This is Chef Boy Ari reporting from Brazil. Specifically, I’m reporting from a hammock, surrounded by the sounds of singing voices and rain falling on the tin roof of a house in the middle of the jungle in the coastal hills of Bahia, a state in the northeast of Brazil. I’m with a group of University of Montana students who, believe it or not, have chosen to join me on a tour of Brazilian agricultural communities that practice polyculture.
Polyculture is a technique by which a variety of crops are grown together to form an agricultural system that functions like an ecosystem. Here in the Mata Atlantica, or coastal rainforest, these agricultural ecosystems can include trees like palm, chocolate, coffee, banana, papaya and mango. This week’s story begins, sort of, with mango trees.
“There is nothing I would rather do at 5:30 a.m.,” said Gerard, three days ago, gushing with excitement, “than kill a chicken. I can’t wait to eat him.” At this point, Gerard and company had been in Brazil less than 24 hours.
As he was telling me this, I heard a loud “thump” as another mango crashed to earth. This is a sound we hear often—so often it quickly became white noise, like the sound of traffic in a big city. The mangos fall so fast that we can’t possibly eat them all, so we take them by the wheelbarrow load to the chickens.
I have a theory that this mango diet has a positive effect on the taste of chicken meat. But it’s tough to tell for sure, because these Brazilians have methods for cooking chicken that could make a factory-farmed Frank Purdue or Tyson chicken taste good. Still, my first rule of food is that your final product can only be as good as your raw ingredients, and these mango-fattened chickens were a great way to start.
As I contemplated this theory I heard another “thump.”
Gerard finally got to kill his chicken. Our friend Marcia removed its skin, cut the bird into pieces and left them soaking in water for about an hour. I marveled at the darkness of the dark meat, as dark as any red meat. There was more than just mango in that dark flesh.
Marcia drained the water and squeezed lime over the chicken parts and let it sit for 15 minutes before draining the lime and rinsing the meat again with water. Then she put the chicken into the following marinade:
1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon salt, 7 tablespoons white wine, 1/2 tablespoon cumin, 1 tablespoon oregano, 1 big onion, chopped, and a bunch of chopped basil and cilantro. She let this sit for a couple of hours, then added half a quart of water, 3 tablespoons tomato paste and 4 bay leaves and cooked over medium heat.
When the chicken was almost falling-apart tender, Marcia added the vegetables: carrots, okra, yam, potato and aipim, also known as manioc root, which is tough to get in the United States. But it doesn’t (“thump!”) really matter which veggies you use, as long as you like them. Cook until the veggies are done and then serve.
This was some of the best chicken I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve experienced plenty.
A few days later, another Brazilian chef, Debora, showed us yet another great way to cook chicken. This chicken wasn’t mango-fattened, but it was still a pretty good bird who had spent its life running around and digging in the dirt, like chickens will do if given their druthers. Debora made a marinade of mashed garlic, minced cilantro, black pepper, salt and white wine, marinated the chicken for 24 hours, and then pan-fried the bird in oil. When it was well cooked, she shredded the chicken, added the rest of the marinade to the pan and cooked it a little more.
One of the things you hear me say a lot in Brazil when I sit down to eat is “tem pimenta?” (is there pepper?), at which point the obliging host or hostess brings a jar to the table. To make it, mash some small chili peppers in a mortar and pestle with a little salt. Mix it with chopped onion and lime juice. That’s it.
So now, when the rooster crows at the break of dawn, and it’s pissing you off because you stayed up too late playing samba music and drinking caipiringas, all you have to do is send Gerard to take care of the bird. And once he does, you’ll know what to do.