This is Chef Boy Ari, reporting from Brazil. Specifically, I'm reporting from a hammock, surrounded by the sounds of singing voices, and the sound of 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 diversity of crops are grown together to form an agricultural system that functions like an ecosystem. Here in the Mata Atlantica, or coastal rainforest, these agriculture systems 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 am," said Gerard, three days ago, gushing with excitement, "than kill a chicken. And 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 mangoes fall so fast that we can't possibly eat them all, so we bring them by the wheelbarrow load to the chickens. In Brazil, chickens are called "frango."
I have a theory that this mango diet has a positive effect on the taste of the chicken meat. But it's tough to tell for sure, because these Brazilians have methods for cooking their frango that could make a factory-farmed Frank Perdue or Tyson piece-of-sh** 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 food theory, I heard another "thump."
Our friend Marcia removed the skin of Gerard's frango, cut it into pieces, and left it soaking in water for about an hour. I marveled at how dark the dark meat was, as dark as any other kind of red meat. There was more than just mangoes in that dark flesh. They were also fed the leaves of the wandering Jew plant to increase egg production, as well as corn, manioc leaves, and other leaves, as well as kitchen scraps.
Marcia drained the water and squeezed lime on top of 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:
One 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 she added a half-quart of water, 3 Tablespoons tomato paste and 4 bay leaves, and cooked the mixture 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 they are good. 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, one that had spent its life running around and digging in the dirt, as chickens will do if given their druthers. She 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 chicken 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.
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 someone like Gerard to take care of the bird. And when he does, now you have options.
Publication date: 2/03/05