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Brazil, like so many places, is an amalgam of cultures. The influx of the Portuguese settlers and the slaves from West Africa along with the native Brazilian Indians have created a dizzying collection of regional cuisines.

I find the cuisines of tropical areas fascinating, largely because they make use of the abundance of freshly grown ingredients without having to rely on culinary “crutches” like butter and cream.

The Fjords and Wonders cruise sailed last month from Rio de Janeiro amidst beautiful sunny skies and temperatures a bit higher than the average for this time of year. I was taking over for Chef Annie Copps, who had been on Marina since September. Before she boarded her flight back to the US for a well-deserved holiday, we took our almoco – the Brazilian mid-day meal – at Porcão, a popular churrascaria on Ipanema beach. 6a0120a92e343a970b017d3f9b5224970c-300wi

It was buffet-style with many Portuguese and Brazilian favorites, like coxinha (chicken croquettes), a variety of beans (broad beans, black-eyed peas, black beans) and scrumptious fruit salads made with tropical rainforest fruits. As is typical of these barbecue restaurants, the passadors – knife-wielding, meat-toting waiters – circulated with grilled steaks and sausages on skewers, slicing off portions of grilled meat tableside. Luckily for me, I was able to return to the ship and take a nap!

My first morning in Rio, I arranged for a guide to take me to a few culinary highlights of the city. Carlos was an avid home cook and was keen to share his love of Brazilian cuisine. My mission for the day was to design a Culinary Discovery Tour to be offered in this vibrant city starting in December 2013. I was also joined by Illiana, a member of our Destination Services team, all of whom are always helpful in crafting the perfect day for our foodie guests.

I like to visit fish and produce markets early, so this was our first stop. I had already visited Mercado São Pedro in Niterói, which is sure to be a hit with our guests, so on this morning we went to Mercado Cadeg in the Benfica neighborhood, to research a second option. It is a commercial-grade market where the flowers as well as the produce are highly regarded by locals and chefs. With its high ceilings and colorful aisles, the Mercado Cadeg is a nice place to shop and also people watch from one of the many quaint stand-up cafés and family-style luncheonettes.

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The Portuguese influence on Brazilian cuisine is evident in the multitude of bacalhau vendors, with their layers upon layers of salted and dried cod. During our Culinary Discovery Tours in Portugal and Spain, we frequently encounter salt cod and admire the quality of the preservation and the many varieties that can be purchased. Carlos suggested we try the fried cod cake made with mashed potato and deep-fried. It was delicious, especially with an über strong cup of Brazilian coffee. Carlos told us that these two local favorites were a typical mid-morning snack. Caffeine and cod – what an unusual combination! He also shared his grandmother’s recipe for cod cakes (oddly enough, the same recipe asmy grandmother’s!): equal parts potato and cod combined with onion, celery, chives and garlic and then rolled into small balls and dipped in egg and bread crumbs. Be sure to soak the cod well, rinsing three to four times to remove the salt.

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Because it was early in the day, we peeked into several of the restaurants that line the aisles of the Mercado Cadeg to see what was on the menu for lunch. The place that caught my eye was Gruta São Sebastião, where several cod dishes were the specials of the day. Bacalhau à lagareira, a Portuguese recipe, is best when quality olive oil is used to sauté the fish and when served alongside smashed potatoes or a root vegetable soaked in the same high quality olive oil. Apparently the lines outside this local hot spot are quite lengthy around lunchtime, and I was excited to have arrived early enough to have a chance to take a quick stroll through the kitchen (with the permission of the chef) to see the impressive mise en place of fresh vegetables, fish and sausages.

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The Brazilians love their peppers! The market was full of colorful fresh peppers, which are an integral ingredient in the relishes found on Brazilian tables, much like ketchup and mustard on American tables. If you don’t find a relish you like, an assortment of hot sauces is always in abundant supply!

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After an enjoyable morning at the market, we were off to eat at Restaurante Aprazível, an authentic Brazilian restaurant enjoyed by foodie tourists and locals alike. As we drove to the restaurant, we toured the winding streets and unique architecture of the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. The artist-colony feel of this neighborhood reminded me a little of Nob Hill in San Francisco with its charming homes, shops and restaurants. We passed the famous Bar do Mineiro, home of the best feijoada in Rio de Janeiro, according to Carlos. Feijoada is considered by many to be the national dish of Brazil. It’s often made with meat scraps, such as pigs’ ears and feet, and served with black beans.

