Some travelers can’t imagine visiting a new place without hitting all of its monuments and tourist attractions. In my family, we feel that way about markets and grocery stores…and cafés and restaurants…we’re food people—can you tell?
We stroll through markets the way others would go through a museum, observing stands from afar and then getting closer to look at unfamiliar products, pyramids of colorful fruits and piles of fragrant spices.
This spring, while visiting my parents in Brazil, where they are currently on sabbatical and where we used to live, we paid a visit to São Paulo’s Mercado Municipal (Municipal Market), fondly called the “Mercadão” (big market) by locals.
A majestic building with stained glass windows and lined with stalls of produce, snacks and prepared foods, the Mercadão is no longer where paulistanos (São Paulo residents) do the bulk of their shopping. However, it still offers characteristic tastes of the regional cuisine and is popular with locals and visitors who drop in to shop and have lunch or an afternoon snack.
Brazilians also stop by the market to buy foods and treats for special festas juninas (June festivals). Although they began as pagan celebrations, these festivals have become part of mainstream Brazilian culture and are celebrated in schools and community centers everywhere. When Lag b’Omer falls in June, many Brazilian Jewish communities link it to their festa junina as both holidays involve bonfires and picnics.
Festas juninas celebrate rural life surprisingly similar to county fairs in the US. Festival-goers dress up in plaid and overalls, participate in square-dancing shows and enjoy agricultural staples like peanuts and different forms of corn, including corn-on-the-cob, cornbread and popcorn. Among Jews, Lag b’Omer bonfires and celebrations take on a distinct Brazilian flavor with these traditional local snacks.
São Paulo’s Mercadão and supermarkets are also teeming with cocadas (shredded coconut candies), pé de moleque (peanut brittle) and other rustic candies for Brazilians hosting their own festas juninas. Figuring that candy would go over better with US Customs and Border Protection than tropical fruit, my brother and I loaded up our suitcases for a Brazilian-themed variation on our weekly Shabbat dinners.
Back in DC, as I get ready for the colorful farmers’ markets that mark summer here, Brazil is heading into winter. The country is incredibly fertile, so fresh produce of all varieties is found even in cooler months. During my recent visit, the fruit vendors in the Mercadão showcased piles of local winter produce, like persimmons, as well as tropical guavas and sugar-apples that are brought from the northeast, where summer is year-round.
With the rising heat in DC, it’s hard to imagine drinking mulled cachaça (rum), a Brazilian June staple. Instead, I tried my hand at a Brazilian summertime treat that makes good use of local summer corn while still capturing the rural theme: corn pops, or picolé de milho verde in Portuguese. My version uses coconut milk, also native to Brazil and an ingredient in other special foods for June celebrations.
My brother and I will be serving these and other Brazilian-inspired treats, along with the candy, at our Shabbat dinners with friends this summer. For now, they do a decent job of quelling some of our saudade—a Portuguese word that has no direct equivalent in English, but is similar to longing, missing or yearning—for Brazil and for mamãe e papai (mom and dad), until their return in August.