March 30, 2007

Piranha for Dinner
Manaus, Brazil

I had it in my head that I was going to sample some Piranha before I left the jungle, but for some reason had never envisioned actually cooking the fish up myself.

But when I heard that one of the Brazilian staffers at my hostel was a natural bushman (and happy to show me how properly cook the fish), the mental image of the meal I had in my head shifted from a basic dock-side dinner to one I would be preparing in the kitchen.

His name is Norberto Prado—but everyone calls him Tarzan. He's only 30 years old, but has the look and easy-going mannerisms of someone much older. He was to be my Brazilian culinary instructor for the evening.

Several days have passed since I first arrived, and started casually taking about eating piranha—preparing a meal with Tarzan at the hostel. I had told him I'd buy enough fish for the both of us, and when the time was right, we'd cook.

Word of this little meal got to buzzing around the place, and before I knew it three others were planning on cooking Amazonian fish this night, with a fourth asking if she could get in on the piranha meal with me. Ultimately we would have a dining room table full of Brazilians and travelers, feasting on fish and conversation.

The Morning Of

I made my way down to the Manaus fish market this morning to pick up a fresh pile of piranha. Truly some of the strangest fish on this planet can be found for sale in this market—marine animals from an era long forgotten.

I've been to fish markets before, but have never bought anything—just to look. I got to thinking, what do I know about buying fish at a Brazilian dock? I've never bargained for fresh fish before, and this seemed like an interesting choice of place to start.

I couldn't get a great answer beforehand on how much the piranha should cost, so I just did what I always do in bargaining situations—pay what I think is fair. I figured somewhere around BR$1 per fish sounded about right.

I found a pile of fish I liked almost as fast it took to negotiate the quantity and price. He wanted to offload 14 on me for BR$25, then he went down to BR$20—I took 8 for BR$10—good enough.

Later in the evening Tarzan and I got to preparing the fish (which I discovered I'd bought at a the same rate a local would have). Looking at a sink full of these mean little guys, I realized that I had actually never cleaned a fresh fish before! Amazing, all these years and I'd never actually scaled, gutted, and cooked a fish from start to finish—silly.

Tarzan and I scaled the fish with knives, removing the luminescent exterior of the black piranha. The meat on the sides of the fish was then sliced, using short cuts from our blades. Then out went the guts and gills, tossed into the trash. Washed out in water, the cleaned fish were soaked in a pan of vinegar and water, to help reduce and smell.

As for our hands, Tarzan preferred to use a combination of ground coffee and soap to remove the fragrance of fish innards from our person.

The man said there were several popular ways to prepare the fish, and we decided a sampling of two would be fun—soup and pan-fried. Both dishes, Tarzan said, are thought to be aphrodisiacs by the Brazilians—as eating the piranha gives a man "strength."

How To Prepare Piranha Soup

  1. Use a covered pot big enough for all the fish
  2. Add three cloves of garlic, minced
  3. Add a handful of green peppers, diced, without seeds
  4. Add soy oil (vegetable oil)
  5. Let simmer for a few minutes
  6. Add whole fish (scaled, gutted, and sliced)
  7. Add water (enough to mostly cover the fish)
  8. Add salt
  9. Add a tablespoon of cumin
  10. Add three potatoes, peeled and sliced
  11. Add eight whole hardboiled eggs, shelled
  12. Add the stem of the green onion (spring onion), minced
  13. Cover and let boil for a while.
  14. Serve the fish on plate; the broth in a separate bowl with serving ladel

How To Prepare Pan-Fried Piranha

  1. Squeeze lime juice over the fish (whole, scaled, gutted, and sliced)
  2. Rub in salt
  3. Add soy oil to the pan
  4. Cover the fish in flour
  5. Fry the fish on both sides
  6. Serve with rice

Lavanderia Annoyances

While waiting for dinner to cook I quickly ran off to go pick up my clothes from the cleaners. It's been almost three months since I had a machine washing, and some of my clothes desperately needed to have this done.

Rare is it that I've had an encounter with one of these businesses that has not revealed an odd cultural quirk or annoying/dishonest business practices.

Clothing weight is typically used to determine the cost of laundry service (sometimes options like drying, folding, and ironing are extra). It is exceedingly uncommon to find a scale that is not crooked in some way. I know how much my clothing weighs, and sometimes these bandits will weigh my clothes in at twice the actual weight.

Some countries, like Argentina, don't weight clothes, but give a flat rate for a plastic grocery bag full of items. Brazil, being the expensive cash-burner that it is, apparently likes to itemize and overcharge for every parcel of clothing submitted (with different prices for each item type).

Bad cleaners

One of the highest annoyances a laundry service can inflict upon me is to mark on my clothing. I hate when a business that does nothing but wash clothes can't figure out a better way to track a customer's garments than to write their name on it somewhere (with permanent marker). Today I discovered the establishment I selected here in Manaus was guilty of this act of desecration.

Developing countries are not the only place this lovely practice is found; my clothes have been tagged plenty of times by dry cleaners the United States as well.

A Delicious Evening

It turned out that Tarzan was not only giving me cooking instructions, but simultaneously preparing the fish bought by the other trio. A nice looking catch was cooking in the oven, and another that had been sliced up and marinating in the refrigerator was just coming out of the frying pan.

The amount of food prepared was more than enough to feed the 10 at the table; I was absolutely stuffed. The big fish cooked in the oven, called a Tucunaré, was easily the favorite. The piranha was rather bony, and the meat a little tart compared to the other fish being served. The ones that were boiled were more tasty and easier to eat than the fried variety.

Heading down to the docks after and grabbing an açai for dessert put the final nail in the coffin of a fantastic meal. Açai is a berry that grows in the jungle of the Amazon, and here in Manaus you will find the freshest and most potent of them used to create a refreshing drink or iced smoothie.

The deep-purple berry is devastating if dripped onto clothing—there is zero hope of getting the stain out—I'm always mindful. Your smile will return to white with time.

At the docks I had the most concentrated variety of it to date, and loved every sip and spoonful. The berry is bitter, so it's common practice to add heaps of sugar to the drink (or some other type of sweetener). Granola is used in tourist zones to add texture, but here at the docks the locals seem to prefer small, fluffy, white pellets called tapioca.

Ahhh, the açai, it will be missed when I depart Brazil—tomorrow.

Bye Bye, Brazil

I'm finally pulling the plug on this country—greatly anticipating the Portuguese purge I'll be doing from my memory.

The journey north into Venezuela will take honors as my second longest, something on the order of 30+ hours. The 18 hour bus journey in Peru and the 22 hours spent moving from Salta to Mendoza in Argentina just don't seem like such a big deal any more. Hopefully Asia won't find me sitting for more than an occasional overnighter.

Ciudad Bolívar, a hot, aird city in the center of Venezuela, is my destination. The bus from Manaus to Bolívar departs in the evening, costs BR$170.50, and will deposit me in the city well after dark on the eve of my second day of travel. I'm not so happy about the after dark part.

I've been trying to get a straight answer about the Venezuelan border crossing for American citizens. Purchasing a bus ticket in Brazil that takes me beyond the border (towns) and into the middle of Venezuela is a risk. If something goes wrong at the border, the bus will not wait for me. I will probably be out the money.

The U.S. State Department Web site says that I won't need anything special to get in, but the Venezuelan site makes mention of paid tourist visas and the such. Conflicting information is found on message forums.

I'm curious if the anti-American label the country has will present problems. All I can do is cross my fingers, and prepare to peso my way through in case of any problems.


Ethan Zara

April 4th, 2007

Travel Recipes! Long needed.

Backpacking on Little Money

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