of whisky, 40 bottles of vodka and a whopping 220 bottles of champagne. Win and I, old farts that we are, battle valiantly to stay up past midnight. We make it to 12:30am, failing to outlast Marcelo’s 10-month-old cousin and 80-year-old grandmother, who is still out on the dance floor when we skulk out of the ballroom, pretending to make a call.
When it comes to food, however, we do our part, gorging on bottle after bottle of the local Merlot and sparkling wine and a uniquely Brazilian version of fondue bourguignone that doesn’t actually involve any fondue — a hot plate is coated with salt to keep the beef from sticking, and it is accompanied by a dizzying array of dips ranging from the usual (rose and tartar sauces, garlic-parsley butter and curry mayonnaise) to the, uh, unusual (wasabi, caramelized onion, candied pineapple, strawberry jam). Alas, the 9:30-10:00pm dinnertimes render me a gassy menace to society, snarling my digestive system and making me a deadly weapon in enclosed spaces like cars (sorry, Marcelo’s brother).
So despite the absolute loveliness of Marcelo’s and Renata’s families and promises to visit each other’s respective cities, it is with a certain sense of relief that we are left to our own devices in Sao Paulo, where no one is stuck with me but my husband and I can eat dinner at 7pm like any other tourist. Called the “locomotive of Brazil”, Sao Paulo is nearly everything Rio is not — fast-moving and unwieldy in a way that recalls Bangkok, but way more efficient; where two kisses is a common salutation in Rio (and three in Gramado), in Sao Paulo you get away with only one (time is money, after all). Sao Paulo is also way bigger than Rio: at last count, its population totaled 40 million.
It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Sao Paulo is also home to the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. After what feels like months of going without Asian food, I insist on trying both ends of the spectrum of Japanese food in the city: slick and high-end vs. “authentic” everyday.
At Kinoshita (Rua Jacques Felix, 405, (11)3849-6940) you will get plenty of slick (minimalist, expensive decor, smooth service) and a whole lotta high-end (65 reals for a glass of Hungarian Tokaji). Food — with the exception of a nifty gazpacho with shrimp roe and sea urchin, some nice seared fish eggs with a dollop of wasabi and salmon drenched in ponzu and topped with tempura dribbles and ebiko — stands at the intersection of Mundane Avenue and High-Concept Hotel Dining Street. In other words, it’s the culinary equivalent of an Aman Resort: pretty and well-designed but somehow similar to somewhere else. Of course there is a foie gras course, cubes of it pan-fried and set atop cushions of Kobe that are only seared, so that the marbled fat in the meat isn’t activated. Why bother then?
More satisfying (and easier to do) was the ramen at Lamen Kazu (Rua Thomaz Gonzaga, (11)3277-4286), in the “Japan town” known as Liberdade. The menu is simply a succession of ramen variations: miso, salt, shoyu, with the usual varieties of toppings. All the same, I enjoyed my “Hokkaido” (corn, seaweed, pork, spring onion and a pat of butter) despite getting hangry (hungry+angry) and scaring the waitress and our neighbors at the table next to us.
In the end, we find we’ve explored only the tip of the iceberg that is Brazil. There is still the gorgeous green expanse across the north, and the awe-inspiring forest known as the Amazon. And imagine the food that remains uneaten! It would take weeks and weeks to do the country justice. We’ve only just started.
All the same, I feel like I’ve been on the road for a long time. The memories seem minted long ago: dining on a tableful of oysters at Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe) and rifling through stacks of scarves and evil-eye jewelry at the Turkish market in Berlin; stumbling through icy streets in Denmark and Finland on a bellyful of schnapps; discovering delicious cream-filled semla buns in Stockholm.
I love exploring the world through my stomach, and I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to actually do it for a month. But home beckons, finally. What’s for dinner?