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Dining at Restaurante Aprazível was a bit like sitting in a tree house in a tropical forest. As the three of us sat for lunch, I was reminded of how often a dining table unites us, as a meal compels us to share the traditions of our culture with others. Our party was from Croatia, Brazil and the United States, and yet each dish evoked a personal comparison to some meal, memory or cooking technique.

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Our gracious host suggested we start our lunch with a local cocktail. The cheery bartender stood behind a large wooden bowl with a staggering array of tropical fruits at his disposal along with the ever-present cachaça, a distilled liquor made from cane sugar. When asked to pick a fruit, I chose a combination of passion fruit (maracujá) and star fruit (carambola). Illiana selected the stunning red strawberries. Carlos, who was driving, enjoyed an iced maté, a strong local black tea. Given that the temperature was unseasonably hot, the drinks went down easily and we were able to forget (or not care about) the heat and humidity. My drink had a sprig of rosemary as garnish, which tempered the sweet passion fruit. It was heavenly!

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As I frequently do, I asked our waiter to suggest some local favorites for lunch. Our first course was pastels, fried pastries filled with meat and vegetables, similar to empanadas. Two relishes were served as accompaniments, one of onion and peppers and another of pickled peppers. The pickled relish was made with pimentas malaguetas, and these fiery hot peppers preserved in oil, vinegar and cachucha are a standard condiment on most Brazilian tables. (So much for the timid dash of hot sauce – these people are serious about their heat!) Apparently Brazilian pastels are regional, and the different stuffings and cooking methods, such as fried versus baked, define the region.

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The next course was roasted yuca, mild sausages, lime wedges and warmed dende oil, a palm oil that was brought to Brazil by the West African slaves. It has a unique nutty taste. The yuca was starchy, but with the fat of the sausages and the sour limes, it was a perfect mouthful! The limes in Brazil are a little sweeter and milder than varieties elsewhere, and we were warned that the lime oils would stain our hands a mustard color when exposed to the sun if we did not wash them. Guess I won’t be drinking many caipirinhas on the beach!

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Next up was patinha de caranguejo, a bowl of steamed crab claws with canjiquinha (dried corn), tamarind mustard sauce and the ever-present farofa, a favorite Brazilian side dish of warmed and toasted manioc flour.

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The highlight of our appetizers was roasted fresh palmitos (hearts of palm), which were doused in olive oil and an herbaceous pesto and carved and served tableside. I had never had fresh hearts of palm, so this was a real treat. My research shows that it takes 12 years to grow the heart to three to four inches in diameter, at which point it is harvested from the mature palm. No wonder it is such a treat!

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Having sampled meats at the churrascaria the day before, I wanted to try some local fish. We were served a perfectly tender, grilled tropical fish – a locally caught snapper – with an orange sauce and roasted banana. In contrast, we tried a moquequinha, a fish stew in a savory and flavorful sauce of coconut milk, roasted peppers, ground nuts and herbs.

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After a delicious lunch in the treetops with the occasional monkey swinging from tree to tree, we headed back to Marina with our hearts and tummies full from the generosity of our lovely hosts at Restaurante Aprazível. On the way we saw a bus converted into a mobile produce store – perhaps the next generation of food trucks!

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Considering our wonderful experiences in Rio, we will be sure to return this winter with a Culinary Discovery Tour to retrace this phenomenal market tour and lunch!

If you won’t have the opportunity to join us for a Culinary Discovery Tour in the near future, but you’re eager to learn about the cuisines of Latin America, I highly recommend Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America by Maricel E. Presilla. I’ve been nose deep in this book for the past month, partially because I was traveling to South America onboard Marina, but also because it is heralded as a must-read cookbook of 2012. When Rick Bayless, José Andrés, Jacques Pépin and Harold McGee use words like “sexy scholarship,” “complex and intricate,” “tireless explorer” and “amazing foods that tell a rich history” to describe the book and its author, I am all in!