Friday, September 16, 2011

Brazilian Day LA - Mid-town "Daycation"

Many, many years ago I had a roommate who was a huge fan of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines martial arts, music and dance.  I remembered finding it fascinating to watch, but because I lacked even basic motor skills (hard enough to put one foot in front of the other without falling over most days) I never really got into it myself.  This past weekend, when I heard about the Brazilian Day celebrations next to LACMA, my interest in Capoeira and all things Brazilian was rekindled.  And when I saw the event was free, I knew I had to be there.

The festivities are the LA outpost of an event that originated in New York in the 80s - immigrants in the neighborhood of Little Brazil gathered to celebrate Brazil's Independence Day and to share their culture with neighbors and friends. Since then, the celebration has caught on with major cities nationwide, and grown to attract over1.5 million people in 2010 in NYC alone.

This year's LA event was held at Hancock Park, behind the La Brea Tar Pits next to LACMA.

I was excited about all the components of the event: Brazilian food, products, capoeira, samba, and a Rio-style parade (put on by the SambaLá Samba School of Long Beach), followed by a "Trio-Electrico" parade.
It was a bright, sunny day (love LA, it's pretty much always that way with the exception of a few weeks in the year), and you could feel almost an electric energy in the air of people strolling from tent to tent, checking out good eats, tourism board brochures and Brazilian gifts from flag-colored soccer ball to t-shirts and onesies etc. while enjoying the great weather.

A crowd had gathered near the back of the park, so naturally that's where I headed - and found Samba dancers at a makeshift stage.

Apparently I had just caught the end of the dance, as a few minutes later a new group stepped up, (Amen Santos and Capoeira Batuque) to offer a Capoeira demo.  Capoeira is fantastically fun to watch, and rather than try to describe it I thought I'd post a video so you can see for yourself!

There was of course also no shortage of ways to sample Brazilian culture through food. 

Several stands served fresh off the grill Brazilian barbecue skewers, from steak to chicken and shrimp.  Though bbq is a Brazilian staple, and what most people think of first when they think of Brazilian food - and the sizzling meat on the grill was nearly irresistible - I went in search of dishes I had not experienced before.  I've had plenty of churrascaria fare, and afterall, the fun of cultural festivals is learning - and tasting - new things!

(Well, I made an exception for coxinha - Brazilian croquettes $5 for 3 - which I've had before. I enjoy the shredded chicken with 'secret' cheese sauce deep fried in dough - and they were small pieces so that I woudn't fill up just on those)

I had to have a can of Ubatuba Guarana ($2), a soda made from the fruit of a flowering plant from the Amazon, which contains twice the amount of caffeine in a coffee bean.  It tasted to me like apple soda, but not too sweet - light, refreshing and great for a hot day.  More caffeine than a cup of coffee, to provide a jolt of energy, without the bitter taste.

I was really excited to find the Sabor da Bahia stall, which offered four key dishes that I'd never heard of:

*Moqueca de Peixe - Bahian style fish stew with tilapia fillet in a special coconut sauce, served with rice and toasted yucca flour

*Moqueca de Camarao - Bahian style shrimp stew - same ingredients as above, but made with shrimp

*Acaraje - Brazilian falafel - deep fried black-eyed peas cake, stuffed with vatapa (Brazilian bread crumbs puree), tomato salad and homemade hot sauce

*Abara - Brazilian tamale - Steamed blackeye peas dough in the banana leaf, stuffed with vatapa, tomato salad and hot sauce

I wish I had enough stomach space to try them all!  But ultimately went with the fish stew ($15) - from the northern coast of Brazil - and loved everything on the plate!

Perhaps it was the coconut sauce, but the flavors of the fish stew reminded me of Thai food, but without the strong accents of lemongrass or basil.  Milder and slightly sweeter, with slivers of bell peppers for veggies.  The toasted yucca flour added great textural contrast and slight crunch to the coconut sauce soaked rice.  Seems like black-eyed peas are a staple of the cuisine as well - there was a salad of them offered on the side.  Delicious.

In the early afternoon, the eagerly anticipated Street Carnaval kicked off, featuring a Rio-style parade of dancers with vibrant and elaborate feather headdresses and fantastic clothing. 

Event organizers describe this parade as "part opera, part party, and part circus" which I thought was fairly spot on.  It wasn't of course full-scale as in the real Rio parade, but was a fun lil taste of Carnaval. 

Though I had filled up on hot foods earlier, I was drawn to the grocery stall - with wire racks packed with Brazilian snacks, candy and drinks.  Cheesy Bread, or "Pan de Queso" seemed to be a featured item, along with cookies and lots of guarana and cool fruit juice drinks from maracuja (Brazilian passionfruit), to goiaba (guava) to acai-coconut. Lots of fun to browse, though I didn't want to carry my purchases around, so made a note to myself to find and pay a visit to a Brazilian market soon.

The second parade of the afternoon was a "Trio-Electrico" parade, which turned out to involve a truck tricked out with speakers, blasting music while street dancers, singers and drummers lead a procession inviting guests to dance and sing along on the parade path behind them.  This one is described as "equivalent of Brazil's Spring break".  I loved that lots of people were game, and danced along with abandon (nice to see a total absence of 'fronting' or image-consciousness unfortunately too often associated with Los Angelenos)!

Throughout the event, the MC had called for entries into the raffle for two roundtrip tickets to Brazil - tickets were only $1 each!  Being a hopeless optimist, I went and bought a ticket but of course wasn't so lucky.  The two winners both turned out to be from Brazil, so they got their tickets home for free!
After hours of gorging, it was nice to lay back on the grassy knoll and lazily watch the activity below.  Kids were in their own world, amusing themselves alternately rolling down or running up the hill.  Normally, rowdy kids annoy me (I know, I know, all I'm missing are a dozen or so cats in order to turn into a grouchy old cat lady) but at this event, for some reason, they added to the idyllic setting - and most I thought were adorable, having a great time outdoors with their parents dancing or playing.

Another thing I loved about the venue is that, if you're a LACMA member, you can pop over to wander the museum (excluding special exhibits that require admission fees) free, or check out Ray's and Stark Bar on the plaza if you still have room for food/drink.

All in all, Brazilian Day LA was a fun, festive, fabulous free event that I look forward to making an annual outing to (I hope they have it next year at the same venue)!

[For more photos of the event, check out my album on Facebook]

Brazilian Day LA
September 10th noon-6pm
La Brea Tar Pits / Hancock Park

Free Admission


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