By Elise Vaux
Of all the luxuries of life I enjoy, my favorite combination is food and travel. A homegrown meat-and-potatoes Iowa girl, I love the thrill of dining like a local and expanding my culinary horizons. From gazpacho in Barcelona to freshly steamed crab in Deep River, Connecticut, the fear of the culinary unknown never trumped the potential satisfaction of discovering my next great foodie obsession.
A dietary obstacle revealed itself, however, when I was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 22. An intolerance to gluten, celiac disease can pose big challenges for any traveler in a foreign country facing a language barrier and unfamiliar cuisine.
Gluten is an elusive enzyme most commonly found in wheat flour but can hide in cream sauces, on the breading of fried fish, even in mashed potatoes or fries. In the mood for an Asian dish? Better check on a substitute for soy sauce, because gluten is hiding there, too. Gluten can be hard to avoid on home turf and in your first language, but is even tougher to avoid abroad.
Long before heading to Brazil in March with my classmates in the Pace University documentary production class, I’d already spent years honing my gluten-avoidance skills.
A key is planning ahead. My first stop, weeks before our trip, was Google.
Brazil is home to the world’s second largest Japanese population and therefore has an abundance of Japanese cuisine. While the dining daredevil on my left shoulder was enticed by the thought of freshly made sushi in a seafood mecca, the gluten inspector on my right shoulder knew instinctively to avoid the temptation.
After hours of searching the Internet and poring over Portuguese menus of sushi and seafood, I finally stumbled upon a ray of gleaming organic light known as ZaZá Bistrô Tropical — a charming 2-story restaurant located just two blocks from the Everest Hotel in Ipanema Beach, our team’s home base. The restaurant specializes in organic and fresh ingredients reflecting the tropical climate of the region. The cuisine is raw, flavorful, made to order and specifically catered to the gluten conscious eaters of Ipanema. I was thrilled to see the menu carefully noting which dishes were free of the unwanted enzyme. Needless to say, the Pace Brazil team knew Zazá well before ever arriving in Brazil.
I knew that our first stops in Brazil, Ilha Grande and Paraty, would be considerably less gluten-free friendly. So in those resort areas, I relied primarily on the simplicity of fruit, rice, beans, fresh seafood and foods that require little preparation. My spirits were lifted in Paraty when I realized their affinity for risotto, a rice dish commonly made with vegetables and cheese stirred with white wine and chicken stock. I found some delectable wild mushroom risotto at Paraty 33 and my favorite Rocket Risotto at Benditas. In this case, rocket is not a way to get into space, but a European green closely resembling arugala. Despite the small gems I discovered along my way, nothing compared to the unique and freshly flavored food prepared at Zazá.
For my first meal, I began by sharing a bottle of Peverella, a bright, fruity and spicy Italian white varietal grown in small quantities throughout Brazil. The brightness of the wine paired lovingly with the creamy mint yogurt sauce accompanying the chicken dim sum appetizer and was even powerful enough to beat the heat of the honey glazed pork rib entrée. The flavors were rich but not over powering and were the most delectable I encountered in Brazil. Ahhh. Finally, I felt like a New Yorker again.
Throughout the Pace team’s brief stay in Rio, Zazá, with a its brilliant flavors and cozy ambiance, became a favored hangout between afternoon and evening activities for the documentary team. The restaurant was a perfect spot for sipping a quick gin, strawberry, mint and sparkling wine cocktail, or satisfying our hunger with a nutritious plate of vegetable and fruit couscous.
Although I appreciated Zazá’s conscientiousness with regard to dietary restrictions, what I admired most was the elusive balance Zazá achieved by staying true to exotic flavors and ingredients while preparing them in a rustic fashion that makes foreigners feel close to home.
As the Pace Brazil team raced across Rio, filming at soccer stadiums and hillside favelas, city offices and polluted lagoons, Zazá provided an invaluable haven for enjoying some of the best cuisine Brazil has to offer – with or without gluten.