Back to America's culinary variety

US comfort foods are appealing after nearly a decade of living in Brazil.

Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union/AP/File
Abundance: A woman in Florida shops at a Publix supermarket just south of Jacksonville.

After living in Rio de Janeiro for nearly a decade, this year I decided to return to the United States. It was a tough decision to leave the warm climate, beautiful Copacabana beach, the music, the people – so tough, in fact, that I had to sit down and make a list of all the reasons why I really should go back to New York.

Surprise, surprise: I finished my list and discovered that almost every reason I'd written, besides the obvious and overriding fact that I missed my family, was – food!

So, what's wrong with Brazilian food? Nothing, really. I hadn't even realized how much I'd missed the food in the US until I sat down to make that list.

There were certain things I'd missed all along, of course, but I had ways of getting around them.

For one thing, I made sure that whoever came to visit me would bring a big jar of peanut butter. (Peanut butter is rare in Rio, and it's usually unappetizingly loaded with sugar.)

That seemed to satisfy me for the most part. That is, until I decided to go home.

Then it was as if all my repressed desires for what I used to eat at home in New York just bubbled up like Old Faithful.

What I really missed was the vast variety of international foods in Manhattan. I longed to savor some crunchy, lemony pad Thai noodles, or to wrap up some spicy lentils in soft, spongy Ethiopian injera bread, or to scarf down some spicy Korean kimchi.

I particularly missed the old standby – Chinese food. Rio has Chinese restaurants, but comida chinesa is a pale imitation of the New York variety, probably because the cooks in Rio's Chinese restaurants have names like João and Gustavo instead of Zhang and Wei.

Not to mention the fact that Chinese and Japanese food are often confused. One of the specialties you can order from the Rio Chinese takeout chain, China in Box, for instance, is yakisoba (Japanese, right?), a mess of overcooked noodles and unidentified vegetables with a few hunks of chicken or beef.

But it wasn't just types of cuisine I missed. It was the silly stuff like Mallomars and Pop-Tarts (OK, OK, I know, just bear with me here) and even York peppermint patties. (For some reason, Brazilians just don't associate mint and chocolate as a happy combo for a candy bar.)

I also missed Triscuits, bagels, pickled herring, V-8 juice, cocoa with marshmallows in little envelopes, sour cream (yep, that's right – no sour cream in Rio), cranberry juice, grapefruit, sweet corn (the corn in Brazil is the kind we Americans feed to our cattle – tough and fibrous), and New York light deli rye bread with caraway seeds.

Shall I go on? I could – there were at least 20 more items on my list.

Seriously, I have nothing against Brazilian food. I'm always happy enough to eat rice, beans, a piece of chicken, and a "salad." (In Brazil, salads are often made of cold, cooked vegetables with a couple of hard-boiled quail eggs.)

There is one thing I'll really miss, though – the ubiquitous Brazilian juice bars where you can get all kinds of tropical juices, either plain or mixed together in a blender. My favorite was a thick, almost sherbetlike "juice" made of dark little berries from northeastern Brazil, called açaí. It's so substantial that it seems more like a meal than a juice, and most people eat it with a spoon.

When I first got back to New York, it seemed that not much had changed. I could still get my favorite canned refried beans and tostada shells (and those yummy canned chopped green chiles), my favorite brown sugar Pop-Tarts were still on the shelf, and the variety of chocolate goodies was still as mind-boggling as ever.

I was ready to try it all, and some new stuff, too, wherever I could find it.

So after I picked up the obligatory nostalgia-busting supermarket items, I did what any self-respecting New Yorker would do – I looked in Time Out magazine, which has a comprehensive list of restaurants featuring every kind of cuisine imaginable, and I started to make a mental list of which ones I'd visit first.

However, I opted to pass on a new midtown Mexican restaurant that featured grasshopper tacos, even though the reviewer swore they were as tasty as "Cracker Jack peanuts." I'll take my Cracker Jack peanuts straight, thank you very much.

As I headed out for my first New York restaurant meal in a long time (I decided on Thai food to start), I thought about how much I actually would miss Rio. Naturally, I would miss the music and the beach and the people, but also the mouthwatering, deep-orange papayas; the endless variety of vitaminas (fruit smoothies); and even the odd vegetables that are rarely – if ever – seen in the US, such as giló, a small, green, slightly bitter cousin of the eggplant.

But I have to admit I'm glad to be back to the never-ending cornucopia of goodies right here at home. Look out, pad Thai noodles, here I come!

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