Eating for the Soul in São Paulo

Written by Ramiro Alvarez, (University of Michigan) Student Correspondent CET Brazil, Spring 2017

The day before leaving to São Paulo my mother and I made a huge meal. We created food together—food that required patience, a knowing, a practice, and much creativity—so that we could bond, express our already growing separation anxiety (mama’s boy, I know), and also celebrate my victory: a semester in Brazil! Food in that moment was the vehicle that carried these overlapping feelings between us as we processed and released. I mean that quite frankly! We literally cried into the food. It was a moment, I know. But this isn’t exclusive to my mother and I. This is our heritage; an experience that is 1) psychospiritual—we believe in the energy of food and its effect in our bodies, 2) cultural—we cook ancestrally passed down recipes from muscle and sensory memory, and 3) social—the conversation over the preparation and consumption of the food is also integral to the flow. This is an experience that takes place, with its own nuances place to place, all over the world; Brazil included.

Ramiro and Brazilian roommate, Vini, host a cooking lesson for CET students at their apartment.

Upon arriving to São Paulo, I did the very same thing as before I left the U.S. I cooked with and/or for others and through that communicated my excitement and gratitude. These moments set the tone for the remaining flavors of the trip: creativity, community, and a love for the journey and destination.

With the kitchen being such important space to me, I loved feeling this importance and care resonated back to me in a similar, but mostly new way. In short, I met some of Brazil’s eating cultures and in them saw some of my habits reflected and others not. (Don’t get me started on having to eat pizza with a fork and knife…) By the first week in Sampa, I had “the best thing I’ve ever tasted” like twelve times. I understood quickly that there was definitely a communal relationship to food and the flavors themselves deliciously reflected that interaction of sharing and co­-creation.

As a foodie through and through, when I travel I do so with the intention of eating everything. Well, not quite everything. And this is also something I travel with saliently: I’m a lactose impersistent vegetarian. If you’re like me, you get that Googling a city’s “vegan friendliness” is top priority. São Paulo made this not-always-so-fruitful search extremely easy. From where I live in Perdizes, I can walk less than ten minutes to at least three fully vegetarian buffets/restaurants at reasonable prices. Around me I also have two full stock grocery stores and a weekly outdoor market that make eating fruits and veggies possible with my tight budget. I knew early on that I wouldn’t be hungry for soul nourishing food, have to repeat meals, or worry about my wallet while living here.

A group of CET students and their roommates head to Agua Branca park for a picnic potluck.

And just when it couldn’t get better, I get a vegetarian roommate who cooks so well. (Shoutout to Vini, the roommate of my dreams.) I’ve learned next to him that Brazilians season their arroz e feijão (rice and beans) a lot like the rest of Latin America. That made me smile. Every other meal has been a lesson, though. I’m expanding the ways in which I can express myself through food and having a new group of people to taste it has been doubly encouraging. A couple weeks ago I was told that my potatoes reminded someone of their mother’s kitchen. If you cook, you know that’s the complement of compliments. I wanted to cook for her everyday after that moment.

On the menu: homemade bread, curried potatoes, spicy rice, and brigadeiro.

Expanding on that, to share is very normal here, so if you’re not used to that grow your comfort around that when you’re here. You’ll, in return, be shared with. And that reciprocal nature to cooking and eating is what nourishes the soul. That’s the part of the equation usually skipped over. Of course, I’m not talking every meal. We have to save our zucchinis for rainy days, I get it. But in general, be kind through food. We share the earth that brought the meal forth, so share it with others in honor of that gift.

Ramiro and Vini share the fruits of their cooking lesson with the rest of the Cardoso apartment.

Though it’s only been a month, I’ve already done the unspeakable and reminded myself that I’ll be leaving in three months. I’m already certain I’ll miss the people I’ve met here…a lot. As I wrap my mind around how this could end, I immediately think of what meal I’ll prepare. What will this cooking and eating experience culminate with? And how can I make it taste like a promise to come back?

In search of that answer, I’m going to keep cooking and eating. Bonding and socializing. Expressing and receiving. Growing and refueling.

If you “can’t cook” this is a great time and place to start shedding that idea. If you can eat, you can cook. You’ll amaze your family when you return! But if going out to eat is more your thing, you won’t be disappointed here at all. But that’s a blog post for later.